Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England. This week: using commas.
My favourite book, growing up, was the Usborne Guide to English Grammar. All I wanted to do in life was write - creatively, persuasively, technically - I didn’t care which - but I wanted to do it well. I pored over the pages, devouring the rules and the exceptions to the rules. Sometime later, in my twenties, I knew I had met the man of my dreams when I found out his dad worked for a children’s publishers and he could get me a new, updated version for free.
So having married a man because his dad could get me a free book about grammar, it is quite something to have found myself, a couple of weeks ago, googling ‘Oxford Comma’ because of that man-who-shall-not-be-named and his memo to his staff, as I couldn’t remember what one was. To be honest, in this job I can only just about remember what a comma is at all. Luckily the editor of this publication is aware of my problem and chucks ten or so commas in before my articles go out.
I distinctly remember a senior colleague telling me, a trainee, that ‘we don’t use commas because they can lead to ambiguity’. I remember my brain spinning at this remark. Commas don’t lead to ambiguity, I thought, they take away ambiguity! But here I am, writing sentences in wills like “I GIVE free of tax to my Trustees beneficially such of my personal chattels (as defined by section 55 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925) but including cars and accessories used for business purposes not otherwise disposed of by this Will or any Codicil to it as they may within 6 months of my death select and I ASK them (but without imposing any binding obligation) not to exercise this power at all unless wishes of mine as to the disposal of any such chattels come to their attention before or within 6 months after my death (whether the wishes are contained in any memorandum placed with this Will or found among my papers or indicated by words or marks on the chattels themselves or communicated orally or expressed in any other way) and then to exercise it only so as to give effect to those wishes”. A few random words in capital letters but not one comma.
I know it shouldn’t be, but this lack of commas is also present in witness statements, letters, emails etc because it has become such a habit.
It is also not lost on me that I work part time because, at primary school, I believe what goes on at home is as important as what goes on at school. And yet what goes on in this home is bad grammar and long sentences with no breaths.
I therefore propose, for the sake of good grammar and to save anyone getting RSI at the Law Society Gazette, the reintroduction of commas in all legal writing.
To recap - for my own benefit if no one else’s - :
Commas can be used to separate items on a list. They should not be used before ‘and [final item]’ unless it is needed to prevent confusion. This extra comma is called an Oxford Comma, as is a song by Vampire Weekend. For example, ‘I live with my children, a monster, and a devil.’
They can be used before certain conjunctions, to separate independent clauses- eg ‘I really wanted to write this article as a bit of fun, but now I am worried about the comments’.
Bracketing commas are used in pairs, usually, as an interruption. As in the last sentence.
Sometimes commas are used to prevent repetition, such as ‘My older child enjoys hobbies including gymnastics and horseriding; the younger, eating dirt and twerking.’ The words ‘enjoys hobbies including’ did not need to be repeated with the comma in their place.
Those are the main commas. There are a few other uses, like at the end of direct speech, at the end of a salutation in a letter or when a word like ‘however’ or ‘further’ starts, ends or interrupts a sentence.
To end, like all good teachers, with a topical joke: if not using commas was a crime, would it result in long sentences?