Maxi-rant 11: The killer comma

Although my instinct is to proffer profuse apologies for my four-week silence, I have, by now, divested myself of any illusions that my writing is of particular importance to anybody but me. Thus, chances are that nobody has missed my musings – but if you have, both a hallelujah and an apology are in order. We are having a most glorious September, and I have been roaming our fabulous mountains more or less non-stop since my last post. Today’s murky interlude has given me the opportunity to tackle one of the killer commas infesting writing as far as the eye can see. It goes like this.

“Where’s Doug?”

“No longer with us, I’m afraid.”

“Oh dear, how awful!”

“Indeed.”

“When did it happen?”

“Nearly a month ago.”

“Did you attend?”

“Attend what?”

“The funeral, of course.”

Whose funeral?”

“Doug’s – of course.”

“What do you mean Doug’s: Doug’s alive and kicking.”

“But you said …”

“No, no, no, no: Doug’s got the sack.”

“O-o-o-o, thank goodness. I mean, it’s awful, but …”

“No worries: I know what you mean.”

“Why did they sack him?”

“Over a comma.”

“You mean he was in a coma and they kicked him out?”

“No, no, no, not a coma – a comma.”

What comma?”

“The one with which he threatened the entire teaching profession. That’s what he wrote.”

We will apply severe sanctions against all teachers, who tolerate disruptive behaviour.

“Oh dear!”

“Indeed, indeed. The SMUT had a field day with this one.”

“I can imagine; our esteemed Sagacious and Meritorious Union of Teachers has been known to kick up a stink over lesser stuff than this.”

“Indeed. Doug had already been on a warning, so they had no option but to show him the door.”

“What was the warning for?”

“Another idiotic comma. That’s what he’d e-mailed to all schools.”

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

“Jeepers! But he’s in good company. I mean, look how many people can’t tell defining relative clauses from their non-defining counterparts.”

***

And so they can’t. Relative clauses begin with relative pronouns who, which, whose, whom and that and offer additional information about somebody or something. There are two types of relative clause: defining (or restrictive) and non-defining (or non-restrictive). Because defining relative clauses (such as those in Doug’s missives to teachers) give essential information, they must never be separated from the rest of their sentence by a comma – or commas. What the hapless Doug should thus have written was this.

We will apply severe sanctions against all teachers who tolerate disruptive behaviour.

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

By contrast, non-defining relative clauses supply merely additional details, which is why the sentence of which they are a part usually makes perfect sense without them. And if a section of a sentence can be removed without this operation affecting meaning, such a section always gets separated with either one comma or two (depending on its position in a sentence). Below are given three sentences containing non-defining relative clauses: even if you remove each of these clauses (italicised), the rest of the sentence can stand on its own quite happily.

I was born in Poland, which has beautiful mountains.

I am extremely fond of Pat, who is my friend.

My neighbour, whom I haven’t seen for a while, has suddenly reappeared.

Interestingly, this simple principle appears to have escaped a great many writers – although not many great writers. Here are a few examples.

Incorrect

A growing number of people, who used to live in the city before retiring, are moving back to London. (The Sunday Times)

Correct

A growing number of people who used to live in the city before retiring are moving back to London.

Incorrect

A few years ago there was a scene, in which the class moved from quiet to riot inside three minutes. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Correct

A few years ago, there was a scene in which the class moved from quiet to riot inside three minutes.

 Incorrect

We need to encourage structures, which engage students actively in defining their goals. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Correct

We need to encourage structures which engage students actively in defining their goals.

Incorrect

Young people aged 14 and 15, who care about equality and want to build a fairer society, are being sought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Correct

Young people aged 14 and 15 who care about equality and want to build a fairer society are being sought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

 Incorrect

Imagine you are a happily married man of 29, whose only problem is that your wife is failing to conceive. (The Sunday Times)

 Correct

Imagine you are a happily married man of 29 whose only problem is that your wife is failing to conceive.

