Thursday, 24 November 2011

Twenty nails on each hand …

Lynne Truss includes this little rhyme in Eats, Shoots and Leaves as a humorous illustration of the confusion that can be caused where there is no proper punctuation:

Every lady in this land
Hath twenty nails on each hand
Five and twenty on hands and feet
And this is true, without deceit.

A colon here, a comma there, and the text makes a true statement; leave it unpunctuated, and you have … well … a puzzle, and then a little bit of fun unravelling it.

There are instances where the presence or absence of a particular punctuation mark, or the use of one punctuation mark instead of another, may be a matter of mere difference in taste or style and makes no difference to meaning. In terms of meaning it's neither here nor there, for example, whether someone writes:

(1) The new secretary-general of the UN is a seasoned diplomat. He has long experience in foreign affairs and has recently headed a peace talks team to North Korea.
(2) The new secretary-general of the UN is a seasoned diplomat: he has long experience in foreign affairs, and has recently headed a peace talks team to North Korea.

The colon after diplomat in (2) tells us that the writer intends us to understand the next bit of information as an extension or explanation of the immediately preceding statement, while in (1) the full stop indicates a less strong link between the two statements. In terms of meaning, however, there is no material difference. Similarly, the inclusion of a comma after foreign affairs in (2) indicates merely that the writer evidently thought it might be a good idea to give the reader a short breather at that point, and nothing substantive is lost or gained by omitting it, as in (1).

But is a comma before and permissible? Yes, it is – and not only permissible, but sometimes essential. In some lists of three or more items a comma (in such instances called a “serial comma” by some) has to be inserted in order to avoid ambiguity and hence possible misunderstanding, even if the writer concerned may think that his or her message is clear without it. Someone has written, “As writers we are usually poor judges of our own writing and may be ill suited to judge its clarity, so play it safe and use the serial comma every time.”

Next week we'll have a closer look at the serial comma.   –ws–

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