Here’s a quick question to exercise your brain: is the following statement true or false?
Politicians, such as Donald Trump, are keen to dispense with conventional politics.
Congratulations to those of you who said it was false. The above sentence means that all politicians, or politicians in general, are keen to dispense with conventional politics, which is patently not true. As with relative clauses, the part between commas could be removed without changing the meaning; Donald Trump is there simply as an example of a politician.
The writer presumably meant:
Politicians such as Donald Trump are keen to dispense with conventional politics.
Here, Donald Trump is illustrative of a particular category of politicians – populist politicians – who are, indeed, keen to overturn established political procedures.
Now try this one: which of these is correct?
Dickens’ wife Catherine was the mother of his 10 children.
Dickens’ wife, Catherine, was the mother of his 10 children.
Although the Victorian era allowed many unpleasant marital practices, such as girls being allowed to marry at 12 and all of a married woman’s property being transferred to her husband, bigamy was not among them. The first sentence implies that Dickens had more than one wife and that Catherine was just one of them, whereas the second (correct) sentence indicates that she was his only wife.
If you read the relative clauses blog post, you may remember that we looked at the following example:
Female emancipation was furthered by activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and managed to win them the vote.
Female emancipation was furthered by activists, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and managed to win them the vote.
With its single comma after the ‘such as’ clause, the first sentence is stating that Emmeline Pankhurst won women the vote, giving less credit for this to the other activists. However, add a comma before ‘such as’, and she is far less important in achieving that goal; here, Emmeline Pankhurst is just one example of an activist, and it was the activists as a group who won women the vote.
The importance (and entertainment value) of punctuation:
In short, the humble comma is invaluable in clarifying the scope of the nouns we are referring to in writing. To make our speech equally clear, perhaps we should follow Victor Borge’s example and pronounce our punctuation. For a hilarious few minutes off from the serious task of proofreading, watch his Phonetic Punctuation.
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