To Comma or not to Comma?

by Steve Laube

I came across this entry in the Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation (although based on British English usage it is still a great book). Read the story below and then answer the questions in the comment section.

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically aded a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant?

What other ambiguities with commas have you seen or written with your own hand?

Why should it matter? It is just punctuation.

Is punctuation important in book contracts?

7 Responses to To Comma or not to Comma?

  1. Ane Mulligan July 16, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    I believe in good grammar (dialogue can be the exception due to the character), but I once had an editor tell me to write the best story I could and leave the commas to them. I use commas in fiction more for pacing than perfect punctuation, while trying to stay as correct as possible. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? LOL

  2. Jeanne July 16, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    Oh, Steve, you’re making me analyze on a Monday morning! I’ll probably miss aspects of what you’re sharing here. :) I’m going to take a stab at this and say Graham Greene was excluding other biographers from quoting his copyright material. I am just guessing, of course, so feel free to correct me.

    Yes, I believe punctuation is very important in writing in general, and in contracts and other agreements in particular. An added or missing comma can change what is being stated in major ways.

    Now, I think I’ll go have another cup of coffee and mull over Graham Greene and his commas.

  3. Diana Harkness July 16, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    Commas are very important. As an attorney, I know that they can obfuscate or clarify. In contracts they are exceedingly important; in pleadings, less so, because the court generally allows changes to pleadings to clarify or correct errors. Creative writing is a beast of a different color. My tendency is to use too many commas, and then over-correct (perhaps?) using too few. Although his statement is ambiguous, I believe that rather than excluding everyone else from quoting unpublished material–no one can be excluded from using published material–Graham Greene was probably excluding any other biographer from quoting his unpublished words. But, under US law (I don’t know British law) an ambiguous contract is construed against the interest of the person who created the ambiguity. That construction could nullify the paragraph. The moral is: beware of where you place your commas!

  4. tcavey July 16, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    Hmmm…I can see this being a lawyers nightmare or dream come true.

  5. Jennifer Dyer July 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    The comma is one of the reasons I am not a copy editor. It’s a necessary little guy, though.

  6. Peter DeHaan July 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    I was taught to insert a comma every time I would pause when reading the text. I learned that lesson well and now spend time removing extra ones when I proofread my work. But I must get carried away sometimes, for my copy editor puts some of them back.

    I guess I am comma conflicted.

  7. Kara I July 17, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    Punctuation is definitely one of my weaknesses, the comma and I have a love hate relationship but the semi-colon? That little guy is my nemesis! In part because I’m pretty sure that Americans and New Zealanders use the little sucker differently (ie in NZ we pretty much don’t!)

    Steve – I have a question for you. If you received a proposal and the story/writing hooked you, but the writer clearly wasn’t a grammar/punctuation genius, would that be a significant obstacle for you in wanting to work with them?

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