The VIC (Very Important Comma)

“Punctuation is boring,” they say. “It’s for nerds.”

“Punctuation is boring,” they say. “It’s for nerds.”

Well, they are wrong. Punctuation is for everyone and to prove it, we will use the example of the humble comma. Commas are serious stuff. They might save your mother’s life. Consider these two sentences.

Let’s eat, mother.

And

Let’s eat mother.

Here it is the comma that takes “mother” off the dinner table and into the vocative case (the vocative shows the person who is being addressed in a sentence). In other words, commas change the meaning of sentences and sometimes do so profoundly.

The careless omission of a comma in a European trade treaty of 2010 cost the commission millions of Euros because it failed to put a comma between two items on a list. How might that make a difference? Consider for example the difference between ‘coffee, cups, tea, bags and picnic items’ and ‘coffee cups, tea bags and picnic items’.

With the first list you are charging for five categories of goods, in the second list, there are only three.

For writers, getting one’s commas right is an essential skill. For a start, it helps to let people know what you are talking about. Staying with family cannibalism, since we introduced the theme at the beginning, here’s a sentence by a careless author.

‘While mother was cooking the baby, Fred and the girls were outside.’

The lack of our Very Important Comma before “the baby” has changed the intended scene of cosy domesticity into something from a Stephen King novel.

A while ago, a poster by the constabulary in Britain showed how adding a comma can also have the opposite effect. It described the stages of intoxication, starting from “tipsy,” and moving through “buzzed” and “staggering” to “dead drunk.” The final stage was “dead, drunk.”

So, we are agreed, commas are essential for meaning. But they are also friends that make a text easier to read. Punctuation tells us how the text would be spoken if it were read aloud. A comma indicates a pause of half a beat. That’s the pause we make when we are shifting a topic slightly, introducing something new, or moving to another stage of the sentence. In use it is almost invisible we register it so automatically but take it away and the lack of the comma in this or any other piece of writing causes us to arrive gasping for breath at the end of the sentence in a confused slightly frustrated state.

Commas, you know where you can put them.

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