Much Ado about Commas


About one third of the faculty of the Department of Geography has had a “British” education, as opposed to an “American” education. George Bernard Shaw once quipped that Britain and America are “two countries separated by a common language,” and we all know about pronunciation differences, as in “you say tomahto, I say tomayto.” However, the issue of punctuation is even more contentious, and British English vs. American English comma usage is a case in point (no pun intended).

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference by British author Lynne Truss highlights the problem. The title of her book refers to a joke in which a panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to shoot the other customers. “Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Get it? Well, as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, “Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.” In other words, punctuation matters. In the panda joke case, the manual’s punctuation (using one comma) implies that “[a panda] eats, [a panda] shoots, and [a panda] leaves,” as opposed to the more mundane but plausible observation that a panda “eats shoots and leaves” (no commas). Either way, “eats, shoots and leaves” (with one comma) makes “sense” in British English, but it isn’t grammatical in American English. Read on.

Anyone who has tried to get a paper published has run up against the “styles” demanded by various publishers. In the case of comma usage, the most common problem is where to put commas in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, such as “red white and blue.” American English would render this as “red, white, and blue” (two commas), while British English would opt for “red, white and blue” (one comma). No big deal, unless dropping the “serial comma” (also known as the “Oxford comma”) before the conjunction leads to ambiguity. Wikipedia.org cites the example of a book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” As Wikipedia points out, “There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as in apposition to my parents, leading the reader to believe that the writer refers to Ayn Rand and God as his or her parents. A comma before and removes the ambiguity.”

According to the American Bible of composition, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (Second Edition, New York : Macmillan, 1972), “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus, write: Red, white, and blue [or] Gold, silver, or copper [or] He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.Of course, there are exceptions in American English usage (aren’t there always?)—the American Associated Press Stylebook drops the serial/Oxford comma, presumably because journalists need to economize on typographic space.

There’s an apocryphal story about a teacher asking his class to punctuate the phrase, “A woman without her man is nothing.” Supposedly, all the men in the class punctuated it as “A woman, without her man, is nothing,” while all the women punctuated it as “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” Commas do matter! However, as Lynn Truss points out, “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Wittgenstein had a good point about grammar dictating the harmony between thought and reality, but it’s not worth fighting over. Trust Mark Twain to put the issue in perspective: “Ignorant people think it is the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it is the sickening grammar that they use” (A Tramp Abroad, 1880). For more, see and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma.

Article by Bill Norrington

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