But these examples are merely a drop in the ocean foaming with this illiterate comma. Equally common is the absence of a comma, or commas, demanded by non-defining relative clauses – but that’s the subject for another article.

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Midi-rant 9: The elusive comma

Over 30 years ago, when I was new to Britain (I’m Polish), I was mightily chuffed to receive this message:

Brilliant Anna!

Having never doubted my brilliance (joke), I was nevertheless gratified to have this quality unequivocally confirmed by an independent third party. It was only later, when I started getting to grips with the natives’ idiosyncratic ways of using their language, that I realised that what the sender was trying to say was:

Brilliant, Anna!

Still not bad, of course, but the alleged brilliance was being attributed to my actions rather than to me myself. Oh well, so that’s another illusion shattered then.
The little comma has many uses – 17 main ones at the last count, although there are plenty of others – one being preventing misinterpretation when we address people and other living creatures. Compare the two sentences in each pair below.

These are good, folk.
These are good folk.

Follow them, guys.
Follow them guys.

Kill, Rex!
Kill Rex!

They are attacking, Pete.
They are attacking Pete.

Let’s eat, granny.
Let’s eat granny. (This one, I believe, is doing the rounds in the Twitter-sphere.)

In other words, a comma is ALWAYS used when we address somebody. Or, rather, not always (in fact, it often isn’t) – but it should be.

PS
I’m happy to reveal the 17 main uses of the comma – but only if somebody actually asks. No point in foisting all this grammar (yep, punctuation is governed largely by grammar) on readers who aren’t particularly interested. Those of you who have read my political and grammatical satire An Alien in a Madhouse will be aware that the list is given in Chapter 16. In any case, I am going to write a book on punctuation – one day.

Midi-rant 4: Missing correlative comma

Our local newspaper, which sets my lovely little town alight every Friday (and which I am too cowardly to name), not only keeps me abreast of what happens in our enchanting corner of the world but also entertains me on a regular basis – albeit unintentionally. Gripped by an article about a former mission house which was ripe for conversion, I stumbled across this sentence.

 

It was bought by Mr Grimshaw, who lives close by and has been used for domestic storage since then.

 

Now, I don’t know about Mr Grimshaw, but I personally would absolutely hate to be used for domestic storage – wouldn’t you? Similar indignities, which are not at all uncommon, are wrought by writers who forget that correlative commas come in pairs; that’s why they are called ‘correlative’, after all. What the unfortunate reporter was trying to say was, of course, this.

 

It was bought by Mr Grimshaw, who lives close by, and has been used for domestic storage since then.

 

Correlative commas (such as these enclosing the non-defining relative clause ‘who lives close by’) are, as their name suggests, inseparable, yet one of them (sometimes the first, sometimes the second) often gets overlooked – always with unintended consequences. Below are quoted three more examples from my collection, with a corrected version given underneath each faulty original.

 

The judge can stop irrelevant questions and what is more, a judge has a duty to do so. (Times)

 

I very much doubt whether any judge could stop what is more.

 

The judge can stop irrelevant questions and, what is more, the judge has a duty to do so.

 

(Strictly speaking, a comma should also be used before ‘and’, since this conjunction marks the beginning of the second clause, but I decided to concentrate on reinstating the lost correlative comma.)

 

The girls’ comprehensive in Westminster, London claims the title of most improved secondary in England. (Times Educational Supplement)

 

Does London really claim this title?

 

The girls’ comprehensive in Westminster, London, claims the title of most improved secondary in England.

 

He is right to be casting around for a solution which addresses truancy as a family, not an individual problem. (Times Educational Supplement)

 

Why would anybody want to expend energy on such an unprofitable enterprise as casting around for a solution addressing truancy as a family?

He is right to be casting around for a solution which addresses truancy as a family, not an individual, problem.

 

So take good care with correlative commas, making sure that you enclose any so-called ‘included unit’ with two of them!