X Punctuation
Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"That learned men are well known to disagree on this subject of punctuation is in itself a proof that the knowledge of it, in theory and practice, is of some importance. I myself have learned by experience, that, if ideas that are difficult to understand are properly separated, they become clearer; and that, on the other hand, through defective punctuation, many passages are confused and distorted to such a degree, that sometimes they can with difficulty be understood, or even cannot be understood at all". Aldus Manutius. Interpungendi ratio, 1566. From the translation in "Punctuation, its Principles and Practice" by T. F. and M. F. A. Husband, Routledge, 1905.

THIS again is a large subject. Whole books have been written about it, and it is still true, as it apparently was four hundred years ago, that no two authorities completely agree. Taste and commonsense are more important than any rules; you put in stops to help your reader to understand you, not to please grammarians. Anyone wishing to make a study of punctuation will find a useful guide to the best authorities in Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage. He gives first place to Chapter IV of Fowler's The King's English, and Carey's Mind the Stop (Cambridge University Press 1946). From Fowler I quote this:

"It is a sound principle that as few stops should be used as will do the work....Everyone should make up his mind not to depend on his stops. They are to be regarded as devices, not for saving him the trouble of putting his words in the order that naturally gives the required meaning, but for saving his reader the moment or two that would sometimes, without them, be necessarily spent on reading the sentence twice over, once to catch the general arrangement, and again for the details. It may almost be said that what reads wrongly if the stops are removed is radically bad; stops are not to alter the meaning, but merely to show it up. Those who are learning to write should make a practice of putting down all they want to say without stops first. What then, on reading over, naturally arranges itself contrary to the intention should be not punctuated, but altered; and the stops should be as few as possible consistently with the recognised rules."

Fowler must have had in mind mainly the comma; if commas are used rightly the other stops will sort themselves out. Having quoted his advice and indicated where the curious can learn more about this difficult and contentious topic, I shall do no more than make suggestions about one or two points on which there is evidence that counsel is needed. We will begin with the dash, for it is something of an outsider in the community of stops, and given to usurping their places.

The dash is seductive; it tempts the writer to use it as a punctuation-maid-of-all-work that saves him the trouble of choosing the right stop. We all know letter-writers who carry this habit to the length of relying on one punctuation mark only-a nondescript symbol that might be a dash or might be something else. It is wise to confine the dash to the following recognised uses. My examples here-except the last-are all taken from the volume of Mr. Churchill's War Speeches entitled The Unrelenting Struggle.

(a)In pairs for a parenthesis.

"No future generation of English-speaking folks-for that is the tribunal to which we will appeal-will doubt that we were guiltless."

(b) To introduce an explanation, amplification, paraphrase, particularisation or correction of what immediately precedes it.

"They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril."
"Overhead the far-ranging Catalina air-boats soared-vigilant protecting eagles in the sky."
"These are great days-the greatest days our country has ever lived."
"The end of our financial resources was in sight-nay, had actually been reached."

(c) To indicate that the construction of the sentence, as begun, will be left unfinished (what the grammarians call anacoluthon).

"But when you come to other countries-oddly enough I saw a message from the authorities which are most concerned with our Arab problem at present, urging that we should be careful not to indulge in too gloomy forecasts."

This, however, is a rhetorical device, not often likely to be appropriate in official writings.

(d) To gather up the subject of a sentence when it is a very long one; after the long loose canter of the subject you need to collect your horse for the jump to the verb.

"The formidable power of Nazi Germany, the vast mass of destructive munitions that they have made or captured, the courage, skill and audacity of their striking forces, the ruthlessness of their central war direction, the prostrate condition of so many people under their yoke, the resources of so many lands which may to some extent become available to them-all these restrain rejoicing and forbid the slightest relaxation.

Similarly with the jump from the verb.

"I would say generally that we must regard all those victims of the Nazi executioners in so many lands, who are labelled Communists and Jews-we must regard them just as if they were brave soldiers who die for their country on the field of battle."

(e) To introduce a paradoxical, humorous or whimsical ending to a sentence.

"He makes mistakes, as I do, though not so many or so serious-he has not the same opportunities."

