Jots and Tittles: Comma commotion.

A few years ago, a certain Lynne Truss caused a small stir in the world of popular grammar by writing a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in which she explains why punctuation is important and how to do it properly.

The title refers to an old joke. A panda has a meal in a restaurant, and afterwards gets out a pistol, fires it a couple of times into the air, and then makes his way to the door. When the waiter complains, the panda tosses a badly-punctuated encyclopaedia onto a table, saying, “I’m a panda. Look it up.” The waiter dutifully looks up “Panda” and, sure enough, finds an explanation: “Panda: Large, bear-like mammal. Eats, shoots and leaves.”.

The offending comma after “eats”, while just a tiny little thing, is enough to completely change the meaning of the sentence. What should have been a verb followed by a list of objects suddenly becomes a list of verbs. And this illustrates the power of the comma.

Consider these two sentences:

The cats, which have had far too much to eat lately, are woefully overweight.

The cats which have had far too much to eat lately are woefully overweight.

On the face of it, the only difference between these two sentences is that the second has no commas, while the first has two. But what a difference those commas make! The first sentence implies that all the cats within the field of view are overweight and have had too much to eat. In the second sentence, only those cats which have had too much to eat are overweight: the others have eaten sensibly and taken regular exercise and are slim and athletic.

And yet when most people are taught English, the comma is strangely disregarded. The most we get is a vague instruction to the effect that you write a comma whenever you need to insert a pause.

This causes all sorts of strange effects as people throw commas at the page in the hope that at least some of them will, by the law of averages, end up roughly in the right place. “Ah yes,” someone might say, “I take a breath here, so let’s stick in a comma.” In fact, there are a few more rules than that.

Commas in lists

Commas are used to separate items in a list, like this:

Our local greengrocer sells cabbages, carrots, turnips, potatoes and leeks.

On the face of it, that’s pretty easy, but there are some tricky little nuances. The first thing to note is that there is no comma after “potatoes” in this example; some people say there should be. This is the so-called “Oxford comma”, and the debate can get quite passionate. Those who are against the Oxford comma point out that the comma is not required when the list consists of only two items: Our local greengrocer sells cabbages and leeks.

However, if one of the items on the list (especially if it is the last or the penultimate item) contains the word “and” or “or”, the Oxford comma is required to clarify the sentence. Consider this:

The major contributors to the local economy include these companies: Smithers Associates, Belvedere and Jones and Robinson.

How are we to intepret the phrase “Belvedere and Jones and Robinson”? Is there one company called Belvedere and a second called Jones and Robinson, or is there a Belvedere and Jones on the one hand, and Robinson on the other? An Oxford comma makes the whole thing clear:

The major contributors to the local economy include these companies: Smithers Associates, Belvedere, and Jones and Robinson.

Another concern is what happens if one of the items itself contains a comma? Again, how are we to interpret the following?

At the zoo, we saw: a lion, a tiger, a big cat native to India, an elephant and an armadillo.

As it stands, the sentence appears to mention five different animals, one of which is not named (perhaps we have forgotten what it’s called). Thinking about it, though, “a big cat native to India” actually describes a tiger pretty well. Maybe the phrase “a tiger, a big cat native to India” is actually one item, with a comma. If so, then it should be punctuated differently, using semicolons to separate the items, lke this:

At the zoo, we saw: a lion; a tiger, a big cat native to India; an elephant; and an armadillo.

Now you see the significance of the comma in Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Without the comma, the phrase is a verb together with a list of two objects; with the comma, it’s a list of three verbs.

Commas for phrases in apposition

That last issue above highlights another use of the comma: to surround a phrase in apposition. A phrase in apposition is one that describes the same thing as the phrase before it. In the example, “a big cat native to India” is in apposition to “tiger”; they are two ways of saying the same thing. Some more examples:

  • Mr Rathbone, a large man with a little moustache, always won first prize in the annual Oliver Hardy Lookalike Contest.
  • London, the capital of England, is one of the great cities of the world.
  • Enid Blyton, a popular children’s author, wrote some dreadful books.
  • Christmas, that most commercialised of religious festivals, is almost upon us yet again.

