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