An example of this use of the dash is in the Memorandum of the Ministry of Education quoted on previously.

"We should aim at B rather than A-and then decide to issue neither."

(f) With a colon to introduce a quotation or a list.
This needs no illustration.

We now come to the stops proper-the full-stop, colon, semi-colon and comma. The full-stop is an exception to the rule that stops should be few. I have no advice to give about it except that it should be plentifully used: in other words to repeat the advice I have already given that sentences should be short. I am not, of course, suggesting that good prose never contains long ones. On the contrary, the best prose is a judicious admixture of the long with the short. Mark Twain, after advising young authors to write short sentences as a rule, added:

"At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won't be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water, it will be a torch-light procession." (27)

If you can write long sentences that you are satisfied really merit that description, by all means surprise and delight your readers with one occasionally. But the short ones are safer.

About the colon experts dispute. All agree that its systematic use as one of a series of different pause-values has almost died out with the decay of formal periods. But some hold that it is still useful as something less than a full-stop and more than a semi-colon; others deny it. Into this we need not enter; it will be enough to note that the following uses are generally recognised as legitimate:

(a) Between two sentences in antithesis.

"In peace-time the Civil Service is a target of frequent criticism: in war-time criticism is very greatly increased."
- "In some cases the executive carries out most of the functions: in others the delegation is much less extensive. "

(b) To precede an explanation or particularisation, as we have seen that the dash may be used: in the words of Fowler "to deliver the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words".

"There remain two special problems: first how to ensure part-time education for those employed at sea, and secondly how to meet the needs of those living in rural areas."
"The design of the school was an important part of the scheme: Post Office counters with all the necessary stores were available and maps and framed specimens of the various documents in use were exhibited on the walls of light and cheerful classrooms."

About the semi-colon all I have to say is this: do not be afraid of it. It is a most useful means of marking a pause longer than the comma but shorter than the full-stop.

"The scheme of work should be as comprehensive as possible and should include gymnastics, games, boxing, wrestling and athletics; every endeavour should be made to provide facilities for swimming."
"If these arrangements are made in your factory you should take any difficulty which you may have to these officers when they call; you need not write to the Tax Office or call there."

These two sentences illustrate the common use of the semi-colon. Each consists of two clauses. If these had been linked by the conjunction and, a comma would have been enough after athletics and call. But where there is no conjunction a comma is not enough; the stop must be either a semi-colon or a full-stop. The writers of these sentences felt that the clauses were not closely enough linked to justify a conjunction but too closely linked to justify a full-stop. They therefore rightly chose the middle course of a semi-colon.

On the other hand, the writer of the following has gone wrong. A heavier stop than a comma is needed after somersault, for what follows is an independent sentence not linked to the first by a conjunction.

"After a few drinks one imagines that Henry VIII did not enjoy his involuntary somersault, tempers were clearly rising, and the announcement of dinner came very opportunely for the peace of Europe."

The semi-colon is useful for avoiding the rather dreary trailing participles with which official writers too often end their sentences.

"The N.S.C.W. is at present responsible for the course of training for the Nursery Nurse Diploma of their Society, the training being carried out in affiliated nurseries."
"In government headquarters' offices the convenience and healthiness of the interior was often sacrificed to exterior architectural features, such amenities as good natural lighting and ventilation taking second place in the scheme."

These sentences get fresh life if the commas after Society and features are replaced by semi-colons, followed by "the training is carried out and "such amenities . . . took second place".

It is in the use of commas that the pitfalls are most numerous and the differences of opinion among experts greatest. Present practice is markedly different from that of the past in using commas much less freely. How much more plentiful they used to be will be seen from the quotation that heads this chapter, in which the translator says that be has kept as close to the original punctuation as translation allowed. In particular we abandoned about a hundred years ago the practice of always preceding that-clauses with a comma ("is in itself a proof that the knowledge of it etc.": "distorted to such a degree, that sometimes they can with difficulty be understood"). I shall content myself with the general advice to be sparing of commas, and with calling attention to certain traps that I have noticed to be specially dangerous to official writers.

