Maxi-rant 12: Another elusive comma

This rant follows on from that on the killer comma (no 11, September 25th), which addressed the illiterate comma used with defining (or restrictive) relative clauses, that is clauses such as the one in the sentence below.

We are going to come down hard on teachers who are incompetent.

Since the bit coming after the relative pronoun who (which is called a defining relative clause) gives essential information, it must never be separated from the rest of its sentence by a comma, something entirely lost on the hapless Doug – and many like him. Conversely, non-defining (or non-restrictive) clauses, which merely supply additional details, get separated with either one comma or two (depending on their position in the sentence). Or rather, should do, but often don’t. And when they don’t, that’s what can happen.

“Fancy that!”

“What?”

“This – in The Times Educational Supplement.”

“Yes?”

“This advice. You see, they had these language support units – apparently.”

“Who did?”

“Councils.”

“And?”

“They disbanded them – under Section 11.”

“Under Section 11?”

“Yep. And they hung the staff working in these units out to dry, basically.”

“Councils did? I thought they were on the side of hard-working people.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Apparently, they told them to go and work for less money.”

“What?”

“I know, the cheek of it: you do the same work, and they tell you that you have to accept a lower salary.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive; look – that’s what they wrote.”

The units were disbanded and staff were told to take up posts with schools which refused to match their old salaries.

“A-a-a-a, it’s non-restrictive.”

“How can you say it’s not restrictive? If you ask me, it’s highly restrictive. And immoral, actually.”

“No, no, I mean a non-restrictive clause.

“Look, whatever clause they had inserted into this immoral Section 11, they should have been hauled up in court, trying to rob hard-working folk like this.”

“No, no, no, it wasn’t intentional!”

“How can it not have been intentional if they had put it in Section 11? Are you saying our law-makers are asleep on the job?”

“No, no, no, no! I meant a non-restrictive relative clause; they should have used a comma there.”

“And how would a comma have helped the workers, exactly?”

“No, no, not the workersthe meaning. Look, what this hack should have written is this.”

The units were disbanded, and staff were told to take up posts with schools, which refused to match their old salaries.

“Is this what they should have written?”

“Absolutely. You see, those language-support folk were simply told to apply to schools – full stop. There was no suggestion that they should accept lower salaries.”

“There wasn’t? But they wrote …”

“I know, I know. Look, the bit after which is a non-restrictive relative clause.”

“It is?”

“Absolutely. That’s why it must come after a comma. This means that those people were directed to schools.”

“That’s what I said!”

“But NOT specifically to those schools which refused to match their old salaries – to schools in general. It’s just that, by then, schools had them by the short and curlies, didn’t they? I mean, the units had been disbanded, so what were these poor people supposed to do? They had no choice. So you see how the absence of one little comma can derail meaning.”

“Fancy that!”

This bewilderment appears to be shared by a significant proportion of writers, who keep omitting this important comma. Here are a few more examples.

Incorrect

Teachers will have ready access to professionals such as educational psychologists who can help. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Teachers would be rather silly if they sought help from professionals who couldn’t help, wouldn’t you think?

Correct

Teachers will have ready access to professionals such as educational psychologists, who can help.

Incorrect

Many students fear tests which can slow progress and drive them to drop out. (The Times Educational Supplement)

They are not stupid, students, are they? If I were faced with tests which can slow progress and lead to my dropping out, I’d be quaking in my boots.

Correct

Many students fear tests, which can slow progress and drive them to drop out.

Incorrect

The guidance was endorsed by the unions who deserve credit. (The Times Educational Supplement)

And what about the unions which don’t deserve credit? Did they not endorse the guidance?

Correct

The guidance was endorsed by the unions, which deserve credit.

Incorrect

The Labour Party has alienated teachers who ought to be its friends. (The Guardian)

Only those teachers who ought to be its friends? I don’t think so, somehow.

Correct

The Labour Party has alienated teachers, who ought to be its friends.

So there you have it: one of the many important uses of the comma, which one ignores at one’s peril – with the comma being necessary also before this particular relative clause.

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