To Comma or Not to Comma?

I came across this entry in Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation. (Although based on British English usage, it is still a great book.)

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to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.”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 added 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 to write? Comment below.

Expensive Fruit

There is a true story from the late 1800s where the U.S. tariff law included a comma that did not belong. It ended up costing the government nearly $40 million of lost revenue in today’s money (about $2 million back then). The original law created in 1870 said that “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” could be exempt from tariffs on imports.

In 1872 the law was revised and a comma added between fruit and plants created a series comma (“fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical”). It changed the meaning to make fruit of either kind to be tariff free. Took two years for the error to be corrected.

Oops.

Expensive Cable Costs

In 2006 there was a problem on page 7 of a 14-page agreement between two Canadian companies, Rogers Communications and Aliant Communications. The contract for five years allowed Rogers to string their cables across Aliant’s 91,000 utility poles at a set licensing price per utility pole. One year after the agreement was signed, Aliant canceled the deal and said the price was going up. Why? Because the contract allowed them to cancel before the end of the five-year term. That contract sentence in question reads:

[The agreement] “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

One way to read it: The contract is good for five years from the signing date. And auto-renews for five more years unless terminated with a year’s notice. But cannot be canceled during the first five years.

Another way to read it: The contract can be terminated at any time as long as a one-year notice is provided.

What the ruling by the communications regulator stated: “Based on the rules of punctuation,” the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice,”

The tripling of the license fee cost Rogers an estimated $2 million extra.

Funny Examples

Let’s eat, Grandma.
or
Let’s eat Grandma.

Commas are important people!
or
Commas are important, people!

A woman without her man is nothing.
or
A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Man bacon makes anything good.
or
Man, bacon makes anything good.

How to cook crack and clean a crab.
Step one: use commas.

I like cooking dogs and kids.
or
I like cooking, dogs, and kids.

We may laugh at things like this, but commas matter.

[A much shorter version of this post ran in July 2012.]

23 Responses to To Comma or Not to Comma?

  1. fredsccim@gmail.com June 28, 2021 at 5:32 am #

    Awesome article. I write non-fiction books about eschatology and use an editing program. The biggest problem I have had is with commas. What I do now is not try to punctuate with commas and let the program do its job. Then I decide how I want it to read and I overrule the program. BTW, your font color is horrible; there is no contrast and is, therefore, difficult to read without eye-strain.

    • DAMON J GRAY June 28, 2021 at 5:38 am #

      Steve (or webmaster),

      I believe Fred’s comment is with reference to the font in the comment textfield and reply textfield, rather than the font in the blog posting.

      • Steve Laube June 28, 2021 at 10:19 am #

        Thank you Damon. That may be true. This comment section has always used a lighter gray font inside these comment boxes. Not sure why, but it’s been that way for over a decade.

  2. Bryan Mitchell June 28, 2021 at 6:22 am #

    I believe that Graham Green meant to exclude other biographers. I can’t imagine that he’d deny students the opportunity to quote his works in their own papers.

  3. gramcapo@comcast.net June 28, 2021 at 6:37 am #

    Those examples you noted were so poignant. As I read your first story, I read it to mean that Norman, the biographer was the only one who could use Graham’s work.

  4. Kristen Joy Wilks June 28, 2021 at 6:55 am #

    So great! My husband and I have many discussions about commas within camp communications that I proofread for him. I tend to add lots of commas and he tends to have very few commas. After much negotiation, we end up somewhere in the middle, ha!

  5. Corinne I. June 28, 2021 at 7:00 am #

    I enjoyed the article you wrote above. I further note the word/comma play right in the title of Author Lynne Truss’ book — “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” or “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.” The imagery on the front cover of the book shows a Panda (who either who eats shoots and leaves for food) or a Panda who eats, shoots (a gun), and leaves. So which is it? The question remains.

    Lynne Truss is a crafty author who wrote a national bestseller on the topic of Grammar usage… Wait — what? Stop and hold that thought close to your heart for just a minute.

    Who can do this? Who can write a national best seller about a topic that makes people’s eyes roll to the backs of their heads?

    Any person who could accomplish such a feat is simply worthy of our admiration.

    I urge readers to read Lynne Truss’ book, if you haven’t read it already. It is so enjoyable to read and it is well worth your time.

    The next time you and your co-workers fight about comma placement, pull out this crafty little gem and use it to support your premise. If you show it to your co-workers, they will love you for it, even if they seem to hate constructive comments in any form. Lynne’s work is clever — you can’t help but love her work!

  6. Linda Riggs Mayfield June 28, 2021 at 7:31 am #

    One of the professional hats I wear is substantive editor. All but one client in 10 years has written academic research (theses, dissertations, textbook, newspaper articles) or Christian non-fiction. Except for the two self-published non-fiction books, the clients always have had a required standard for their writing: APA, Turabian/Chicago, or the Australian “Style manual” (MINIMAL capitalization!). The standards are equally prestigious and all widely accepted, but quite different on commas. I enjoyed Truss, but there is no one-size-fits-all rule. When in doubt, I always use the Oxford comma.