Commas for non-defining relative clauses

Related to phrases in apposition are non-defining relative clauses. If you don’t know what these are, it’s not as terrifying as it sounds.

A relative clause is a bit like a phrase in apposition, in that it describes what has gone on before, except that it also includes a verb and is usually introduced by a relative pronoun like “which”, “that” or “who”:

  • Albert Einstein is the man who came up with the Theory of Relativity.
  • The Queen, who looked a little tired, announced that she was going to bed.

The first example shows a defining relative clause: it is essential for the sentence, as without it we could not identify “the man”. A defining clause helps to define the person or thing you are talking about.

The second example shows a non-defining relative clause: it is not essential for the sentence, and without it we could still identify “the Queen”. A non-defining clause merely describes the person or thing you are talking about, but it is just extra information it is interesting, not necessary, to know.

A defining clause does not have commas surrounding it; a non-defining clause must have commas surrounding it. Hence the example earlier involving the corpulant cats.

Commas to introduce direct speech

Although this use is dying out in favour of the colon, it’s still very common. The comma separates the verb of speech from the direct speech itself, like this:

Peter said, “I hope this gets sorted out soon.”

In British usage, if the verb of speech comes after the direct speech itself, the comma is used where a full stop would normally appear, and inside the quotation marks, like this:

“I hope this gets sorted out soon,” said Peter.

This is not the same with other punctuation marks:

“Are you mad?” asked Annie.

If the verb of speech interrupts the direct speech after a full stop, the comma goes inside the quotation marks and the full stop after the phrase containing the verb of speech:

“I love it,” said Jane. “It’s perfect.”

Commas before coordinating conjunctions

A coordinating conjunction is a word like “and”, “or” or “but”, when they are used to join two sentences together (as opposed to joining items in a list). It’s usually a good idea to insert a comma just before the conjunction:

Gertrude ran out of the house screaming and waving her arms about, and Gary simply fainted.

We can go to shops now before they close, or we can starve all weekened.

I thought I might be able to stop off on the way, but the traffic was so heavy I was running late.

However, some conjunctions need to have a comma after them — “however” is one of them. Such conjunctions, if they occur in the middle of a sentence, need a semicolon before them:

I did go and visit him; however, I don’t think it helped much.

But be careful with this type of sentence:

She came home and took off her coat.

A comma here is not necessary (but not illegal) because, instead of joining two sentences up, we are making a list of verbs. And here we follow the rules for writing a list. This example should make it clearer:

She came home, took off her coat, poured herself a glass of wine, sat on the sofa, put her feet up and switched on the TV.

The doctrinal comma

That’s not all there is to the comma, but these are probably the most important rules. Unfortunately, you can’t learn how to use commas by remembering a set of rules; there’s a lot of room for personal taste — but not much. Just enough to get confusing.

If you want proof of just how important the comma is, consider an example cited by Lynne Truss herself, taken from the Bible: The Gospel of Luke, chapter 23, verse 43. This was translated into English from the original Greek, but the original Greek (written in the 1st century) didn’t have punctuation: it hadn’t been invented. Jesus is being crucified, along with two thieves. One thief asks Jesus to remember him in the afterlife. And Jesus says… Well, it depends where you put the comma. A Catholic might prefer this version (translated into modern English for the benefit of my non-native readers):

Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.

In other words, Jesus, speaking on this day, promises that the thief will get to Paradise at some time in the future. Catholics believe that when you die, you first go to Purgatory, where everything about you that is bad is purged, or removed, before you can go to heaven.

A Protestant, however, doesn’t believe in Purgatory, preferring instead to believe that you get to Paradise immediately; a Protestant might therefore prefer this version:

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

In this version, Jesus promises that the thief will enter Paradise on the same day he dies.

This is a source of major disagreement between Catholics and Protestants; but when it comes down to it, it’s an argument about the placement of a single comma. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Post script

Just to prove how important punctuation — and commas in particular — can be, I have found a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail about a very expensive comma. In brief, thanks to a single misplaced comma in a business contract, Rogers Communications Inc. may be $2.13 million out of pocket.

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