8 October 2013

The Dilemma of the Common Comma

A short while ago there was a discussion on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook Page about the difference between US & UK English. We all know that our use of spelling is very different - colour/color; harbour/harbor etc. and I think most of us are also aware of different words - in the UK we say 'dived in' the US is 'dove in' but reading comments and reviews on Amazon.com and .co.uk it has become apparent that there is also a difference between punctuation as well.

This is particularly showing itself in the more 'scathing' reviews. Comments such as "this author needs an editor' and 'this author has no idea how to use punctuation, especially commas, correctly' are becoming (unfortunately) all too common. 
These sort of remarks seem more prevalent on Amazon.com (i.e. US readers/reviewers) rather than here in the UK. Either we do not notice, or the slight differences do not bother us as much.

I asked my US editor, Michelle Kelley for her opinion and this is her response:

"In regards to the use of commas in the UK vs the US--yes, American writers do tend to use commas more often than their English counterparts, but that can likely be attributed to American editors! It's an important part of our training, and the proper use of commas can be found in the first chapters of every reference manual sitting on our bookshelves. Serial commas are encouraged, but more importantly, we are taught to use commas for clarity; mainly, to separate clauses in a sentence. 
When I am reading, I may not consciously notice punctuation, but I certainly do notice when it is missing. It can be quite frustrating when I'm caught up in a fantastic scene; my emotions and adrenaline are racing when suddenly, I'm jarred out of the moment to re-read a sentence. I started to read it one way, but the lack of punctuation caused me to interpret it differently by the time I'd reached the end. Now I'm confused, and by the time I've figured out what I think the writer meant, the spell is broken. I find myself re-reading sentences more often with UK authors for this reason. 
The purpose of commas - of all punctuation, really - is clarity of thought.
A well placed comma, semi-colon or em dash tells a reader exactly how you want the words to be read. Leave it out, and readers are left to their own interpretation.  I believe punctuation is one of the most important tools of a writer's trade, yet many writers are either uncomfortable or unfamiliar with how to use punctuation to effectively manipulate their audience. When I am editing, I work with the writer to make sure their ideas come across as they intended. Most of my suggestions involve re-arranging words and offering punctuation for stronger impact. It is my job to help improve a story and make it the best it can be. 
Along with Helen's book 'Discovering the Diamond', which I thought offered some excellent advice and examples to novice writers, Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style' is still one of the best reference guides out there for punctuation. It's a small book, less than 100 pages, and teaches the basics with examples that are straightforward and easy to understand."

Thank you Michelle

My UK assisted publishing manager, Helen Hart of SilverWood Books says:

"I completely agree with Michelle about the clarity issue. That's really the whole reason for commas. They group and separate clauses, words, and phrases. I'm a big fan of the Oxford comma (or, to our US friends, the "serial" comma). Without it, we'd have some very odd sentences - I read a comment the other day which said without the Oxford comma, the sentence "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God" would have indicated a fascinating parental pedigree where the speaker's parents were none other than Ayn Rand and God…
However, in the UK there has been a gradual move towards a "cleaner" page from a typographical perspective. This means in the UK editors, typographers, writers, and anyone else working with text tends to try to reduce punctuation unless it's vital for reducing ambiguity."

For fun, take a look at this quote from a 1923 edition of the American Bar Association Journal. The "they" in the first line refers to lawyers. 

You'd never get away with such sexism nowadays...

My UK editor, Jo Field, adds:
"All I would say to people is this: Read Lynne Truss’s excellent book, 'Eats Shoots and Leaves’. She dedicates a chapter to the comma in an informative, hilarious way. I use it as my bible and could not hope to better it. I just wish someone would write something similar on the use of capital letters, which is also very different between American and English writing, e.g. My Lord v. my lord.  King/Queen v. king/queen. Sir v. sir, and so on. But as I always maintain, my purpose as an editor is not to prove that I have a superior grasp of the rules of English grammar (only wish I did!) but to ensure there is no ambiguity to trip up the reader. And the purpose of the comma is to further that aim, not break up an over-long sentence to stand in for a full stop!"

I would also suggest two more  useful books for UK writers:

and of course: 

a couple of related articles:
Writing Reflections
Viva la difference

Tuesday Talk to look forward to:
15th October - my guest Mark Evans has thoughts on the Budleigh Book Fair
22nd October by  Alison Morton as my guest


  1. Interesting article. I would be interested if Jo Fields had some examples of capitalization differences (widespread usage, not some people trying to make their nouns more important) that are not related to the class system. The American refusal to capitalize lord, sir, king etc. may be a republican impulse.

  2. Good point Kara re the Republican impulse. I had to laugh at the capitalisation in one of my US books (edited by a US editor) Hell was upper case whereas heaven was lower - I wondered why the discrimination! :-)
    My own rule (when in doubt) is to use upper case if it is obviously a title - King Arthur, or a personal name can be inserted instead: i.e. my mother said / Mother said

  3. had to laugh - I spelt there wrong in the first sentence - their, not there! Now corrected! oops.

  4. Interesting to know that US editors like the 'Oxford' comma - I use it quite a lot and always in the interests of clarity, but I wouldn't say all my punctuation is A1... though I try my best.

    1. Thanks Margaret - I confess I am hopeless with commas - thank godness for editors!

  5. Putting a comma before an and, is my particular beef. Just read 'The Pagan Lord' and the numbers of ands that start sentences, start paragraphs and just the general number of ands after commas, nearly drove me mad. It should never be done. No need. No excuse. Ever.

    1. and I suppose too many ands are as annoyingas too many commas!

  6. I agree with Michelle Kelly and Helen Hart. As a general observation I would say that the best way to check one's punctuation is to read the text aloud. It’s also a fine way to check pace; nothing shows up tortuous writing better. As to recommended books, I suggest 'The Complete Plain Words,' by Sir Ernest Gowers. The 1973 edition was a set text for us at 'O' Level and improved my writing considerably. There are later editions and no doubt these better fit contemporary language, but I still find the edition I used at school the best for me. Gowers explained clearly why we have commas, apostrophes, colons and semi-colons, and how to use them. Jo Field, I agree about clarity as the principal use of commas but they can be used to break up sentences when a full-stop is too abrupt. Helen, on misspelling, well I think it’s easy to do, especially in these days of the spell-checker. I’m always doing it. Finally, Speesh, I too used to believe that one should not start sentences with ‘and,’ but its common these days and is, I think, now a matter of style. It seems to work pretty well.

  7. thanks Mark - I do use and to start a sentence - but only where appropriate, and mostly in my Pirate-based series, which is somewhat of a more 'informal' style anyway.


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