Comma or no comma?

You’ve probably figured out that I find Microsoft Word’s grammar checker rather too simplistic, but sometimes it throws up an issue which is subtle and interesting. A sentence was equivalent to:

After the first hearing the plaintiff wrote to me, because I had raised a concern that he had not mentioned physical violence in his written claim, and submitted that he had never been physically harmed by the defendant.

The grammar checker suggested removing the second comma. But that would change the meaning of the sentence. As it stands, the person who submitted was the plaintiff, because everything between the commas can be omitted:

The plaintiff wrote to me and submitted that he had never been physically harmed by the defendant.

Removing the comma means that the person who submitted was the legal officer:

The plaintiff wrote to me. Why? Because I had raised a concern [about one thing] and submitted [another thing].

At least that’s my reading on it, on the basis that plaintiffs, in general, submit. Legal officers, on the other hand, among other things, find:

I had raised a concern [about one thing] and found [another thing].

If the relevant verb was suggested, then the sentence could go either way; plaintiffs and legal officers can equally suggest.

This might all have been avoided by adding ‘to me’ (viz, the plaintiff submitted to ‘me’) or ‘to him’ (viz, ‘I’ submitted to the plaintiff). I didn’t have to decide, because my editing tasks don’t include inserting or removing commas. 

Added later: the more I thought about it, the more submitted seemed a strange choice either way. Legal officers don’t have to submit anything to a plaintiff, and a plaintiff will usually submit something supporting their case. Here, the plaintiff’s case was actually weakened by conceding that he had never been physically harmed.



Yesterday our editor suddenly exclaimed “Doesn’t anyone know how to use a semicolon?” (with regard to an article he was editing). Very soon after, he added “Or a colon?”.

I said “You’re obviously suffering from colonic irritation”.

Effective English

… more important than so-called good English [is] effective English. English that clearly, strongly and unambiguously ‐ unless you’ve a penchant for ambiguity – conveys from writers’ brains through their typing fingers and onward to the imaginations of their readers what it is that writers are attempting to communicate.

Benjamin Dreyer is “is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House”. He has just released a book called Dreyer’s English AN UTTERLY CORRECT GUIDE TO CLARITY AND STYLE, which I am neither endorsing nor not endorsing. I am less likely to buy it after finding myself described as a “godless savage”, and Dreyer obviously didn’t proofread that job title himself. And I would question three things about style in the quotation itself. But I fully endorse effective English.

Today on the Sydney Morning Herald website is this article, from which the quotation comes.

(Checks post very carefully in case there’s any mistakes: Muphry’s Law.)

as free as a bag

A sign at a supermarket says Single-use plastic bag free from [date]. I know what they mean — [Single-use plastic bag]-free — but it’s awkward. When the unwanted item is one word, it’s easy to write, say gluten-free (uncountable) or car-free (uncountable note that this is ‘free of cars’, not ‘free of car’), but when it is a multi-word phrase, itself with a hyphen, we can’t write Single-use-plastic-bag-free. The best I can suggest is to rephrase the whole thing as No single-use plastic bags from [date].

At least they didn’t write Single-use plastic bags free from [date]. Single-use plastic bags have always been free, which is part of the whole problem.

(Note that there’s “free as in speech” free software, which is “distributed under terms that allow users to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, change, and distribute it and any adapted versions” and “free as in beer” freeware, which “may be used without payment, but is most often proprietary software and usually modification, re-distribution or reverse-engineering without the author’s permission is prohibited”: see here. I have no idea what “free as in gluten” software might be.)

Princess Highway

When we were young, my family lived in a town on the Princess Highway in eastern Victoria. Oops – the Princes Highway, as our parents and teachers had to remind us several times before we got it right. A possessive apostrophe would help, and would also make it clear whether it’s one prince or more princes. I don’t think anyone bothers to ask who the prince or princes were. I had to look it up: it was the Prince of Wales who later became King Edward VIII, then the Duke of Windsor (and who didn’t even travel on it!).

I guess that it was originally labelled the Prince’s Highway, but the apostrophe had been dropped by the time of my childhood. If the apostrophe had been retained, there would be a different problem: road signs do not include the, so they would read Prince’s Highway, possibly giving the impression that it was named after Prince Rogers Nelson (which would make just about as much sense).

I searched online for Princess Highway, and I’m surprised that almost no-one spells it like that. There is a clothing label with that name, and a few questions on travel forums.

(The reason I mention this is that my wife and I spent two days on the south coast of New South Wales, travelling on parts of the Princes Highway (it spans New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.))

Commas save lives!

Circulating around the internet in various forms is a short text, often in poster form, to the effect: “‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ Commas save lives.”

I’m not convinced that commas save lives or, if they do, that this pair of sentences is a very good example of it. Firstly, I doubt that anyone in the history of the world has ever written either of those two sentences in earnest. Regarding the first sentence, if you were seriously considering eating Grandma, you wouldn’t want to leave written evidence of it; regarding the second, you would just say it, rather than spending the extra time writing it, unless, perhaps, Grandma was deaf, in which case miming would still be quicker than writing. Secondly, I doubt that anyone in the history of the world has ever said the first sentence in earnest. If you were seriously considering eating Grandma, you would probably raise the suggestion in a far more roundabout way. Thirdly, no-one would say the first sentence in exactly the same context as the second: the second sentence is directed to Grandma; the first is directed to anyone else (probably not in Grandma’s presence, but possibly with her there, especially if she if deaf). Fourthly, the grammatical structure and/or meaning of a spoken sentence are indicated (and can be changed) by intonation and timing. ‘Let’s eat / || Grandma’ (that is, upward intonation, slight pause) is unambiguous when spoken.

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