Does it matter where a comma goes?

Driving to an event on Tuesday, listening to Radio 4 news, I became aware that kids’ author Philip Pullman had created a bit of a stir about commas. Apparently, he has called for a boycott of the UK’s new 50p piece, because he thinks it should have another comma.

An hour later at the event, I introduced myself and gave a short explanation of tone of voice.

“I’m nervous about showing you my slides now,” half joked the next person to present. Then as he stood up, he added: “Sorry, I just did them in a hurry, so they’re probably full of mistakes.”

And there’s the thing. People think that if language or “English” is your thing, then you’re going to get all teachery on them. That you’ll judge their writing and make them feel small. Which makes me feel sad.

I strongly believe that the way each person expresses themselves is valuable. Of course, we can all learn ways to make our writing hit home even harder. But that shouldn’t mean conforming to one way of expressing yourself. It certainly shouldn’t mean being made to feel less valuable – or that you’re somehow less good – because you don’t have strident or approved views about the way to use your own words.

And it doesn’t help when high profile people get snarky about commas.

So here’s what I think about commas – and the advice I give to Wordtree clients:

It doesn’t matter. If you want to put commas after “and” in a sentence, then do it. If you don’t, then don’t. Simples.

I think of commas like breathing spaces. If you pause for a little breath when you’re saying something out loud, then you can use a comma to show this little pause.

What is grammar anyway?

Grammar is a much misunderstood thing. Fundamentally, it’s the word given to describe how our brains order words and phrases to give them meaning and make them make sense.

But brains are incredibly adaptable. So the way different people make sense with their words changes over time – and can be subtly or markedly different, depending on the communities and cultures we’re a part of.

Which means no-one – I mean NO-ONE – has dibs on what is “grammatically correct”. Because the simple fact is, if something makes sense, then it’s correct.

What people often mean when they use a phrase like “grammatically correct” is, “conventionally correct” – or in other words, that a particular use of word order, word choice or punctuation is what a particular group has become used to and prefers.

This idea of “grammatically correct” then becomes more of a sociological concept. “Correct” means conforming to the norms of dominant societal groups. And at the end of the day, this means that getting bossy about “correct” use of language and punctuation really amounts to trying to put people in their place.

It’s not nice. It makes some people afraid to express themselves – and in doing so, it squishes people’s own wonderful voices. How depressing.

So when you’re writing, here’s my advice: Read what you’ve written out loud to yourself. Does it make sense? Yes? Then you’re good to go.

And if anyone ever takes you to task over the way you’ve used punctuation, here’s another tip: Smile nicely, flick them a V-sign in your head and say: “No, I’m good, thanks.”

If you ever want to talk grammar or language, you know where we are.