Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A slight pause

I have an increasing sense of paranoia about my use of commas. It could be worse I admit, but I write a fair bit at work, executive summaries and the like, and then of course these musings. When I reread things I have written I am aghast at the, overuse of commas. See what I did there? OK so that was deliberate and I don't ever foul it up quite like that, or at least I hope I don't, but nonetheless I have noticed a tendency to write extremely long sentences which inevitably means I use quite a lot of these humble little bits of punctuation.

I can't quite place my finger on it, but I just have this sense that there are too many. That last sentence for example - did I need the comma in the middle of it or would it have worked perfectly well without it? It's the practical use I am most concerned with, rather than any sense of grammatical correctness. Nobody cares about that anymore, this is 2016! I was probably taught it once, eons ago, and indeed a short refresher on the internet does suggest that before a "but" is an OK place to put a comma, but also that it does not necessarily follow that where a slight pause might exist in spoken english that this is the right place for a comma to be inserted. Unhelpful. It seems to be quite easy to spot where you definitely shouldn't whack a comma, but quite difficult to know where exactly one is actually needed and where you might get away without one. If I am ever in doubt, which is frequently, I seem to put one in. That last sentence there, would it have been OK, or even better, if it had read " If I am ever in doubt - which is frequently - I put one in." Or perhaps " If I am ever in doubt which is frequently, I put one in.

Ridiculous though it sounds, I quite often trawl through old posts removing commas that I feel are superfluous. You could argue I should quit while I'm vaguely ahead. English is not an easy language so in one sense I am doing quite well to even get words out and should not worry about the real nitty gritty. For instance I manage to avoid many of the usual written pitfalls such as their, there and they're, and also your and you're - the poor use of these latter two in particular I find impossibly annoying, far more than I ought to I'm sure. I've also seen his and he's used more-or-less interchangeably, and just recently no and know. I have recently caught myself simply writing the wrong word in a sentence, hear instead of here, but managed to go back and correct it before I hit send as it just didn't look write right. Easily done, english probably has more homonyms than many other languages, it must be incredibly confusing for anyone learning it as a foreign language. Then again it appears to be a foreign language for many people born here such is the amount of mangling that goes on.

At this point it is probably best to quote Nigel Molesworth, that fabulous creation of Willians and Searle, as he does a run-through of his various teachers in "Down with Skool".

"They teach english e.g. migod you didn't ort to write a sentence like that molesworth."


  1. Going back through old posts removing superfluous commas isn't at all weird: I do that too. Cutting and pasting the excess commas into a word document to make them feel wanted, now that would be weird...

  2. Jono, just rejoice in your ability to use the written word, as opposed to TXT speak. I, too, get irritated by the rules of this crazy language, but am happier to attempt to navigate the muddy waters than simply skim over the top - nice Mistle Thrush story - Dyl

  3. Yes, but! Didn't Charles Dickens write extremely long sentences whilst enjoying the use of the comma? Modern writing often suggests that the reader cannot maintain concentration if the sentence is longer than 9 words.
    Apostrophe usage next?

    1. I think that is true. Certainly at my work that is what is all about, short punchy bullshit bullet points. You see it everywhere though, the whole world is being condensed into sound-bites that when you break them down mean nothing at all.

    2. Then dashes and commas. And hyphens.