AMONG the many recurring nightmares from which I suffer there is one that is more terrifying than the rest.
Usually, it concerns a sentence which, when I pressed "send", seemed perfect. In the dead of night, however, come intimations of doubt. Now, that sentence is fraught with errors factual and grammatical. Moreover, it contains unnecessary words, tautologies and infinitives that have been split more spectacularly than any atom. But, like a letter pushed into a pillar box, there is no way of retrieving it. It has been despatched and will soon return to haunt me, probably in the form of a reader's email demanding my decapitation.
Everyone in this inky business has similar tales to spill. Words are our currency and we are expected to use them correctly and in the right order. That's easier said than done. Sometimes thoughts tumble out of my head like lumber from a cupboard and appear on the screen like pieces of a jigsaw waiting to be assembled. All is chaos where there ought to be order; all is confusion where there ought to be clarity. At least that's how it appears to me.
You will appreciate, therefore, the alarm with which I read of the impending demise of the comma. This was pronounced by an American scholar, John McWhorter, who says that internet users and some authors deploy commas so idiosyncratically that their removal would have minimal effect. "You could take them out of a great deal of modern American texts," says Mr McWhorter, "and you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all."
In response, I thought of sweeping this column free of commas, but that immediately induced a panic attack. I could no more eschew commas than I could eschew "eschew", a word I know from experience gives some readers the heebie-jeebies.
I sprinkle them on sentences like gold dust, one here, another there, to vary pace, separate adjectives, indicate parenthetical ideas, and before conjunctions. Tadpole-shaped and sized, the comma is often overlooked, as are so many good things in life. This is regrettable for a well-placed comma can transform a sentence as a vase of daffodils can a room. Similarly, a misplaced comma, as Lynne Truss demonstrated in her bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, can cause havoc.
As I wrote that last sentence I pondered. Should I have used commas to bracket Ms Truss's title? Perhaps not. On this, however, the experts are at odds. Some say they must be inserted while others insist that the loss of the commas would not materially affect meaning. I am comforted by the advice given by Sir Ernest Gowers who said: "The use of commas cannot be learned by rules." Such wisdom is much appreciated. In particular, I liked what Sir Ernest had to say about use of commas to encase adverbs, which was basically do as you please.
Implicit in this is the notion that the way we use punctuation marks is a reflection of character and background. I would not be surprised, for example, to learn that Presbyterians are, relatively speaking, profligate in their expenditure of commas, demonstrating, as they do, an uptight attitude to life, while Catholics on the other hand allow their sentences to run on and on unhindered by squiggles.
The fact is … But, there again, one stumbles into another minefield. As EB White, co-author of The Elements of Style, the indispensable primer on which generations of American children were grammatically nurtured, says, to start a sentence thus is bad. If you have a fact to hand, simply state it. "Do not give it advanced billing." He is, of course, right. Increasingly, however, my gut instinct is to dispense with commas wherever possible. Their day, I'm beginning to think, may indeed be coming to an end. For there is fashion in grammar as is there is in clothes. The comma was first seen in Britain in the 16th century but not everyone was enamoured of it.
In the 18th century, Jane Austen - for example - preferred the dash. Henry James, meanwhile, used commas at, every, opportunity, which made for a very jerky read. He was also a heavy user of semi-colons; but that's another story.