Comma power

This blog’s been provoked by a recent exchange with some of my fellow-Pfoxmoor authors on the subject of commas. I think I use too many. It’s probably because lots of my sentences are too long and, as part of the editing process, I read them aloud and recognise the need to put in some pauses. We all make choices in grammar and punctuation (consciously or otherwise), to suit the stress we want to put on something or alter the flow and rhythm of a piece. But I do respect the rules and when I break them it’s usually because I want to achieve a particular effect.

I used to be much more pernickety but I’ve mellowed. I can see that splitting infinitives sometimes makes sense, especially in dialogue or ‘reader-friendly’ passages, because the ‘correct’ alternative sounds stilted. By luck, I’ve an excellent example of how the process works in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing with it. It’s from The Pheasant Plucker, a thriller written by a friend, Bill Daly. Unaccountably, it’s out of print at the moment but there are still some copies available through sellers on Amazon. Here’s the relevant bit:

“The beam from his discarded torch catches his knife and I can see drops of my blood glistening on the blade. He lobs the knife in the air and expertly grabs the spinning blade by the handle as it falls, then he lurches forward, knife arm fully extended. ‘If you don’t back off, Dumas – or whatever the hell your name is,’ he snarls, ‘I’m going to fucking kill you.’

It’s ridiculous, I know, but the split infinitive upsets me more than my split cheek. My brain takes time out to analyse where fucking should go in that phrase. Normally, the adverb would follow the infinitive, but ‘I’m going to kill fucking you’ doesn’t sound right and ‘I’m going to kill you fucking’ doesn’t bear thinking about. As I launch myself again at his throat, I fleetingly wonder whether I might be the first person ever to meet his maker while parsing.”

I wish I’d written that.

Rules and arguments about them are fun. I don’t want to see the anarchy of a laissez-faire attitude to language triumph, but I do want language to have its freedoms. When a singer praises ‘April in Paris’ and asks ‘Whom can I run to?’ it’s admirable that he/she has remembered that ‘whom’ is an indirect object qualified by the preposition ‘to’ and therefore needs the ‘m’ at the end. But if she/he also remembered that you mustn’t end a sentence with a preposition, the rhyme (with ‘what have you done to …’) would be completely buggered. (I also think that singing ‘To whom can I run?’ would detract significantly from his/her credibility as a passionate lover.)

Anyway, the wee debate I mentioned at the beginning concerned whether you put commas in when you write a sentence such as ‘The captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, is bald’. (Incidentally, I don’t see the logic in the American convention of putting that final full stop INSIDE the inverted commas. It punctuates the whole sentence, not just the bit in quotes. Discuss.)

Well, these things are called nouns or phrases in apposition and, according to my equivalent of the Bible, a little book by Jan Venolia called Write Right, you can have restrictive or non-restrictive appositive phrases or nouns. The restrictive ones (such as the one beginning ‘a little book’ in the previous sentence) need commas; they either identify or add information to the thing to which they’re in apposition, so:

David Cameron, a Prime Minister in name only, never answers questions.
Bill Kirton, author of breathtakingly good crime novels, frequently pontificates about grammar.
Two of my writer friends, Ben and Jerry, are very careful with commas.

On the other hand, the non-restrictive ones don’t add anything to the meaning of the sentence and aren’t necessary for identification, as in:

My friend Vladimir couldn’t care less about grammar, spelling, editing or any of those time-wasting activities.
Crime-busting north-east cop Jack Carston is getting fed up with his so-called superiors. (NB NOT ‘fed up OF’)

So there. And let’s end with a little exercise to show that commas do matter. What’s the difference between the following two sentences?

My daughter who is a pilot enjoys classical music.
My daughter, who is a pilot, enjoys classical music..

I am not the way, the truth or the light

I was going to write something about the depressing aftermath of the Tory budget and my anger at smug, lying millionaires telling single mothers et al that we’re all in this together, but my anger is very real, increases with every second I spend thinking about the confidence tricksters who lead us and it gets in the way to such an extent that the results are barely coherent. So instead, a small hymn to spiritual values.

A couple of years back, I speculated about a possible career change and thought it might be interesting to become a guru. I was quite open about it, logged it all in a blog, did a sort of cost-benefit analysis of its viability and even sketched out the specific type of guru genome I had in mind. Non-religious, but tolerant of all faiths, except those requiring human sacrifices; rural rather than urban (depending on the wi-fi coverage); tolerant of chanting and singing, as long as it didn’t happen when there was football on TV – all very commonsensical, reasonable modes of being.

I didn’t fool myself into thinking I could just sit around and be worshipped, or watch my followers worshipping something or somebody else. Worship was only an optional extra. No, I knew I’d have to give a little as well as take as much as I could. So I’d respect the archetype and give my followers access to some inner truth. But, as the archetype demands, it would be a completely arbitrary, relative truth, as meaningless as all the others. Thus I hit on the not-quite-mantra of ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’. And, if any of the followers were still troubled, I’d offer them the additional nostrum ‘Feel the swan in your blood’.

