Cormorant Comma Rant

Here’s a fine example of why the common-or-garden comma (not just the Oxford variety) should be embraced with open arms. While reading a review by Michael Billington of a play called Madagascar in yesterday’s Guardian, I stumbled (literally) upon this sentence:

"Lillian, speaking five years ago, is a super-civilised American dwelling on her son's defection, possibly to Madagascar."

How, I asked myself, could Lillian be a house? Was it metaphor? Symbolism? Theatre of the absurd? No, it was none of those. It was, of course, the absence of a comma that lay behind my initial confusion. Now, I’m sure there are plenty who would read that sentence for the first time without any misunderstanding or puzzled double-take. But I’m also confident that there are many who, like me, had to reread the line before understanding its intent.

In Mr. Billington’s case, I’m sure this omission was more of an oversight that a conscious decision. But it does highlight what I see as a world that increasingly finds the use of proper punctuation to be an option and not an obligation. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not tripped up while reading an article, often in some of the most vaunted and respected publications, where lack of punctuation has punctured the flow of the piece. This has increased alarmingly as the use of email and “quick” writing has rapidly become the norm, and is especially prevalent in the news media, where the 24/7 news cycle has pushed expediency at the expense of accuracy. But I also think that a lot of it is simply laziness, where too many people just aren’t willing to make the little extra effort that’s required. Unfortunately, the more people there are that adopt this laissez-faire attitude, the more acceptable it becomes, until eventually it’s no longer perceived as poor grammar, but rather a more modern approach to writing.

Yes, language is something that continually evolves over time – this is a given. At the same time, there are certain fundamentals of language that have to be respected, lest we devolve into a world of BlackBerry-speak and shapeless rambling.

I am not a grammarian. My grammar is not perfect (I’m quite sure this blog is riddled with imperfections and mistakes). But punctuation is a valuable toolbox that allows the writer to structure sentences so that his or her literary intentions are clearly set out, while affording the reader a smoother and more immediately coherent reading experience.

And finally…this rant went on far longer than I intended. I shall stop now.


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