SO A READER named Melissa writes to say her friend was at a talk about global resources and someone put up a Powerpoint slide which said:
“The average North American consumes more than 400 Africans.”
She asked: “Is it a badly written sentence or cannibalism?”
I hope it’s the first, Melissa – but honestly, these days who knows?
Modern writing confuses me. A while ago, I was given an unpublished manuscript which began:
“This book is dedicated to my parents, Mahatma Gandhi and Lady Gaga”.
Surely, that can’t be right?
A quick call to a university teacher of English led me to a possible answer.
“Punctuation misplacement is leading to comma abandonment,” said the tutor, who did not want her name included on such a controversial subject as grammar.
“Research shows that the majority of text messages senders today USE NO COMMAS AT ALL.”
This is bad. Commas count.
Remember that news story in which the presence/ absence of a comma in a legal statute allowed AirAsia to win the right to land in India?
The teacher told me about a parallel case involving the punctuation in a UK legal statute which led to Sir Roger Casement in 1916 going down in history as “the man hanged by a comma”.
I started looking out for sentences with missing commas or related construction issues.
Consider this real text message, sent by a young person (who shall be nameless) to his friends:
“Watching a movie in which Joseph Gordon Levitt has copious amounts of gay sex with my parents. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe it.”
Awkward is right! I strongly recommend turning off your mind’s eye before contemplating that message.
The same might be said for the next example.
A colleague showed me a Sky News screenshot from December 10, 2013:
“Top Stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set”.
In this case, the missing comma made a short list of boring news stories into a pair of items, the second of which was on the surprising side, to say the least.
Comma abandonment is spreading to the printed media as well.
In one of the celebrity gossip magazines, a caption about the actors Josh Hutcherson and Heath Ledger said:
“Hutcherson has a new house as well as a new nose which used to be owned by Ledger.”
You can immediately see what is wrong with that sentence. Yep, Michael Jackson is missing.
A reader tells me of a store where bosses decided they would offer no public toilet facilities except for emergency use by needy people, such as youngsters and the elderly.
The sign they put up said:
TOILET ONLY FOR
Technically speaking, no one in the world qualifies to use that toilet.
In my neighbourhood, a shop called Hang Ten (a surfing term which means hanging on by your toes) gave birth to a new branch for children, which they called Hang Ten Kids. Not nice.
It’s all rather depressing. According to the Internet, the cover headline on an issue of Tails, the pet magazine, once said:
“Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog”.
Sounds doubtful to me -- surely no one who works in publishing could make such an obvious missed punctuation error?
Or maybe cannibalism IS back in style?
Honestly, these days who knows?