My sister, a lawyer, rang me in a tizzy last week. A marketing individual on her team had altered the punctuation in an article she had written, so that it made hardly any sense at all. Lawyers are a different breed from other writers: they’re schooled to use no commas at all. That way, with sentences constructed to make sense without the help of the little blighters, no-one can possibly be hanged as a result of a misplaced comma (which once, famously, did happen).
I love the comma. It dances around, tapping the beat, making music wherever it goes. In the States, writers always tend to use the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma). It’s the comma that comes before the conjunction at the end of a list, or series of things (ie: I love the colon, full stop, and comma). In the UK, editors like to be free to use the Oxford comma whenever they think it is appropriate to do so. That’s the fun of the comma – unlike the full stop, its usage isn’t cut and dried.
Mostly, writers use too many commas. Teachers at primary school, ducking the job of teaching grammar properly, used to tell their pupils to pop in a comma whenever there was a ‘breath’ in the sentence. As a result, most manuscripts I read are peppered with far too many commas. It’s worth going back to your Times Style and Usage Guide or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (if you’re American). And if you want a really readable grammar, try Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves or Bruce Kaplan’s Editing Made Easy. Doing so really does pay dividends.
Journalist Giles Coren was recently let off a parking ticket by Westminster council by arguing that the punctuation on the sign above the parking bay was so confusing that he was tricked into making an error. Good lad!
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy