The importance of commas
Here’s a random one for you, but hey – I’m a grammar geek and it’s what makes me good at my job, so I found this interesting and felt the need to share this little anecdote.
It’s Tuesday evening 11 weeks into the coronavirus crisis, and I’m in the middle of editing a research proposal about the impact of COVID-19 on tourism in Spain. But this isn’t about that…
Nope. My partner walks over and asks if I want to help him get a trophy in his PS4 game (oh, the evening lockdown fun of a furloughed, shielding 40-something Yorkshireman). I look at him and say “Erm… OK…” (a little confused, since I am TERRIBLE at video games).
It transpires that he needs to collect 17 children’s drawings from the walls of some spooky former psychiatric hospital (of course!) and needs me to read the directions aloud so that he can find them all in the allotted time.
I break off from my work and begin. I soon realise that the author of these directions does not understand (or care) how commas work. They know they exist; there are commas aplenty, but not a single one in the right place. Never has their purpose been clearer to me! It is not easy to read out directions when you are being told to pause in all the wrong places. Particularly when you’re up against the clock!
Top tip for those questionable clauses
I get that commas can be quite the discussion point among academics, linguists, journalists, indeed anyone who writes for a living. And I’m not even talking about the hotly debated *whispers* Oxford variety. I’m not claiming I get it right 100% of the time and I’m also aware that—like many features of language—a client may ask me to follow a style guide that dictates I use them more or less often than naturally do in my own writing.
Yes, comma usage can vary sometimes. I would argue, however, that it must never cause confusion or hamper your reader’s understanding. Perhaps a fool-proof test, if in doubt, could be to read your text out loud to yourself (or, better still, to someone else). Pause wherever those commas appear, and make sure you actually make sense! I often do this when I’m editing academic texts with long, complicated sentences. It works wonders!
Make your words a joy to read
Tonight’s surprise task proved the importance of a well-placed comma, believe me. We managed to get those 17 drawings in the game, but it took a lot more concentration on my part than I would have liked. It sort of defeated the object of creating a site to help gamers earn those trophies!
Please don’t make your reader work too hard. If they’re on your website, they’ll just click away. If they’re reading your blog, they may lose interest way before they reach your sign-up form. If they’re reading your funding application or research proposal, their attention may start to wander and cause them to miss your strongest argument.
Use my language geekiness to your advantage
My partner just piped up that he probably wouldn’t have struggled as much with the weird commas, because he’s not a “language person” but is familiar with the game setting and reads similar instructions very frequently. He’s got a point, and there’s a whole other blog post in there somewhere.
But my point still stands: I notice this stuff so that your audience won’t. I edit content for my clients so that their product, service or project shines through above all else, effortlessly and with impact.