You may sometimes find that what you have written is obscure because (in the words quoted in the last chapter) the "words or members most nearly related" are not "placed in the sentence as near to each other as possible, so as to make their mutual relation clearly appear". If so, you must reconstruct the sentence; do not try to set things right by putting in a comma or two.

My most striking example of disregard of this rule is taken not from official writing but from a letter to The Times quoted in a recent publication entitled An Anthology of Errors. (28) The letter, written by a bishop, contained the sentence:

"I should like to plead with some of those men who now feel ashamed to join the Colonial Service."

The anthologist tells us that shortly afterwards the bishop wrote again to The Times, saying:

"The omission of a comma in my letter makes one seem to suggest that men might feel ashamed of joining the Colonial Service. My typescript reads 'I should like to plead with some of those men who now feel ashamed, to join the Colonial Service.

The anthologist adds suitable comment on bishops who have to rely on ungrammatical commas to avoid being misunderstood.

Here are some examples from official sources of this too common practice.

"It should be noted that an officer who ceased to pay insurance contributions before the date of the commencement of his emergency service, remained uninsured for a period, varying between eighteen months and two-and-a-half years, from the date of his last contribution and would, therefore, be compulsorily insured if his emergency service commenced during that period."
"Officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who were not insured for Health or Pensions purposes at the commencement of emergency service are not compulsorily insured during service."

Why should the first of these extracts be full of commas and the second have none? Why, in particular, should the relative clause (ending in each case with emergency service) have a comma after it in the first but not in the second? The answer can only be that, whereas the second sentence is short and clear, the first is long and obscure. The writer tried to help the reader by putting in five commas, but all he did was to give him five jolts. The only place where a comma is called for is after contribution, and there the writer has omitted to put one.

A common form of this fault is the insertion of a comma to mark the division between subject and verb, or between verb and object. I do not mean that this is always wrong. Good and careful writers sometimes do it deliberately. But it is an insidious habit, and officials should be careful not to contract it. It tempts a writer to shirk the trouble of so arranging his sentences as to make their meaning plain without relying on commas. We have seen that in complicated sentences the horse sometimes needs to be collected for this jump. But to try to do this by putting in a comma is usually to prepare for the jump by jerking your horse's mouth at the moment of take-off, a practice not unknown, but not recommended.

"A member of an Approved Society desiring to become a voluntary contributor under any of the alternatives mentioned above may obtain from his Approved Society, forms for giving the required notice."

The comma after Society is a comma of this sort. It would be tolerable if there were also a comma after obtain, making from his Approved Society a parenthesis, but the natural run of the sentence is to put forms after obtain and omit the comma after Society.

"Each concern should be left to work out for itself in the first place, the form of accounting which would be most suitable..."

(Either omit the comma or insert one after itself)

"If however, the undertaking applying for permission, represents..."

(Omit the comma after permission.)

"The question whether the war-time policy or something akin to the war-time policy, is to prevail, is under discussion.

(Put is under discussion immediately after question and either omit the comma after the second policy or insert one after the first.)

"The Minister desires that Interim Development Authorities should afford to statutory undertakers or Local Authorities proposing to develop, every facility for informal consultation."

(Put the last five words immediately after should afford.)

"There is evidence that in some areas rules and practices which were no doubt appropriate during the war but are becoming increasingly inappropriate, are still being followed."

(Put "are still being followed" immediately after practices.)

It is legitimate, but generally slovenly, to use a comma to indicate that what immediately follows it refers not to what immediately precedes it but to something further back. If the writer of the sentence already quoted "The official statement on the marriage of German prisoners with girls made in the House of Commons" had put a comma after girls, indicating that made was to be thrown back to statement, the sentence would have been less startling, but it would have been better English if "made in the House of Commons" had been put immediately after statement, and there had thus been no need for an attempt to clarify the sentence by punctuation. The same device is used with the same rather slipshod effect in the following sentence:

"Moreover, directions and consents at the national level are essential prerequisites in a planned economy, whereas they were only necessary for the establishment of standards or for grant-aid and borrowing purposes, in the comparatively free system of yesterday."

