A misplaced comma can come at an almighty cost. Just ask Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, USA. They’ve recently been embroiled in a landmark court case over their interpretation of a law which excludes overtime pay for companies involved in the ‘…drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of’ certain products. One side argued that ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ was one activity; the other side claimed it was two. And with around $10M at stake if three employees suing the dairy for back pay are successful, you can see the power that this almost insignificant-looking little black mark wields.
The Oxford Dictionary tells us that a comma ‘marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’ But how do you know if you’re using one in the right place?
It’s a challenge humankind has been grappling with for over 2,000 years.
According to Lynne Truss, author of the excellent and frequently hilarious zero-tolerance guide to punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the comma first graced a page sometime around 200BC, having been introduced by a librarian named Aristophanes. He’d devised a system of written marks to let actors know when to take a deep breath – absolutely essential if a lengthy, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’ bit of oratory was coming up. This sign-posting of when to pause or take a breath is still one of the comma’s most useful attributes today.
In 2017, the rules regarding commas lean towards the flexible. Take the opening sentence of this paragraph. Purists would support a comma after ‘2017’; minimalists may consider it unnecessary. In this example, whether the comma is there or not doesn’t really change any meaning; it simply changes the rhythm.
Then again, insertion of a comma can alter meaning entirely. Consider this:
‘Most of the time, travellers worry about their luggage.’ Without that useful comma there, we could well assume this statement described a group of Time Lords worried about their suitcase allowance.
No discussion on commas would be complete without making mention of the much-debated ‘Oxford comma’. Its purpose is to clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are described in more than one word, or where differentiation is required between listed items. For example:
‘Ice cream flavours include caramel and kale, boysenberry and Brussel sprouts, and onion and Milo.’ The commas here make it clear there are three flavours on offer, not six.
Even revered publications such as The Times can muck it up by failing to use an Oxford comma where one is desperately required to avoid embarrassment. Their classic faux pas describing a travel programme which included ‘encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector’ won’t be forgotten any time soon. Mr Mandela may well be regarded as venerable demi-god, but as to the rest…who knows?