If punctuation had a union, the most vocal members would be commas.
They’re the over-used, much-abused, under-valued workers of the written world. They’re not allowed to do their own job, or more frequently are made to do that of others for which they are not qualified. They’re stuck, defenceless, where no punctuation should be, or ignored altogether.
It’s possible to read whole pages of text where the author has used only the comma and the full stop to cover all possible bases. It’s not a deliberate choice; it’s a failure to grasp the rules and the opportunities of punctuation. Worse, it’s letting down the reader, who has to struggle to make his way through the resulting mess.
This is a plea for understanding on behalf of these maligned little marks.
Commas have a role to play, and a vital one; they exist to separate things, but only up to a certain weight. Above that, something stronger is called for.
Nearly all sentences here include commas.
They mark off items in a list: ‘over-used, much-abused, under-valued workers’.
They come between clauses that can’t stand alone as separate sentences, but also can’t be left as one long one: ‘The comma has a role to play, and a vital one.’ Here the first clause is complete as it is; the second isn’t. They need a linking piece of punctuation, so a comma is employed.
You may say, ‘But there’s an ‘and’. You shouldn’t put a comma before ‘and’.’ Not so: there is a case for saying that if you have a list, as in, ‘I ate sausage, eggs, beans and fried bread for breakfast,’ you don’t place a comma between the last two items. If you do, it’s called an Oxford comma, which I use whenever I think those last two items are sufficiently different to warrant a pause. The disputed ‘and’ from my previous example introduces a clause, not a list. (The breakfast, I hasten to add, was imaginary.)
Confused yet? Imagine how the comma feels.
All too often a comma is used when it isn’t up to the job. In such cases a semi-colon, a colon, or a full stop should be dragged out of wherever punctuation goes when it’s on standby, and made to earn its keep.
Look at the semi-colon; see how it’s formed. It’s a value-added comma. It’s what happens when a simple comma isn’t strong enough; that tiny dot above it gives it a little extra oomph. The semi-colon separates two parts of a sentence which could both stand alone, but want to club together. The first sentence of this paragraph is such a case. A comma simply couldn’t do that job properly. A full stop could be used, but it wouldn’t be read the way I want it to sound.
‘The first sentence of this paragraph is such a case, a comma simply couldn’t do that job properly.’ See? That’s comma-abuse, sometimes called a comma splice. Call it what you like; it’s still wrong.
The colon is not used as much now as it once was: fashion exists in punctuation as elsewhere. There – I found a use for one. It could as easily be a full stop, but I’m making a point. What it could not be is a comma, but it’s amazing how many times writers force one to bridge such a gap. It’s laziness and ignorance, and it affects how the piece is read. This is all part of the code that tells your reader what you mean to say and how to say it. Get it wrong, and they will be perfectly entitled to go away and read something else instead.
The colon is a value-added semi-colon, or a value-depleted full stop. It creates a bigger pause than the semi-colon, and a much more important one than the comma. No capital letter follows, however, so it’s not bringing anything to a crashing halt. I could find another use for a colon: to mark the beginning of a list, for example. ‘They mark off items in a list: ‘over-used, much-abused, under-valued workers’.’
There’s a crowd of commas over there waving banners at me, saying, “What about speech?” That’s a whole new area, so I’ll get to that in another post.
That’s the thing about punctuation: once you start talking about it, you realise how much there is of it, and how poorly it is understood. I haven’t even started on question marks and exclamation marks, and they all want to have their say.
If punctuation had a union, it would be something to do with communication workers, because that’s what all these signs are for – to convey information. Darn it, there’s a dash now. This series could go on for a long time…