The proper place for "in the comparatively free system of yesterday" is after whereas, and it is a poor second-best to try to throw it back there by putting a comma in front of it.

But sometimes a comma has to come to the rescue.

"Their portable boat was soon found by a military patrol hidden under a bush on the shore."

Here it is no use to try to destroy the suggestion that the patrol was hidden under the bush by writing "Their portable boat was soon found hidden under a bush on the shore by a military patrol." That is out of the frying pan into the fire. The writer might properly have put a comma after patrol so as to throw hidden back to boat.

There is a curious instance of this throw-back effect of the comma, and its dangers, in a well-known little book The Queen's English published by Dean Alford about eighty years ago. In the section on punctuation he wrote:

"I have some satisfaction in reflecting that, in the course of editing the Greek text, I believe I have destroyed more than a thousand commas, which prevented the text being properly understood."

To us to-day (though it may have been different when the book was written) the comma after commas seems to make the Dean say exactly the opposite of what he meant. Which relates to commas; the comma suggests that it relates to the destruction of a thousand of them.

To enclose an adverb in commas is a legitimate and useful way of emphasising it. "All these things may, eventually, come to pass" is another way of saying "All these things may come to pass- eventually". But certain adverbs such as therefore, however, perhaps, of course, present difficulties because of a convention that they should always be enclosed in commas, whether emphasised or not. This is dangerous; the only safe course is to treat the question as one not of rule but of commonsense, and to judge each case on its merits. Lord Dunsany blames printers for this convention:

"The writer puts down 'I am going to Dublin perhaps, with Murphy'. Or he writes 'I am going to Dublin, perhaps with Murphy'. But in either case these pestilent commas swoop down, not from his pen, but from the darker parts of the cornices where they were bred in the printer's office, and will alight on either side of the word perhaps, making it impossible for the reader to know the writer's meaning, making it impossible to see whether the doubt implied by the word perhaps affected Dublin or Murphy. I will quote an actual case I saw in a newspaper. A naval officer was giving evidence before a Court, and said, 'I decided on an alteration of course'. But since the words 'of course' must always be surrounded by commas, the printer's commas came down on them . . . and the sentence read, 'I decided upon an alteration, of course'!"

Be careful about the use of commas with relative clauses. It is well known that these fall into two main classes. Grammarians give them different labels, but defining and commenting are the most convenient and descriptive. If you say "The man who was here this morning told me that", the relative clause is a defining one; it completes the subject the man, which conveys no clear meaning without it. But if you say: "Jones, who was here this morning, told me that", the relative clause is commenting; the subject Jones is already complete and the relative clause merely adds a bit of information about him which may or may not be important but is not essential to the definition of the subject. Two commas should always be used with a commenting clause, and no comma with a defining one. This is not an arbitrary rule; it is a utilitarian one. If you do not observe it, you may fail to make your meaning clear or even say something quite different from what you intend. For instance:

"A particular need is provision for young women, who owing to war conditions have been deprived of normal opportunities of learning homecraft..."

Here the comma announces that the relative clause is "commenting"; it is added by way of explanation why young women in general had this need after the war. Without the comma the relative clause would be read as a "defining" one, limiting the need for this provision to those particular young women who had in fact been deprived of those opportunities. Conversely:

"Any expenditure incurred on major awards to students, who are not recognised for assistance from the Ministry, will rank for grant..."

Here the comma is wrong. The relative clause must be "defining". The commas suggest that it is "commenting" and imply that no students are recognised for assistance.

Some of the misuses of the comma that I have quoted are probably to be attributed to typists, though they cannot all be, as several are from printed documents. But the responsibility in so important a matter must rest with the author of the document. Typists are well grounded in the rudiments of punctuation, but they cannot be expected to know all its niceties. If you dictate, you must not leave your typist to put in the stops, as though it were a thing that it is her business to understand, but too trifling for you to be bothered with. To do that is to show yourself sadly ignorant of the importance of punctuation. Around a comma in the Prayer Book now rages the argument whether the decision in Baxter v. Baxter is or is not consistent with the views of the Church about the causes for which matrimony was ordained. Sir Roger Casement might have escaped hanging but for a comma in a statute of Edward III.

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