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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Nuts and Bolts: commas.

You don't often get a really beautiful picture in an article on punctuation, but here's one:

Do you see the light-coloured comma on the comma's wing? The comma is a common European butterfly and I'm lucky enough to see them in my garden quite often in the summer.
Many many commenters have written about the importance of commas, so I won't go into all that here. The fact that something vaguely connected has been around since the 3rd century BC speaks for itself.
The first punctuation mark to be called a comma was dreamed up by Aristophanes of Byzantium, who needed a way to tell people how much breath they were going to need when reading the next bit of text on the page. To do this he bunged in a dot before the chunk of text in question. You could tell how much breath you needed by whether it was at the bottom, middle or top of the line. A short chunk of text was shown by a dot in the middle (hmm...well, I suppose it must have made sense to Aristophanes at the time) and this short bit of text was called, yes, a comma (the dot was called a media distinctio, though people later started applying the snappier name comma to the dot itself, no doubt infuriating pedants everywhere).
The comma used today started off as a diagonal slash, used from the 1200s to the 1600s to show when to pause.

To sum up...

...oh, all right. I can't resist. Commas can be vital, as in the notice on this public convenience:

Ah well, never mind. That notice must have given a lot of people a lot of fun, mustn't it?
Thing To Use Today Unless It's A Lot More Fun Not To: comma. This word is Greek and means something cut off, or a short clause.


  1. It's real silly, but I have found myself holding my breath when reading a long basically comma-less piece of writing. For some crazy reason, I race to the end of the comma-less sentence before taking a breath, thus losing track of what was actually being said.

    Then I get annoyed when there's a comma, here, there, and everywhere, as I find I slow down in reading!
    Poor maligned comma! It takes a lot of abuse!

    1. And causes a lot of abuse, too. There's the Oxford comma, for a start, and then the fact that the rules for commas in the USA are quite different from those in the UK.
      Anyone who feels complete secure about commas must be...well, illiterate, probably!

    2. I sure don't feel secure about them - so I'm literate? :)
      My general rule of thumb is if I pause when reading back something I've written, pop a comma in!
      I figure it has to be right somewhere!

    3. How simple and sane a system. And it's even historically justified.

      But now what will the bitter old grammarians do, eh?