81 – Midi-rant: The Education Secretary in a comma tangle

“It says here that Nicky Morgan is your Education Secretary.”

“She is indeed.”

“Goodness me!”

“No, no, they say she is quite good.”

“It’s not that!”

“What do you mean it’s not that? You wouldn’t want cabinet ministers to be incompetent, would you?”

“No, no, it’s how she was quoted in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. She is supposed to have been speaking about changing her mind on gay marriage.”

“Oh yes, yes, she used to be against. I mean, honestly – in this day and age …”

“No, no, NO: it’s not THAT!”

“So what is it then?”

“How they put it.”

“How did they put it?”

“What changed my mind was talking to same-sex couples.”

“So? All credit to her, I’d say. Not everyone would publicly admit to changing their mind – and on such a sensitive issue at that.”

“No, no, no, it’s this idiotic comma!”

“What idiotic comma?”

“The one they plonked after ‘mind’. Look at this!”

And, indeed, there is was, leaping off page 5.

 “What changed my mind, was talking to same-sex couples.”

“Oh yes, yes, it’s not all that uncommon, the comma separating the subject from its verb.”

“How come? Isn’t that a basic punctuation principle? I mean that you don’t separate those bits of the sentence that are closely related?”

“Of course it is. But I don’t think British schools used to be bothered. They may be now, but they weren’t for a long time.”

“Good grief!”

“I know, I know. So many folk are in the dark.”

“Including newspaper sub-editors?”

“Including newspaper sub-editors. And, of course, to avoid this error in all contexts you need to be taught that the subject needn’t be a noun phrase and may be a nominal clause such as this.”

“I wonder what your Education Secretary would make of that.”

“‘Must try harder,’ I should imagine.”

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80 – Punctuation shot: Common misuses of the comma

Although there is considerable flexibility in the use of the comma, there are some contexts where this punctuation mark is obligatory; I wrote about this in my previous post. But the comma often puts in an appearance where it’s decidedly unwelcome, some of its common misuses being illustrated below. First, though, a quick summary. Many people assume that the comma corresponds to pauses in speech, but this happens only occasionally. In essence, punctuation is governed largely by grammar. As far as clauses are concerned, those clause elements which ‘belong together’ don’t get separated from each other with the comma, while those elements which are more peripheral to the rest of the sentence do get marked off by the comma – or commas. By the way, clause elements are: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.

For example, we don’t separate the subject from its verb – simply because they are buddies: they ‘go together’. But what seems to confuse people is that the subject (as well as the object, complement and adverbial) can be a very long noun phrase. In the sentence: “The lady who arrived early this morning and has since been patiently waiting at the front of what has now become quite a lengthy queue must be retired”, the bit before the verb ‘must be’ is the subject and should not be separated from the verb by the comma because both parts belong together. Needless to say, a sentence can contain even longer noun phrases, and punctuation depends primarily on what function those phrases perform in the sentence – NOT on where we need to draw breath. But, in order to determine the function, one needs to be familiar with at least basic grammatical principles, and this is where problems arise.

In the brief overview below of some common misuses of the comma, the asterisk signals faulty usage.

Before pre-modifying adjective(s) having a closer relationship with the noun being modified than the preceding one(s):

*All students are entitled to broad, general education. (‘General’ is more integral to ‘education’ than ‘broad’, which is why this comma, which would translate into ‘and’, is inadmissible.)

*Virgin Trains offer fast, wireless internet access. (‘Wireless’ is more integral to ‘internet’ than ‘fast’, which is why this comma is inadmissible.)

Between central clause elements (subject, verb, object and complement) – both phrases and clauses:

*Additional copies of this specification, can be purchased from SQA. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)

*Information about developing skills, is given in all our documents. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)

*Teachers should remember, that teaching grammar is terribly important. (Inadmissible comma between verb and object)

*It is difficult to obtain from food alone, enough Vitamin E. (Inadmissible comma between verb – followed by an adjunct – and object)

*This slide gives writers, a brief overview of where not to use commas. (Inadmissible comma between two objects)

*Beautiful landscape is, only a part of Cumbria’s appeal. (Inadmissible comma between verb and complement)

With many types of subordinate causes (adjuncts) following the main clause:

*They can go out and play, after they have finished their homework.

*She would help him out, if she could.

*You must tell me, where you two met.

*You should abide by school rules, while you are at school.

*Students will improve their writing, through learning grammar.

*Teachers will have many opportunities, to observe students.

Before adverbial phrases in the final position:

*You should indicate where essential skills are present, across the whole qualification.

*I will call you, from my mobile.

With defining (restrictive) relative clauses:

*The girl, who used to work with me, has moved to Rome.

*Snakes, which are poisonous, are best avoided.

With defining (restrictive) post-modification:

*The lady, standing in the doorway, is our neighbour.

*The procedure, to be followed, is outlined in this manual.

With defining (restrictive) apposition (both phrases and clauses):

*Our friend, Ted, is always ready to help. (Inadmissible commas – provided Ted isn’t our only friend)

*The fact, that this school selects by ability, is widely known.

With defining (restrictive) amplification:

*Languages, such as Polish, are considered difficult by the British.

*The literacy strategy wants methods, such as looking at books, to be used when appropriate.

Needless to say, there are many more ways in which writers misuse commas, but, if I were to list, and exemplify, them all, I would end up with a sizeable tome!

