By Philip Blebb

12 November 2020 - 2:53pm

A row of commas written on a piece of paper

“Let’s eat granny” shouted my wife. It was past dinner time and we were all hungry, but it seemed a bit dramatic. It might not be too late for granny, punctuation can save her life!  All she needs is a comma. 

What’s a comma and what do they do? They reduce sentences into shorter, more manageable sections, tell us when to pause and which words to stress. This can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Without commas does this sentence make sense? 

‘The cannibal smiled half an hour after she was hanged’. 

No, it doesn’t make any sense, unless you believe in ghosts. However, it does make sense when you add two commas. Where should you place them? 

This now makes perfect sense; ‘The cannibal smiled, half an hour after, she was hanged’. 

If you read both sentences aloud (with and without commas), you will clearly hear how the commas change the stress and therefore the meaning.  

In this sentence, who’s mad and who’s speaking?

‘The cannibal said the judge is mad’

 Without commas, the Judge is mad and the cannibal is speaking.

Can you add two commas, to make the cannibal mad and the judge the speaker? 

‘The cannibal said the judge is mad’.

This is how. ‘The cannibal, said the judge, is mad’. 

In a famous UK legal case a man was hanged by a comma. The interpretation of the law depended on the disputed position of a comma. So don’t underestimate the importance of commas, they can save your life but get you hanged as well. 

Me and my wife recently discussed the question, who is more important in a relationship, the man or the woman? I put the comma in the first sentence: 

‘Woman without her man, is nothing’. The comma position here indicates that women are dependent on men. But my wife thinks otherwise and strategically moved the comma: ‘Woman, without her, man is nothing’. Now men are dependent on women. 

Women sometimes worry me, particularly my wife. I had good reason when I read what she’d written on her Facebook profile;

‘My interests include cooking dogs and family’.

On first reading this, I decided to get the dog and kids into the car and drive somewhere safe where we wouldn’t be turned into meat kebabs. But on a second reading, I realized it was just poor punctuation rather than a poor choice of a life partner. Maybe she isn’t a cannibal after all. 

Her profile needs three commas. Where should they go? 

‘My interests include cooking dogs and family’

If you place them here; 

‘My interests include, cooking, dogs, and family’. She becomes the good mother and animal lover I married. 

But I still worry. She does have this tendency of wanting to eat the people she loves, including granny. So, how can a comma save granny?  Simple, “Let’s eat, granny”. Say it aloud and it’s how you call someone to the dining table to share dinner. So granny’s safe and sitting down at the table enjoying a selection of meat kebabs. “What meat is this?” she asks looking around “And where are the kids?”

- This article was first published in Prastuti, Anandabazar Patrika.