On commas

At work this week an email was sent to myself and a colleague which read:

It would be great if you could chase this contractor report Daniel through the college

As I wrote in my post on the subject of the Oxford comma, the purpose of punctuation is help your reader, and if it doesn’t do that then you are getting it wrong.  This email is a prime example: I read this message three times and still wasn’t sure if I or Daniel should chase the report, and whether it was the contractor or the college that should be chased.  (For the record, it was intended to be a request for Daniel to liaise with the college to chase the contractor’s report.)

Commas have a number of uses in English, which I won’t go into in detail here.*

The main use of a comma, though, is to indicate a pause in your sentence.  One style guide recommends reading your work aloud, pausing for a breath at each comma: if you’re gasping for breath by the end of the sentence, you probably need to add a comma or two!  For example:

English is an official language in 54 countries across the world including India and Pakistan most Pacific island nations and many countries in southern and eastern Africa although it is not the main language spoken in any of these countries.

If you can read that aloud without needing to take a deep breath at the end you obviously have better lung capacity than I do!

If you add commas where you would naturally stop to breathe, you end up with:

English is an official language in 54 countries across the world including India and Pakistan, most Pacific island nations and many countries in southern and eastern Africa, although it is not the main language spoken in any of these countries.

That’s easier to say, isn’t it?  (You could additionally put a comma between “Pacific island countries” and “and many countries in southern and eastern Africa” – this would be the aforementioned Oxford comma – but this is a matter of style and doesn’t fit with the ‘taking a breath’ pattern so I have left it out on this occasion.)

Commas also help to clarify meaning, as in the following (apparently genuine) examples:

Slow children crossing

Children can be slow to cross the road, but I don’t think that was quite what was meant on this road sign.

How to cook crack and eat crab

I’m pretty certain that’s illegal in most countries, not to mention an odd combination of activities.

Caution pedestrians slippery when wet

Serves you right for driving on pedestrians, doesn’t it?

Be careful of parasailing horses and buggies on the beach

To be fair this is from a sign in a non-English speaking country, but it was too funny to leave out!

Using commas correctly is also important as not doing so can make it look as if you either don’t know how to write clearly, or are too lazy or indifferent to your audience to bother.

The person who wrote the email that prompted this post has a doctorate and has written numerous (presumably properly-punctuated) academic papers, so the absence of commas can’t be put down to ignorance.  Whether the actual cause was laziness or an outbreak of CBA, I don’t know and would prefer not to speculate (at least where someone might read it!).  The addition of just a couple of small punctuation marks, though, would have meant I had nothing to speculate over.

BTW: if you’ve been wondering what the butterfly at the top has to do with punctuation, the answer is that it is a species called ‘comma’, because it has white, comma-shaped markings on the undersides of its wings.  So, nothing really to do with the subject, but it’s a nice spring-like picture to head up this post.

 

* If you would like to read more about this, there’s a rather good list, with examples, here.  This article is written for the American market but British English comma usage is very similar: the only points I can see where I would use commas slightly differently is the second part of item 7 (I personally wouldn’t put a comma after the state name) and item 8 (in British English we don’t put commas around a year in this way).
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