12. DIVIDE AND RULE(S) – THE BREXIT PUNCTUATION DILEMMA
A recent article in The Guardian underlines, perhaps inadvertently, the divisions that Brexit has generated and will probably continue to generate - and this time in respect of grammar. Punctuation, to be precise. Or should that be: Punctuation to be precise. Warring factions at the ready!
The 'Brexit' 50p coin is at the centre of this bit of controversy. It's whether to incorporate a comma before the final 'and'. The Oxford, or serial, comma as it is known has its champions and its critics. The Guardian style guide, generally the leading rulebook for us at CPLS, recommends that straightforward lists do not need an Oxford comma, unless it helps the reader or is essential. "Compare: 'I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling' with 'I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling'." The latter has fascinating implications!
The Associated Press is cautious about coming
down on one or other side of the debate. "If omitting a comma could lead to
confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma. But if a comma doesn't help
make clear what is being said, don't use it. 'The flag is red, white and blue'
is clear. However, use a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series if
an integral element of the series requires a conjunction. For example: I had
orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast."
The hilarity of punctuation
Essentially, the comma is used to break up two clauses where a pause is needed in a sentence. Sometimes the pause is because a new idea or different topic is being introduced, or sometimes it separates items in a list. What commas certainly do, whether by their presence or their absence, is to powerfully change the meaning of a sentence. So the accidental omission or inclusion of commas in the wrong place can lead to some hilarious grammar mistakes, as in "Most of the time, travellers worry about their luggage" versus "Most of the time travellers worry about their luggage". So time travellers are also concerned about losing their luggage while crossing the boundaries of the time and space continuum! Or "We're going to learn to cut and paste kids!" versus "We're going to learn to cut and paste, kids!" Commas certainly do make a difference. And may even save lives! "Let's eat, grandpa" versus "Let's eat grandpa".
comma, Oxford or not, won't be able to save the divisiveness caused by all
things Brexit. The tail of this wonderful little punctuation mark will continue
to waggle long after Brexit has faded into obscurity. After all, it's always
been a bit of a divider in more ways than one. And in more languages than one.
Abused and misused by professionals and non-professionals alike, the dwindling adherence
to the rules of punctuation - insofar as there can be any common agreement on
these - is likely to disappear over the event horizon of language as rule-agnostic
texting, tweeting and tumbling take over. It can sometimes be an unenviable
task to explain to a client why one has used a comma here and not there,
especially when not even the rule-makers, all with seemingly valid arguments,
can agree. To punctuate or not to punctuate, that is a question. Hopefully,
common sense and clarity will prevail. Which is perhaps more than can be said for Brexit!