I decided too that, if they really expected me to say stuff, I’d do it in parables. So we’d sit around outside (or, from September to May, since this is Aberdeen, inside) the hut, and I’d say something like:

A pregnant woman walked into a baker’s shop and asked if he had a bun in his oven. The baker, who was a kind man, looked at her and said, ‘I have many buns in my oven, along with numerous varieties of cake and countless loaves of bread’.

‘And do you deliver this bounty?’ asked the woman.

‘Indeed,’ replied the baker. ‘I have a white van and travel to towns and villages and back again, unloading its goodness into people’s homes and lives.’

‘And does it taste as good as it smells?’ asked the woman.

‘Alas,’ replied the baker, ‘that I cannot say, for I am wheat intolerant.’

The woman smiled and laid on the counter a small white hanky, edged with Nottingham lace.

The baker unwrapped it to find, inside, the tail feathers of a wren.

‘Bless you,’ he said to the woman.

But she was gone.

That sort of thing was easy but other aspects of the calling might be less so. For example, I spent quite a while trying to devise sentences in which I could include the plural of the word ‘sect’ in such a way that it might be misunderstood or misheard by the followers and consequently lead to more mundane satisfactions to counteract the potentially oppressive excesses of spirituality.

Sadly, though, the anticipated allegiance of gullible humans whose lives were empty enough to seek the comforts of the void I was offering didn’t materialise. I did try articulating the not-quite-mantra at one or two dinner parties but it was met with either ribald merriment or the discreet handing over of business cards by psychiatrists or more successful gurus. I can only think that my gurudom was yet another victim of the credit squeeze and the oppressions of Mammon. (See? We’re back to that.) Never mind, even though our British masters are only intent on accumulating wealth, on the other side of the Atlantic the various millionaires aspiring to lead the Western world place their respective spiritual – and overwhelmingly Christian – values above material ones. It’s a reassuring picture..


In case you don’t know, MMORPGs are Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. And I think they’re fun. They call for the same sort of commitment readers make when they get involved in a story and suspend disbelief, feeling the fictional characters to be at least as real as they are themselves. My novella, Alternative Dimension, is about the attractions and the dangers of playing games and entering a virtual reality. For me, being part of a fantastical online community was a source of humour, a chance to indulge in some gentle satire, as well as a place where I met and got to know people I’d never have come across otherwise.

People are surprisingly unguarded there, revealing intimate secrets to others, even though they’re only interacting with an avatar and they have no idea of who the person behind it is. The risks in that are obvious, and the whole business of grooming and manipulation is very sinister and very real. And, of course, as someone unloads their childhood traumas onto you, you’ve no idea whether they’re true, whether the person’s male, female, Aryan supremacist or Jehovah’s Witness. (It could even be your partner on a laptop in another room – which is an even scarier thought.)

But games are making legitimate claims to be a separate art form in their own right. They’re like movies, they’re like books, but they have dimensions of interactivity which go beyond the traditional. The immersive atmosphere they create, the power of their music, which now has mainstream respectability (the London Philharmonic has recorded several of the best-known themes), the fact that you, as a player, actually inhabit the story and the settings – all of this makes different demands on the creative input of designers but also of players.

So the BBC radio programme I heard about the whole subject made for fascinating listening. One interviewee talked interestingly about how increases in computing power and the refinements in the disciplines involved in creating all aspects of a game meant that today’s ‘best’ experiences were constantly being superseded. Whereas Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and the rest continue to be read and performed, old computer games seem limp and passé.

As I said, all of this was very informative and interesting. But, as she continued to enthuse about the excitement and value of getting immersed in games, she made one throwaway remark which I found very chilling and which made me rethink the values she was ascribing to them. To make her point about how games do have an afterlife in the memories of those who’ve played them, she described a night she’d spent escaping from some captors, gathering weapons, fighting her way along and eventually dragging her boy friend’s body from where he’d been held captive. There was a smile in her voice as she described it all, and the residual excitement was obvious. But then, after all these ordeals, she said ‘God, I felt like I’d gone through Vietnam’.

And there, it seems to me, you have a hidden danger. Not just treating war as a game but diminishing reality itself. It’s a paradox. This isn’t a criticism of her and I don’t mean to imply thoughtlessness or insensitivity on her part. She was interesting, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. The experience for her was real, draining, even traumatic, but its ‘reality’ was immediately put into perspective by the inappropriate parallel she implied with true stress and horror. OK, it wasn’t a considered remark but, in a way, that makes it worse. As I said, I’m not condemning her, I’m asking whether our priorities and sensivities are shifting..