Catch My Meaning? Catch Your Breath:
Nothing is more likely to cause a fist fight between two punctuation pedants than a comma. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there are fewer hard and fast rules to helpfully govern correctness for the comma than other punctuation marks; some areas of its use can be subjective. The second is that, historically, the comma has two ancient and distinct reasons for its existence. Growing old together like an ill-matched couple, these two forces are often at loggerheads.
Where did it come from?
The earliest punctuation dates back to 200 bc. At that time, it was used as a visual cue to help actors control their breathing during performance. For well over a thousand years, punctuation guided speakers (for that was what readers were) through the rhythm and accents of a text, rather than its grammar. However, from its beginnings in the 14th century, printing brought the written word and the once-exclusive skill of reading to Mr and Mrs Average. They no longer needed to listen to actors, storytellers and preachers to access writings; they could do so themselves. Gradually, the emphasis on performance was eroded to the point that we started to read into ourselves, rendering previous forms of punctuation irrelevant.
Enter Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450–1515), a Venetian printer who, with his son, took on the monumental task of creating a comprehensive system to illuminate meaning (and grammar), rather than melody. Their ground-breaking work provided the framework of what we know as punctuation today.
So what’s this got to do with the comma? Well, think of the comma as the love-child of two mercurial and opposing parents: the written and the spoken word. Not only must it clarify the grammar of a sentence, but it still must, in Lynne Truss’s words ‘point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and fl ow’. That’s a tall order for such a little guy. The unsuspecting punctuation mark arrived as a recognisable comma in 16th-century English and has been hard pressed ever since (…)
The comma: what should we use it for?
1 To divide items in lists:
A comma is used to divide each entry but is not habitually needed before the fi nal ‘and’ (though we will qualify this rule for specific instances of the Oxford comma; see below). The comma is correct if it can be successfully replaced with either ‘and’ or ‘or’:
The ingredients for scones are simply fl our, sugar, salt, butter, milk and an egg.
We had a busy time feeding the chickens, mucking out the byre, gathering eggs and repairing broken fences.
Mrs Miggins made it very clear that the options for dinner were hot pie, cold pie or starve.
That’s all very logical (and law-abiding) so far. However, though a comma may not be needed before the final ‘and’, one is very often used. Meet the Oxford, or serial, comma:
He was a cad, a cheater, and a charmer.
My husband cleared the drains, the guttering, and the front path.
It’s standard practice in the UK not to use this comma, though many do (notably Oxford University Press). The opposite applies in the States, though some remove it. Canada and Australia tend not to use it except to prevent ambiguity.
Whatever your feelings, it pays not to be infl exible. Some sentences are undeniably improved with an Oxford comma. Hear the weight of the final ‘and’ in both of the sentences above, reminding us again of the dual origins of the comma to mark both grammar and breath. In a list of adjectives, use a comma where an ‘and’ would be appropriate:
The vestry clerk […] is a short, pudgy little man …(Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers)
‘I’ll tell it her,’ said the Mock Turtle in a deep, hollow tone …(Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
She was a thin, unkempt, sour young woman.
Don’t use a comma when the adjectives work together as one describing unit. Here they are not layering on several additional qualities but are making one concerted effort:
He’s a great little lad.
There was a terrified black cat cowering in the greenhouse.
The British red squirrel is one of our protected native species.
2 When two sentences (two complete actions or thoughts) are joined together with conjunctions like ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’:
They drove overnight for Gretna Green, but they lost their nerve before Carlisle.
My sister is a musician of some distinction, yet I cannot play a note.
I had known him a long time, so I knew him better than most.
Two controversial things can happen with commas for joining. In the name of art, some writers drop the conjunction and insert a comma where a semicolon should be. This is the infamous comma splice; cause of much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments:
He appeared silently at her shoulder, she had always thought him slightly creepy.
Secondly, it’s possibly even more wrong to use words like ‘therefore’, ‘moreover’, ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’ instead of the usual joining words. They are not conjunctions and need firmer punctuation: more on those in the exercises later and in chapters to come; get that kettle on!
3 To stand in for missing words:
I ordered the Ploughman’s; my husband, a balti.
Jane reads voraciously; her brother, not so much.
This use of the comma is increasingly rare.
4 Use a comma before direct speech:
The King looked anxiously at the White Rabbit, who said in a low
voice, ‘Your Majesty must cross-examine this witness.’ (Jerome K Jerome Three Men in a Boat)
This use of the comma is primarily to pause for breath and harks back to its use for guiding the voice. We now seem to prefer colons or no marks at all. At the end of the day the choice of whether to use it or not is yours, though you must be consistent at all costs. As Lynne Truss says, ‘since this is a genuine old pause-for-breath use of the comma, however, it would be a shame to see it go.’
5 To set off interjections:
Bugger, I’ve lost my mobile phone!
Oh no, where did you lose it?
Hang on, I’ve found it, thank God.
6 To encapsulate a portion of a sentence that’s just bonus information. If you can take this ‘weak interruption’ out without losing the sentence meaning, close it off in commas:
Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. (From the Apostrophe Protection Society)
Emma, who had not touched macaroni since university, couldn’t bring herself to eat.
However, if by lifting out this portion you change the sentence’s meaning, then you’ve got a ‘defi ning clause’ which shouldn’t be put within commas. Quite the opposite is true; it must stay bedded into its sentence as part of its core meaning. Note the difference between the following:
I’ve noticed that Scots who love haggis are actually something of a rare breed.
I’ve noticed that Scots, who love haggis, are actually something of a rare breed.
The first sentence is correct; the second has a defi ning clause wrongly placed in commas. The resulting statement that Scots are a rare breed isn’t quite true, is it?
When the weak interruption comes at the beginning or end of a sentence, only one comma is apparent:
Like teeth, writers are divided into incisors and grinders.
Writers are divided into incisors and grinders, like teeth.
These days, with a drive towards cleaner pages and fewer grammatical marks, you may find that commas for weak interruptions are omitted. Choosing to do so relies on context, style and personal preference, some of which we will touch on in the exercises to come. Is that kettle boiled yet?
More than any other punctuation mark, the comma’s success relies on you being alert to the context and to potential confusion:
Clapham Police are searching for a burglar on the loose, wearing plus fours and wellies.
The Police are wearing what? Ronnie Barker was master of the comedic value of such ambiguities.
Fragment from ‘Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave?’ by Clare Dignall, HarperCollins Publishers 2011