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..


    1. We’ll give some others a chance first, Livia. But I should have made it clear that they’re both correct – the commas make them mean different things though.

  1. I love your pontifications; thanks for sharing, Mr. Author of Breathtakingly Good Crime Novels. (Why didn’t you use the adjective “excellent?”) Because I don’t have a degree in any language, I can’t tell you which of the two sentences about the pilot is punctuated correctly. I prefer the last one, the one with the commas. Like you, I adore the little buggers.

      1. No, Linda, it’s not annoying. I’m just curious about the thinking behind the rule.
        As for using ‘excellent’, I do, quite a lot – and each time, I hear the voice of the superb Montgomery Burns in my head.

  2. OK, you comma-loving lot, here’s a quick quiz to test your knowledge:
    I’ll NEVER get 100% because I hate seeing a comma before a co-ordinating conjunction separating two clauses (I also don’t like to see two vowels together like coordinating).
    Interesting spot the difference, Bill. The minimalistic journalist in me would go for the first; but so would the creative writer in me. Unless, of course, being a pilot and liking classical music had some important connection in the context.

  3. I got 2 wrong but I disagree with their marking and would like to have a heated argument with them about their versions.

    And, with my examples, it’s not a question of preference but of meaning.
    My daughter who is a pilot enjoys classical music. (The speaker has more than one daughter and it’s the one who’s a pilot who likes classical music.)
    My daughter, who is a pilot, enjoys classical music. (The speaker has only one daughter – the fact she’s a pilot is just an extra bit of information.)

    1. I got 100%.
      But I agree there are other options for some of them. Which ones did you get ‘wrong’ Bill?

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