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By Cally Guerin

It comes as a great surprise to me that other people don’t always seem to find punctuation as fascinating as I do. In fact, it turns out that the vast majority of my students find it frankly boring and tedious, despite my enthusiastic offers to devote the next two-hour workshop to exploring the wonderful world of commas. I admit that I’m definitely not a serious scholar of punctuation, but I do like talking and thinking about it (and I suspect that some of my colleagues deliberately include punctuation errors in documents simply to give me the pleasure of correcting them!).

The continuing evolution of English means that conventions keep changing. While it’s not useful to be too pedantic about punctuation, there are lots of situations where a misplaced or missing comma can confuse the reader. The critical placement of the comma in the title of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves plays with the image of a panda wielding a shotgun: removing that comma changes ‘shoots’ from a verb to a noun. While not an academic text, this very readable and entertaining exploration of how punctuation works is much more approachable than some other texts on punctuation that I’ve tried to wade through. There’s also a version for children that is fun.

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice I’ve received about punctuation is to read the text aloud and pop in a comma wherever I need to pause for breath. This might work for very simple sentence structures, but is really not useful for doctoral writing, where noun phrases are often very long. By the time the subject has been announced (the ‘thing’ the sentence is about), I often feel that I need to take a breath and gather my composure before continuing. An example of a long noun phrase would be ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma…’

By contrast, one of the most useful rules about commas that I’ve been lucky enough to learn early is that a subject must never be separated from its verb by a comma. In the above example, we must leap straight to the verb: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma is a source of great consternation to many academic writers’. Sure, I can’t say out loud the whole sentence without taking a breath, but readers will get confused about how the parts fit together if I slot a comma in before ‘is’.

When sentences get more complex, it’s possible to insert extra information in between two commas: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple, although alarmingly complex, squiggle known as the comma is…’ And don’t forget that those dependent clauses also need a comma when introducing the main part of the sentence: ‘Although they are alarmingly complex, commas can be tamed by even the most timid of writers’.

There are lots of much more erudite scholars than me who can help writers work out the correct punctuation for their sentences (and no doubt some readers of this post will not agree with my own comma choices here!). One book well worth exploring is Punc Rocks (Buxton, Carter & Sturm, 2011). The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University has very straightforward, useful materials available for free. And I really love the pamphlet I found as a first-year PhD student called ‘English Grammar on One Card’ by Vincent F. Hopper – clear, easy, direct.

For doctoral writers, the main focus must always be on ensuring clarity for the reader. While extremely complex sentence structures might look scholarly to some, most readers will be more interested in following the argument than trying to track the subject of a sentence through a dense array of punctuation marks. Directness and simplicity can go a long way in communicating complex ideas.

Now, don’t get me started on which words need to be hyphenated…

References

Buxton, J., Carter, S. & Sturm, S. (2011). Punc Rocks: Foundation Stones for Precise Punctuation, 2nd Edn, Auckland, Pearson Education New Zealand.

Lynn Truss (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, London, Profile Books.

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