Friday, May 20, 2011

The riot police of punctuation

If I’m working at normal pace, i.e. not in a hurry but still keeping an eye on the deadline, I will usually lose 10-15% of the words in any piece I edit. If I have the time, and if I seriously care that the product should be the very best it can be, then I can cut it by 30% or more without losing any of the content.

In the phrase “I have cut your article by 30%”, the word “cut” can usually be replaced by the word “improved”. It means the same thing.

Sometimes, however, there is a better measure of improvement. Count the commas. Reduce the commas and you improve the piece.
Get back in line or we send in the hyphens

Commas are the policemen of written language. In an ideal world, a small number of Dixons of Dock Green gently keep order, their presence barely noticed amidst the throng of words cheerfully going about their business. When words start misbehaving, order breaks down and the comma riot-police go in. A form of order is restored, but words and phrases are left bruised and dazed, often limping in the wrong direction while others shuffle along in passive resentment or grudging co-operation.

Here’s a simple example:
Halapic didn’t even acknowledge its source, although since the headlines and sub-heads are the same as The Guardian’s, we can be pretty sure where the copy came from.
(This example actually comes from a draft of an earlier post on this blog. We are all guilty. Some pedants will point out that there should have been another comma after ‘although’)
This sort of idiocy is hard-wired to us in school, when we absorb the idea that written English should be formal and that putting phrases in an unnatural order somehow provides that gravitas. The above sentence is a lot clearer if written thus:
Halapic didn't even acknowledge its source, although we can be pretty sure where the copy came from since the headlines and sub-heads are the same as The Guardian’s.
How many words have we saved? Not one. All we have cut is a single comma, and yet the sentence is so much easier to read as a result.

This sort of unnatural construction has its roots in a lack of confidence. The writer wants to make sure he has covered all his bases before he takes the terrifying step of actually making his point. The only justification for it is when the final clause – or even the final word – is a sort of punchline, as in Douglas Adams’ “they hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don’t”. Stick to the natural order unless you have a very good reason not to.

Moral: Put your phrases back in the right order and you’ll find yourself with a troop of redundant commas that can be redeployed to fight real grammar crime elsewhere


  1. Sorry, I gotta call you out on your irritating androcentrism in sentences such as this:

    "The writer wants to make sure he has covered all his bases before he takes the terrifying step of actually making his point."

    Other than that, great!

  2. This is one of those lessons that is irritatingly hard for me. Comma splicing is at best my fatal flaw. I've been working on improving it, but sometimes I revert back to my old ways. One of my beta readers has called me out on it a few times, telling me that even if all I did was rearrange the words in some sentences the book would improve by leaps and bounds. I guess there's naught to do but put my nose back to the grindstone, eh?

  3. Sometimes, Will, it's best to write as fast as you can in order to keep the flow of your thoughts. You can worry about fine-tuning later.

    I chose an example from my own writing to show that everybody needs an editor, which is why I never make the mistake of thinking I'm a better writer than those whose work I edit or even criticise. To use a well-worn phrase, editors stand on the shoulders of giants, but only to make those giants taller.