What to do with the roaming comma

What to do indeed! Some writers like to sprinkle commas around like confetti while others will be very miserly in their use. Add to this a departure of comma style in America to Australia and Britain. It looks like such a tiny little tadpole but commas do love to roam and drastically alter the meanings of sentences and dialogue.

Take this quote borrowed from the good Bible and filtered through my unreliable memory. “I promise you today you will be with me in paradise.” I purposely left out any commas, now see what happens when I insert a comma. “I promise you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Or “I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

In the first instance, I inserted the comma after the word ‘today’, which means that the speaker (Jesus) is making a promise today that the other person (one of the criminals on a cross beside him) will go to heaven at some unknown time. By inserting the comma before ‘today’ however, Jesus is making a promise that the criminal will join him on that day in heaven.

The comma is meant to create a brief pause in a sentence or dialogue. It can also be used to separate items in a list, such as: I saw monkeys, tigers, giraffes, lizards, snakes, dingoes, kangaroos and parrots at the zoo. Note that the second last item does not carry a comma before the ‘and’.

There are so many uses for commas that I could devote several blog posts to its use and abuse. And probably will. A common abuse of the comma is to use it to join what should be separate sentences, especially when the writer goes on a new tangent that makes the insertion of the comma a stalling point for any reader.

Commas are used after dialogue, again to produce a pause and a break before the attribution (the he/she said). Here is where American English can differ. In Australian style, the comma is placed directly after the last word of dialogue, and before the closing quotes. “I’m off to the circus,” he said.  But in-sentence quotes take the comma after the closing quotes. The boy told his sister “I’m off to the circus”, as he headed for the front door.

It is often a matter of personal preference for the writer as to whether to place commas before and after names, for example, in a sentence. The sawmill boss, Gus Jones, was a tough man. Or The sawmill boss Gus Jones was a tough man. Either way, the the meaning is clear. However, once a writer adopts a style in regard to this, he or she should be consistent.

The naughty apostrophe

The bane of an editor’s life is to walk into a department store or see an advertisement on TV or in the newspaper (or online!) that is a victim of the naughty apostrophe. This apostrophe likes to turn CDs and DVDs into CD’s and DVD’s. It likes to make a possessive  its into it’s and do other nasty things like mixing up plural possessives with singular. Alas, it is the English language that can be held partly to blame. Let’s begin with our new high tech CDs and DVDs. To avoid confusion, we do use an apostrophe in cases such as dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s. Otherwise you would mistake it for is and ts,  which can only have readers scratching their heads. But there is no confusion when pluralising CD to CDs, for example,  and therefore the usual rule of plurals applies.

When I was just out of school, I often made the common mistake of confusing its and it’s. Until I learned the simple solution. While nouns take an apostrophe in the possessive form before the s, pronouns do not. But usually the pronoun changes form, for example, from he to his, you to your. However, when it comes to its, the adding of the s comes without an apostrophe. The simple answer is it’s always is a contraction of either it is or it has.

The whole process takes on another level of difficulty with people when they encounter the possessive forms of singular and plural nouns, and nouns already ending in s. Take this example for instance: The dog ate  the cat’s food. Or: The dog ate the cats’ food. The first example refers to just one cat, and therefore the apostrophe comes before the s, but in the second case, there are more than one cat, and therefore the apostrophe comes after the s.

Now consider the following examples: The Jones’s house is down the road. The Camerons’ house is around the next corner. The first already ends with s and in most modern styles these days comes with the apostrophe then s, although in some house styles, it is still just an apostrophe and no s. In the second instance, the name of the people is Cameron, and since we speak about the family, we add an s for plural, then an apostrophe. Some editors may also argue in favour of Joneses’ house for the first example.

What happens if we make a possessive of a plural noun. Usually we add an s apostrophe  but some nouns have a specific plural form, such as children, which then takes apostrophe before the s.

You can imagine how this can muddle a lot of people’s thinking. Food for thought.

A Twitter friend asked about Whose and Who’s. Examples will demonstrate the difference: e.g. Whose car is that? and Who’s the person driving that car? The first is a possessive of car which could be turned around to say: That car belongs to who? The second example applies the contraction of Who is.

Aluminium vs Aluminum

The English language is perhaps  one of the most contradictory and changeable languages in the world, and a test on any non-English speaking person who must learn to write and speak it. English has its roots in a multitude of languages, including Germanic, French, Latin and Greek among them. It is an evolving language that has turned  out differently in its birthplace England to America and Australia.

Australia still tries to cling to the traditional form but is quickly losing out to the cultural domination of America. It may be seen as a bad thing, but it is neither good nor bad. It is simply the process of its evolution. Who today can decipher the English that is  presented in the fabled story of Beowulf, which retains the strong Germanic influences then.

Through this blog I will explore aspects from cultural influences through to spelling and grammar, and I hope to pass on some things I know as an editor and writer. I hope that it will serve to help other writers to hone their craft and for us all to share our marvelous world of words. If you enjoy my blog, pass it on to others.

Let us begin on our literary journey!

Paul Vander Loos