This meme is humorous but it makes a serious point. As a copywriter, I believe punctuation is always important, whether in a formal business communication or on social media. Southern Rail is just one company that appears to overlook the importance of the comma, as demonstrated by this inadvertently frank exchange with a Twitter user, picked up by Private Eye:
Customer: Are you putting on replacement shuttles for the Rye service you’ve cancelled again?
Southern Rail: Hi. We are not sorry.
Well, I guess they’re honest, if nothing else!
Another comma fail
Here’s another example of the confusion caused by lack of a vital comma, courtesy of a website guide to the Dominican Republic, which stated:
“Most of the time travellers to major cities and resorts get a reaction to unknown microbes in tap water.”
Clearly, time travel is a well-known phenomenon in the Caribbean.
Then there’s the classic Sunday Times listing for a programme featuring “Highlights of (Peter Ustinov’s) global tour including encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800 year old demigod and a dildo collector.”
In a nutshell
A reminder that commas are generally used to indicate a natural breathing space. More subtle than the full stop, which brings a sentence to a juddering halt, the comma is a subtle pause and, when properly used, greatly enhances readability and understanding. Compare these two sentences:
“Melanie Silver has I believe more than 21 years’ professional copywriting experience.”
“Melanie Silver has, I believe, more than 21 years’ professional copywriting experience.”
Would you agree that the second sentence is easier to understand? Most people would put commas before and after the words “I believe” because they qualify the key statement, distinguishing personal opinion from indisputable fact.
The biggest problem with commas is that we simply use too many of them so that, far from clarifying meaning, they merely confuse. Recognising where commas are needed is an acquired skill but, as a rule of thumb, where dropping a comma doesn’t hinder understanding but instead helps the sentence flow, leave it out!