10 reasons why the death of the comma is a disaster

SO A READER named Melissa writes to say her friend was at a talk about global resources and someone put up a Powerpoint slide which said:

“The average North American consumes more than 400 Africans.”

She asked: “Is it a badly written sentence or cannibalism?”

I hope it’s the first, Melissa – but honestly, these days who knows?

***

Modern writing confuses me. A while ago, I was given an unpublished manuscript which began:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Mahatma Gandhi and Lady Gaga”.

Surely, that can’t be right?

***

A quick call to a university teacher of English led me to a possible answer.

“Punctuation misplacement is leading to comma abandonment,” said the tutor, who did not want her name included on such a controversial subject as grammar.

“Research shows that the majority of text messages senders today USE NO COMMAS AT ALL.”

***

This is bad. Commas count.

Remember that news story in which the presence/ absence of a comma in a legal statute allowed AirAsia to win the right to land in India?

The teacher told me about a parallel case involving the punctuation in a UK legal statute which led to Sir Roger Casement in 1916 going down in history as “the man hanged by a comma”.

***

I started looking out for sentences with missing commas or related construction issues.

Consider this real text message, sent by a young person (who shall be nameless) to his friends:

“Watching a movie in which Joseph Gordon Levitt has copious amounts of gay sex with my parents. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe it.”

Awkward is right! I strongly recommend turning off your mind’s eye before contemplating that message.

***

The same might be said for the next example.

A colleague showed me a Sky News screenshot from December 10, 2013:

“Top Stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set”.

In this case, the missing comma made a short list of boring news stories into a pair of items, the second of which was on the surprising side, to say the least.

***

Comma abandonment is spreading to the printed media as well.

In one of the celebrity gossip magazines, a caption about the actors Josh Hutcherson and Heath Ledger said:

“Hutcherson has a new house as well as a new nose which used to be owned by Ledger.”

You can immediately see what is wrong with that sentence. Yep, Michael Jackson is missing.

***

A reader tells me of a store where bosses decided they would offer no public toilet facilities except for emergency use by needy people, such as youngsters and the elderly.

The sign they put up said:

ATTENTION:

TOILET ONLY FOR

ELDERLY

DISABLED

PREGNANT

CHILDREN

Technically speaking, no one in the world qualifies to use that toilet.

***

In my neighbourhood, a shop called Hang Ten (a surfing term which means hanging on by your toes) gave birth to a new branch for children, which they called Hang Ten Kids. Not nice.

***

It’s all rather depressing. According to the Internet, the cover headline on an issue of Tails, the pet magazine, once said:

“Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog”.

Sounds doubtful to me -- surely no one who works in publishing could make such an obvious missed punctuation error?

Or maybe cannibalism IS back in style?

Honestly, these days who knows?