December 2012 Archives

Good English: Commas at Christmas

It should come as no surprise that punctuation is used differently in different languages. German, for example, has strict rules governing the use of commas. English also has rules for commas but arguably these can be interpreted with a degree of flexibility.

There are some schools of grammatical thought that scoff at the idea of a comma before "and" in a list of items. For example, is it correct to write "I bought apples, oranges, bananas and plums" or "I bought apples, oranges, bananas, and plums"?

I would favour the first version unless there were a good reason for adding the comma in the second version. One such good reason can be illustrated by the following seasonal sentence:

"So they [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger." Luke 2:16

If there were no comma between 'Joseph' and 'and' the sentence could read as if all three members of the Holy Family were lying in the manger. In this list, a comma clarifies the situation and helps the reader/listener understand more accurately.

If you attend a carol service this weekend, or watch or listen to one on the television or radio, listen carefully to see if the reader makes a little pause at the right point when reading this passage. 

Another traditional reading is from Isaiah. chapter 9 starting from verse 6. "For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end." [New International Version].

Many readers of this passage fall into the temptation of putting a comma (or breath) in between 'wonderful' and 'counsellor'. It is possible that 'wonderful' is acting as a noun and not an adjective but I suspect it was meant to be the latter. (If 'wonderful' is a noun, then arguably one should also treat 'mighty' and 'everlasting' as nouns as well and the reader should read the passage to reflect this). I suspect that many people have been influenced by Handel's Messiah where there is a rest for the singers between 'wonderful' and 'counsellor'. Handel (or Händel as he should be... but the British deprived him of his Umlaut) was one of the best musicians of his day but he was not known for his mastery of the English language and so there are several places in Messiah where emphases come in awkward places.

Like all punctuation, which is relatively modern, (the original Biblical texts did not use it), the function of a comma is to aid communication and understanding. Used incorrectly they can impede the sense of a phrase.