77 – Punctuation shot: Commas with relative clauses

Although I have already exemplified the importance of commas with relative clauses, I did so jokingly. This post is a more sober take on the subject, which causes much confusion among writers. Relative clauses, which post-modify nouns and do the job of an adjective, begin with relative pronouns which, that, who, whom and whose. Such post-modification can be restrictive (aka defining) or non-restrictive (aka non-defining). Both types are exemplified below.

Restrictive (defining) post-modification by relative clauses (italicised)

 The girl who used to live next door has moved away.

This is the photograph that we took in Spain.

Snakes which are poisonous should be avoided.

The chap whose ladder I have borrowed must be out.

The couple whom we met last week are coming to tea.

Restrictive relative clauses are essential to the meaning of the noun (or nouns) they modify. This is why they are NEVER set off by a comma – or commas.

 Non-restrictive (non-defining) post-modification by relative clauses (italicised)

 Susan, who used to live next door, has moved away.

Rattlesnakes, which are poisonous, should be avoided.

Mr Jones, who is our GP, is retiring soon.

Tom, whose ladder I have borrowed, is obviously out.

The Browns, whom we met last week, are coming to tea.

Unlike restrictive relative clauses, non-restrictive ones are always set off by commas. Why? Because we don’t need them to understand the rest of the sentence. In other words, whatever you can cut out of a sentence without changing its meaning you should separate by commas. Whether a clause is restrictive or non-restrictive has thus a direct bearing on sentence punctuation. This principle, fundamental though it is, is widely misunderstood, and blunders abound – some with seriously misleading, or unintentionally hilarious, consequences. Do you think any parent in their right mind would send their darling child to a school making this statement in its prospectus?

We will punish all children, who are disruptive.

No, me neither. But remove the comma, and the school might find itself oversubscribed.

We will punish all children who are disruptive.

And do you think our poorer senior citizens would vote for a party putting forward this proposal?

Pensioners, who don’t need free bus passes, should be deprived of this perk.

But they may well back a party if its manifesto declared this:

Pensioners who don’t need free bus passes should be deprived of this perk.

Punctuation blunders with relative clauses crop up all over the place. This is what I found in The Times Educational Supplement.

“Children are owed a duty of care by schools which are ‘in loco parentis’.”

Are they really suggesting that some schools are not responsible for children in their care? No, of course not; thus:

Children are owed a duty of care by schools, which are ‘in loco parentis’.

More examples can be found in Maxi-rant 12: Another elusive comma, published on 15 October 2014. Finally, I have a handy tip for you: whenever a relative clause post-modifies a name (which will, of course, be capitalised), you will need to put a comma after it because names are usually self-defining: whatever modification follows will merely supply additional details. This, again, is an area where writers often blunder. The sentence below comes from The Sunday Times.

“I like Theresa May who is tough.”

But what about all the other Theresa Mays? They may also be likeable. But, of course, this venerable newspaper did not mean what it said. Thus:

I like Theresa May, who is tough.

My final two examples come courtesy of The Economist.

INCORRECT

“This [rescuing a mortgage lender] from the Socialist administration of President Francois Hollande who regards the financial sector to be his “real enemy”.

CORRECT

This from the Socialist administration of President Francois Hollande, who regards the financial sector to be his “real enemy”.

INCORRECT

“Such details do not detain Ms Le Pen who, with the swagger of a politician on the rise, predicts that she will be in the Elysee within a decade.”

CORRECT

Such details do not detain Ms Le Pen, who, with the swagger of a politician on the rise, predicts that she will be in the Elysee within a decade.

Midi-rant 13: The comma calamity

“Good grief, when did this happen?”

“What?”

“This disaster.”

“What disaster?”

“What do you mean what disaster? That which wiped out over 80% of the world’s human population.”

“80% – are you sure? Well, there were the 1932 China floods, the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, the 1970 Bhola cyclone, the …”

“No, no, no, while I was away.”

“You mean when you were trekking in the outback?”

“Yep. Perhaps I should have kept abreast, but I wanted to experience total isolation. That will teach me.”

“But nothing happened – only Gonzalo.”

“What happened to him?”

“No, no, it was a hurricane. But it killed only four people – nowhere near 80% of the world’s population.”

“Over 80%, actually.”

“Look, you are not making any sense.”

“Well, so why did they write this?”

“What?”

“This – look.”

They are amongst the 1.2 billion people around the world, living in what is sometimes called ‘energy poverty’, or ‘off-grid’.

“Oh this, ha, ha, ha!”

“What’s so funny? Before I left, there were over 7 billion people in the world, and now we are down to 1.2 billion – jeez!”

“No, no, no, it’s the comma!”

“Who isn’t making any sense now? How can a comma wipe out 6 billion people just like that?”

“No, no, no, they have no idea that you don’t use the comma with defining clauses. The participial clause beginning with ‘living’ defines the clause about people, which is why we mustn’t separate the two clauses with a comma.”

“We mustn’t?”

“Nope: they belong together. What they should have written is this.”

They are amongst the 1.2 billion people around the world living in what is sometimes called ‘energy poverty’ or ‘off-grid’.

“Hmm, but this publication is supposed to reach many readers – are you sure there was no calamity?”

“Positive.”

“In that case, they need a copy-editor.”

“You are not kidding!”

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.

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.

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!