Trivia Teaser

Which country is known to its inhabitants as Hellas?




By Miranda

Leaning, as I do, towards the view of grammar that says 'less is more', I find myself battling icky little bits of punctuation and the traditions that insist they be used.

I should rather none were used (see, I can do a subjunctive!) or, at least, as few as possible. Which leads us to the comma. The English-writing world is divided over giving pause. There are those who punctuate ferociously, and those of us who are less enamoured of too many characters in the text (this could be a Twitter thing - oh, by the way, best-ever Tweet: 'Tolstoy introduced to Twitter. Misunderstands the bit about 140 characters'). And then what? Well, the issue is whether, and where, you use a comma when punctuating a list, in particular, after the word 'and'.

If you say, for example, 'I gave the leftovers to the cat, Claude, and the dog', you might well assume that the cat was called Claude and only two animals received the remains. But it's possible that Claude was, in fact, another pet or even a person. This ambiguity can only be avoided by rephrasing the whole sentence or altering the word order in the list or omitting the last comma so that we get 'I gave the leftovers to the cat, Claude and the dog' from which we can conclude there were definitely three creatures sharing the scraps.

But - and now a warning to those who are easily offended - the following link is one of the best explanations ever of the case FOR what they call the Oxford comma*. What is it? The Oxford comma is the one which appeared before 'and' in that list of nouns. So, for example, using the Oxford comma one might write 'cats, dogs, and birds' whereas without the Oxford comma the same list would be 'cats, dogs and birds'.

Relatively straightforward, one might say. The comma appears to be redundant and I'm in favour of releasing redundant punctuation back into the wild where ever possible. But I could be wrong about the redundancy:

The solution? Moderation. Punctuate only when necessary and, where no amount of punctuation will help, find another way of wording your text. What punctuation mark gives you the most trouble?
* Yes, it's also called the Harvard comma, for those in North America. And the serial comma, for frequent offenders.



32 Responses to


kemiker said:
January 10, 2012 at 5:25 PM

It's very lazy and probably derives from "ur" in sms which is used as an abbreviation for both. I agree it's annoying as all you have do is say to yourself, is this short for "you are"? I suspect that many teachers can't get these things right so what hope is there for the kids?

Phocaena said:
March 02, 2012 at 7:42 PM

Talking of commas, a solicitor friend of mine explained that he never used any punctuation because it can so easily totally change the meaning of a documents meaning. he gave the following as an example: Not getting any better, come quickly. Not getting any, better come quickly