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.

Just Posted

VIDEO: Highway 3A reopened after mudslide cleared

A mudslide closed Highway 3A between Castlegar and Nelson just north of the Brilliant Dam on Wednesday.

Rossland couple caught in Kootenay Pass avalanche

“The snow was fast, you couldn’t outrun it.”

VIDEO: Rossland elders take second annual trip up Grey and Granite

That trip was organized by Ritchie Mann, who Greene “blamed” for the entire adventure.

Black Jack building a new trail at biathlon area

The Black Jack Ski Club will be building a new recreational trail at the Hanna Creek Biathlon Area.

Couple charged in Fruitvale incident plead not guilty

A couple charged in an incident that started in Fruitvale on Tuesday, April 3 pleaded not guilty.

Lt.-Gov. Guichon believes she made the right decision

Outgoing Lt.-Gov Judith Guichon said her most memorable moments weren’t surrounding the election

Pulp mill fined $900,000 for leaking effluent into B.C. lake

Mackenzie Pulp Mill pleaded guilty to depositing deleterious substance into water frequented by fish

B.C.’s 2-year lobbying ban starts May 1

Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists can grant exemptions from the prohibition if public interest

Horgan speaks of government’s successes to ‘friends’ at CUPE BC convention

CUPE BC president Paul Faoro said was first time a B.C. premier addressed convention in some time

Speed Skating Canada fires coach Michael Crowe after investigation

Crowe was a coach on the American team from 1983 to 1991 and again from 1999 to 2006

5 things to know about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers in Canada

Number of illegal border crossings are up this year – as RCMP, military, politicians try to combat

VIDEO: Smokers talk pot rules at annual 4-20 event

Annual pot protest-meets-festival in Vancouver attracted hundreds to vendors, concert

New funds, recruits set to alleviate B.C. sheriff shortage

The Government of British Columbia announced new sheriff graduates, funding for more classes

Video: RCMP investigation gets a deer little photobomb

Princeton RCMP were conducting a drug investigation in Princeton which a deer strolled through

Most Read