Friday, December 5, 2014

Take care with commas

He, the pilot and three others had been belted into their seats when the plane went down but two of the passengers had been gripped with hysteria at the first sign of trouble, leaping up and trying to break into the cockpit in their panic.
Arnaldur Indridason, Operation Napoleon

The use of commas, more so than with other kinds of punctuation, has always been a matter of individual preference. Some writers will use a comma in certain situations, while other writers will leave it out. A case in point is when a sentence lists a series of things. Some writers will write "a lion, a zebra and a gorilla," while others, probably a majority, would write "a lion, a zebra, and a gorilla." Most of the time it matters very little. In the newspaper business we always omitted the comma before the and because it was unnecessary and took up space and, when you are on deadline, time.

The above sentence at the bottom of the first page of Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic thriller Operation Napoleon caught my attention because its missing comma actually makes a big difference.  How many people on the plane were belted into their seats, four or five?  The missing second comma makes it clear there were five people wearing their belts and a total of seven people on the plane when it crashed into a glacier. It also makes it clear the man being referred to as he was not the pilot. Were there a second comma we could not be sure about any of this. Commas, both their presence and their absence, can make a huge difference in the meaning of a sentence,

Later in the same sentence, before the word but, Indridason again omits a comma that other writers might have chosen to stick in. It makes little difference either way, but then why use punctuation that doesn't serve a purpose?

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