A Pedant’s Guide to the English Language – Part One: Using Commas
Effect or affect? We’re sometimes unsure of the difference one letter makes. Indeed, even after a hastily performed Google search, the answer is not always straightforward. But never mind the matter of a whole letter. The most minute strike of the pen, the comma, can be just as impactful, as it is confusing, in your writing.
Lynne Truss memorably riffs on this knowledge with her 2003 book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The dust cover commonly depicts a panda; in one version of the picture, the large mammal in question is atop ladders, half-inserting, half-erasing the comma in the title.
Hereby, Truss achieves the unlikely proverbial feat of killing two birds with one stone. Not only has she devised an English-language “joke” for the ages; in addition, her humour indicates the importance of proper punctuation.That the sentences, “Eats shoots and leaves” and, “Eats, shoots and leaves” conjure up entirely different connotations might even so far as vindicate every nitpicker in the land.
An explanation, if needed. In the first version, “shoots and leaves” are nouns, plants most palatable to the panda; with the comma, on the other hand, “shoots and leaves” become inflected verbs, turning our cuddly bear into a gun-toting villain. One comma, in other words, is the difference between a statement of dietary preference and a description of what Michael Corleone might call a good night out.
It’s not unfair to say that Truss’ book has become more famous for its title than its content; it is a perfect example of the reality that improper or ill-considered language use, even of such minor features, engenders unwelcome ambiguity.
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Postscript: the Oxford comma
I can hardly write a piece on the comma without mentioning the Oxford comma, whose name derives from the house style of the Oxford University Press. You might recall it made headlines at the beginning of the year, when Sir Philip Pullman claimed the commemorative Brexit 50 pence piece “should be boycotted by all literate people” for its omission of this punctuation (1).
The Oxford comma appears before the conjunction, usually “and” or “or”, in lists of three or more items. In view of this , we might reconsider Truss’ analogy: “Eats, shoots and leaves” would become “Eats, shoots, and leaves”. Certainly, my tongue-in-cheek comparison to the scene in The Godfather seems more relevant with the Oxford comma, for Michael follows Clemenza’s advice to the letter: shooting Sollozzo and McCluskey, before calmly exiting the ristorante. This, essentially, is the effect of the Oxford comma: it provides a degree of separation between the final two items in a list.
The Oxford comma, to which I have already alluded, has some staunch advocates. And yet, it is by no means ubiquitous; the very fact that it is stylistically distinct is, in itself, evidence of this. As with most divisive issues, it is useful for you to keep an open mind when it comes to the Oxford comma.
Compare the following two sentences:
I dedicate this book to my parents, Dave and Elena
I dedicate this book to my parents, Dave, and Elena
Without the comma, Dave and Elena are cast as the parents to whom I dedicate the book; with the comma’s inclusion, Dave and Elena become additional recipients of my dedication. Thus, understanding the effect of the comma allows you to make certain the meaning you seek to convey. Obviously, this means applying the comma where appropriate; if your parents are indeed called Dave and Elena, you would not need to use it in this instance.
A good example of the latter scenario is one I found online, which pertains to breakfast food. On the one day, I have the following: orange juice, cornflakes, bacon and eggs; the next, I opt for a “fuller” English: sausage, hash browns, beans, tomato, bacon, and eggs. You notice that, on the first occasion, there is no Oxford comma; this is because “bacon and eggs” are one element of the breakfast, eaten together. In contrast, on the following morning, the comma between bacon and eggs helps distinguish between the individual constituents of the larger “full” English, eaten as one meal. (2)
(1) Quoted in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/27/brexit-50p-coin-boycott-philip-pullman-oxford-comma, (27th January 2020), accessed 11/07/2020.
(2) For the record, my choice of components was arbitrary and by no means reflective of my taste in full English breakfasts.