Friday, 14 February 2014


It is Thursday and we are in Totnes. That is a nice simple sentence but like its famous cousin, eats shoots and leaves, is open to misinterpretation. Did I mean because it is Thursday we are in Totnes or it happens to be a Thursday and it happens that we are in Totnes?

As it stands it probably suggests the former. To swing it in the other direction some writers would add a comma. 'It is Thursday, and we are in Totnes.' I feel that works quite well but a better solution would be to rethink the sentence so let's start again.

Since I could think of no photographs to illustrate commas, after the blog was written we popped over to Dartington Hall to see how the spring is getting on in the gardens there. This is the main gateway into The Courtyard with the entrance to the Great Hall in the background.
In fact it was really neither of those options. Yesterday (Wednesday) this part of the world was suffering from hurricane force winds (not at all usual in the UK) and torrential rain. The forecast suggests that tomorrow will be the same. Today there is a break in the weather complete with sunny spells. It would have been a shame not to make the best of it so, even though it is very cold making it essential to wrap up well, we decided to spend the morning in Totnes.

I write these blogs in all sorts of places - sometimes on Friday morning, sometimes on Thursday. I am in The Brioche for no other reason than that it seemed the right place to be today. Often I am on the other side of the road and a bit further down - in Rumour - and I have also worked in The Boathouse between the sea and Slapton Ley at Torcross. You may remember that the last blog of 2013 was devoted to the village and The Boathouse.

This is one corner where the crocus is king at this time of the year.
The storms that hit Torcross last week resulted in waves breaking over the sea wall and carrying tons - and that is no exaggeration - of pebbles from the beach and, like many other buildings facing the sea, The Boathouse suffered from smashed windows, broken furniture and general water damage. As if that wasn't enough, a few days later a fire broke out. Despite some seven fire appliances attending there was a great deal of damage done before everything was under control. I have no idea how long it will be before they are able to open for business. We both feel deeply for what they are going through and hope that getting things sorted out will not prove too traumatic.

Back to commas. A few days ago there was reported that John McWhorter, an associate professor of English at Columbia University, believes that the comma has outlived its useful life and should be abolished. His reasoning is that this is much misunderstood and misused - with which I agree - and should be put out of its misery - with which I do not agree. (The word 'actually' is much misused but I would not wish to see it abolished.)
How do these delicate flowers cope with this sort of weather?
One of the most important uses of the comma (well, two commas in this case) as far as I am concerned is to flag up a parenthesis where the clause between the commas offers additional information but is not an essential part of the sentence. Dartmoor, with its deep valleys and high tors, is one of the most beautiful parts of England. Take out the commas and what they contain and you still have a perfectly good sentence.

Problems arise when a sentence contains three commas. Let us look at the sort of sentence I have in mind. "The sense of anti-climax was almost overwhelming and, walking back down the drive to the narrow lane, he'd felt oddly hurt, thinking that she might at least have offered him a cup of tea."

The first daffodils.
Now I am treading on very thin ice. That sentence is taken from the opening chapter of The Golden Cup. Two of the commas here flag up a parenthesis and the third a pause but I feel that using the same punctuation to do two different jobs in one sentence can cause a muddle and so I am not that happy when it happens. The third comma, by the way, is what is known over here as the Oxford comma and (I think this is right) in the U.S. as the Harvard comma.

Accordingly there may be an argument for using something different to differentiate between a pause and a parenthesis. Actually, in some old documents everything was punctuated simply to mirror the speech patterns. They used all sorts of marks including forward slashes and dashes as well as most if the ones we use today.

So why do we use punctuation at all? If you look at a well drafted Will, for example, it will see no punctuation. This makes it harder to read but avoids any risk of misunderstandings and there is the key. Punctuation helps the reader to make sense of the sentence. As such it is not cast in stone but the way it is used will change with time. If I were given the job of copy editing (line editing in the U.S.) one of Charles Dickens’ works I have a horrid feeling that the only marks I would leave in place would be the full stops. The fact is that he was writing for his time and I am writing for now but, if I am honest, I am already out of fashion. Marcia, quite rightly, is moving with the times which is exactly what you would expect.
One thing I do remember. When I was a student, it was drummed into us that a bad sentence can never be improved by the use of punctuation and that a good sentence stands with none at all. And, (another use of the Oxford comma which I claim to dislike) where all that came from I really do not know. I promise that next week I will not write the blog in The Brioche.

These two West Highland Terriers, Millie and Maddie, are following in the pawsteps of our last dog, Jossie. All three belonged to elderly owners and were found new homes by the Cinnamon Trust when their owners died. To find out more about the trust, please click here.