I asked my neighbour what he did for a living.
“I’m a sub-editor,” he told me, “with special responsibility for commas”.
His response made me laugh. Hope it did the same to you?
I’m a word geek, so you’d expect me to say that. Here’s some evidence to show how important it is to get things right. Even the tiniest things.
Maine state law says the following activities do not count for overtime pay:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Drivers distribute but don’t pack the goods, so they argued this would make them eligible for overtime pay.
The judge in the Appeals Court ruled that, because there is no comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution”, the law refers to the single activity of “packing”, not to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities.
The drivers won their case.
This is called the Oxford comma or serial comma.
Adapted from the Guardian style guide:
There is no need for a comma before the final “and” in straightforward lists: “He ate ham, eggs and chips”
Sometimes it can help the reader: “He ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea”
Sometimes it is essential: Compare “I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling” with “I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling”.
I’m not the only person that cares about getting things right.
Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, was sentenced to death by hanging on February 18, 1790, for the charge of treason. When he read through the order for his execution, he said: “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”
With or without mistakes, the warrant was placed in order. His death took place the following day. The quote has become famous because the Marquis kept his sangfroid in the face of a painful and humiliating death, and he is revered by those who uphold the importance of correct grammar and spelling.
Snippet from: ‘All My Mothers‘ by Joanna Glen
Bridget took my hand.
‘At least you found your real blood mother,’ she said.
‘But all she does is write me boring letters about Tooting,’ I said. ‘With too many commas and no full stops!’
‘I like commas,’ said Carrie. ‘The way they race along. Full stops feel a bit final.’
‘What’s your favourite punctuation mark, Eva?’ said Bridget.
‘Obviously the question mark,’ I said.
‘I always loved the way you asked so many questions,’ said Bridget.
Gabriel was clearing up – we could hear him clinking and crashing in the kitchen.
‘The Angel Gabriel!’ said Bridget, laughing. ‘And it’s exclamation marks for me!’
‘They always seem as if they’re trying too hard,’ said Carrie.
‘But they’re so jolly!’ said Bridget. ‘Though really far too thin for a girl like me! Too easy to lose down the bottom of the bed!’
Do you have a favourite punctuation mark?
I quite like an ellipsis…
Featured image: Comma butterfly from Pexels