I first became interested in the comma (you heard that correctly: the small and rather neglected punctuation mark, the comma) when I was around 10 years old. I went to a very traditional prep school where we started learning Latin at the age of seven and Greek at 10. In fact, it was only after I left that prep school that I realised that, if I had been there only a generation earlier, the entire morning timetable every day, Monday to Friday, would have been taken up by Latin and Greek, with the afternoons set aside for any other subjects. Now that’s a school! Anyway, around the age of 10, we learned about subordinate clauses. There are all types of subordinate clauses: here is a sentence with a relative clause in it:
‘The man, who was in the back of the car, was a gangster.’
The main clause in that sentence is ‘the man was a gangster’ – that is the most important message we have from that sentence; the clause ‘who was in the back of the car’ adds colour and context, but is known as the subordinate clause because, to be quite frank, the sentence could do without it – it is very much subordinate, or secondary, to the main bit.
When you are learning about such sentences in Latin, it is not so easy sometimes to pick out what belongs to the main bit and what is subordinate. Yet we were told early on that the subordinate clause would always be comma’d off in our text books, so that it would be easy to spot. If you think back to the English sentence, it goes:
‘The man comma who was in the back of the car comma was a gangster.’
The subordinate clause was comma’d off in English, too. So from about the age of 10, the comma became a friend – an endlessly helpful one – and an entirely reliable guide.
Lynn Truss’ book Eats, Shoots and Leaves (subtitle: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation) is the classic current text on punctuation and is well worth a read if you do not already know it. It is witty, as well as informative. The title of the book relies upon a story. A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. “Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” The problem, as you can see, is that there should have been no comma after “eats”. The appearance of a rogue comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence.
So, here are two good reasons why commas are important (and indeed punctuation more widely) – they can be your helper in making meaning out of a sentence; or their misuse can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Apostrophes, (arguably) unlike commas, are simple to get right, but are regularly used incorrectly. Consider the newspaper headline: “Fan’s fury at price of hot dogs”, where fan’s is spelt F-A-N apostrophe S. Surely a newspaper wouldn’t bother with the story of one man’s search at the football for a cheap hot dog? Clearly, a simple mispunctuation can, in fact, make a rather embarrassing hash of things.
In this day of email and social media, punctuation – and indeed spelling as well – is treated with declining importance. But I can tell you one or two areas of life outside the exam hall where your hard work at school will pay off if you listen to lessons on punctuation and spelling carefully. When I was in my first teaching job at a place called Trinity Grammar School in Sydney, 54 applications came in for one of the teaching posts at the school. The Headmaster at the time told me that 33 of them had spelt Grammar with an ‘er’ rather than an ‘ar’. They, he said, went straight into the bin before he read another line. He was right to do so; and I now do the same. Furthermore, this extends to punctuation. If you have a lot of job applications, with many pages to get through (as I do back in my office right now), you wish to be helped to read them in a friendly way. A well punctuated passage does just that – it helps the reader in a friendly way. To quote Lynne Truss, “Punctuation is a basic politeness to the reader.”
I will end with a contrast to prove a point. If you go to a museum or an archaeological site and you come across ancient inscriptions on stone, you will find almost all of them have no punctuation at all; nor do they even have gaps between words. They are incredibly hard to read, just as an English text with no gaps between words and no punctuation would be hard to read – you have to work out for yourself where the words end, where you take a breather and where the sentence ends. Or maybe it is a question? But of course you would not have a question mark to tell you that. Some ancient Greek scripts were even written in boustrophedon. This word comes from the Greek words for ‘ox’ and ‘ploughing’. Unlike English, where we read from left to right, or Hebrew, where you read from right to left, script in boustrophedon was written from left to right on one line, but the next line went from right to left, in the manner of an ox turning the plough at the end of a field. The third line came back again from left to right and so on. To make matters worse, there was a script, found on a Pacific Island called Easter Island, which is now known as reverse boustrophedon, because it has the same qualities as boustrophedon, but in addition each alternative line flips the letters themselves over, so that they are technically upside down every other line.
To summarise, we should be glad that we have a well-developed code of writing, which relies upon adherence to correct punctuation and spelling. We are helped by this; and it is only right, therefore, that the comma, alongside the apostrophe and all those other little fellows, should become your friend.