Punctuation: the comma

There was an article by Harry Mount in The Daily Telegraph recently.  It was titled: “Commas and colons: without them we’re sunk.”

Harry Mount (born 1971) is an English author and journalist, since 2009 a frequent contributor to the Daily Mail.  He has written several non-fiction books; topics include his time working in a barrister’s office, British architecture, the Latin language, and the English character and landscape.



I don’t know Harry Mount, but he looks like a presentable, intelligent chap.  In any case, what he said about punctuation makes sense to me:

“There’s one aspect of grammar that’s wonderfully simple and easy to learn. . . . Putting aside a few really obscure punctuation marks, the 15  main elements are: the full stop; colon; semicolon, comma, apostrophe, quote marks; question mark, exclamation mark;  round brackets; square brackets; hyphen; dash; asterisk; ellipsis and slash.  Most of these are pretty easy.  Even people with dodgy grammar can use practically all of them pretty well. . . . It’s mainly the comma and the apostrophe that let people down.  The apostrophe gets wickedly abused and not just  by grocers.  The comma is underused, particularly in its agile capacity as a throat-clearer, a pause-provider and direction market in a sentence.  Just look at Churchill’s famous speech – and one of his longest sentences – without the merciful assistance of the comma (and the odd semicolon):

We shall fight on the beaches we shall fight on the landing grounds we shall fight in the fields and in the streets we shall fight in the hills we shall never surrender and even if which I do not for a moment believe this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving then our empire beyond the seas armed and guarded by the British fleet would carry on the struggle until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

“Without the commas, Churchillian prose loses all its careful pacing – and you’re lost, too.

“Punctuation, more than anything else, turns the written word into the spoken word inside your head.  Know your punctuation, and you can magically signal to the reader of your writing when to speed up; when to slow down; when to make the prose flow; when to give it a stop-start, staccato rhythm; when to pause; when to trail off into ellipsis . . .

“Without precise punctuation, who could tell the difference in meaning between these two sentences? (a) “My favourite things in the world are Abba, tartar sauce, and fish and chips on the last fairway.” (b) My favourite things in the world are Abba, tartar sauce and fish, and chips on the last fairway.”  It’s the Oxford comma there that distinguishes between the keen gourmet and the keen golfer.

“At first hearing, an expression such as “the non-restrictive comma” will freeze all but the biggest brains.  But explain the difference between “Sailors, who are drunks, are dangerous” and “Sailors who are drunks are dangerous”, and most children will get it in a second.  Insert the non-restrictive commas and you’re being rude to all sailors; take them away and you’re being rude only to the restricted group of sailors who are drunk.”

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