    • Steve Laube June 28, 2021 at 10:18 am #

      In the book publishing community, it is the Chicago Manual of Style that takes precedence.

      Some publishers have a “House Style Guide” that is used to supplement CMOS.

      Also there is the venerable Christian Writers Manual of Style (4th Edition) by Robert Hudon. This is very helpful with things specific to the Christian market that CMOS is weak on.

      The last (4th edition) was published in 2016 so may be getting a new edition soon.

      • Carol Ashby June 28, 2021 at 11:15 am #

        Hudon’s book looks potentially useful, and the Look Inside at Amazon is tempting me to buy it. Thanks for mentioning it.

  7. Carol Ashby June 28, 2021 at 7:35 am #

    Off topic, but Andrew is asking for prayers. He’s been running a high fever for 48 hours and is in terrible shape.

  8. Kay DiBianca June 28, 2021 at 7:47 am #

    I think Graham Greene intended that no other biographer would be able to quote from his copyrighted work. Since an author’s work is automatically protected by copyright, I would think the “excluding any other” clause would be unnecessary.

    Greene was probably just being doubly cautious from being misinterpreted that he was giving the “Greene” light to all biographers.

  9. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. June 28, 2021 at 8:10 am #

    I think Graham Greene was excluding other biographers, but there was no thinking ahead here, given the fact that Greene’s biographer could not live forever. Think about it.

    How about the legal case where you have 3 million dollars to split between 3 kids. I leave my money to Child A, Child B, and Child C. Or I leave my money to Child A, Child B and Child C. In the first example, each child gets one million dollars. In the second example, Child A gets 1 1/2 million and children B and C split 1 1/2 million. Food for thought.

    • Steve Laube June 28, 2021 at 10:14 am #

      Sheri,

      Hopefully, your good estate attorney will be specific in the language and not say simply “split between them.” But instead will say, “split equally” or “split 33.333% to each” or something similar.

      I’ve also learned in contracts to be specific with amounts. When you write “ten” you also write (10) as in “ten (10)” so there is no confusion.

  10. Libby TW June 28, 2021 at 11:59 am #

    I believe Greene was limiting the permission to only the one Norman Sherry who is his biographer and excluding anyone else from claiming to be an authorized biographer. Of course anyone can write a biography, but only certain people can claim to be that individual’s authorized biographer. I doubt he could limit anyone from quoting him. Copyright laws allow quoting certain length comments as long as duly notated.

    • Steve Laube June 28, 2021 at 12:04 pm #

      Libby,

      Be careful with that claim about copyright law and quoting. The law is a gray area and each publisher can have different rules.

      One publisher I know makes the author get permission, written permission (and pay licensing fees) for any quotes of more than 25 words.

      I wrote about this at length here:
      https://stevelaube.com/how-much-can-i-quote-from-another-source-without-permission/

      Be VERY careful if you want to avoid potential litigation.

    • LibbyTW June 28, 2021 at 12:17 pm #

      If Greene actually intended to withhold permission for anyone else to ever quote him from his published works, then he’d be opening the door to people plagiarizing his ideas simply by rephrasing them. By quoting him, at least he would get the credit for his original thought.

  11. Donna Wichelman June 28, 2021 at 12:39 pm #

    Steve, thank you for this very poignant article. But here is my question: I downloaded Grammarly to help make finding some of those gross errors when I self-edit my material. However, it seems that the rules have changed. For example, Grammarly takes out the comma between two independent clauses and often before an ing word. I’m not sure what to trust as correct anymore in our contemporary world where commas are concerned. Can you lend some light on the subject?

    Donna

  12. Joy Avery Melville June 28, 2021 at 2:22 pm #

    I read it as ANY OTHER PERSON, regardless of whether or not they are a biographer.

    Loved this list – I had seen the –

    Let’s eat, Grandma.
    or
    Let’s eat Grandma.

    before, and chuckled as much at this reading as when I first saw it.

    Great article.

  13. Dennis L June 28, 2021 at 3:15 pm #

    Absolutely Hilarious! Comma excluded.

  14. isolate buyers June 29, 2021 at 10:36 am #

    I’ve never seen such a lot of disarray, discussion and misguided judgment fixated on one little thing—the comma. Composing guides keep on delivering pages and pages of text zeroed in on how the comma ought to and ought not be utilized.

  15. Tiffany Price July 1, 2021 at 9:13 pm #

    This post is incredibly helpful! As much as we want our words to be impactful, it’s clear that our use of appropriate grammar is just as paramount. I wouldn’t want to lose the impact of my writing by overlooking the need for appropriate punctuation marks. Thanks, Steve!

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