A few days ago my husband raised his head from the sports pages of one of the weekend papers and mused aloud, ‘How do you punctuate this to make sure it means what you want it to?’
I managed not to punch the air and utter a yell of triumph. Instead, I replied mildly,’What?’
He read a sentence which, in the way of these things, could have meant two different things, depending on the judicious placement of commas and hyphens. In the event, the journalist, or possibly sub-editor, if they exist any more, had got it right; the newspaper was a respectable one, and clearly some people still care about these things.
Husband isn’t usually one of them, so the air-punching and yelling, or not in this case, was, I think, an understandable reaction given this maths and science graduate I married, who can make numbers sing and dance, often shows signs of having cut school the day they did punctuation (yes, in those long-gone days we actually did punctuation at school), and doesn’t often get why it matters so much to me. Any indication that my protestations actually have an impact comes as a welcome surprise. No doubt he found English lessons as tedious as I used to find maths – though maybe at the time a little voice in the back of my mind told me I should pay attention because some of it might be useful one day. The little voice was right, and I tried, but a few years ago when weekly sales figures and annual balance sheets played a large part in my life I had reason to wish I had paid more attention.
Numbers invade everyone’s life, even if it’s only to keep track of what we owe on our credit cards. But whole days can go by when the only numbers I encounter are on the cars and houses I pass on my morning walk, or the keypad of my laptop as my fingers hit the rest of the keyboard or twiddle the mouse. Whereas words... Well, words are the stuff of life, aren’t they? They’re the way we communicate, gather information, entertain ourselves. Live our lives, in fact.
So surely it should follow as night the day that we need to use every possible means to ensure they mean exactly what we want them to mean. If you get my drift.
My favourite example of how the humble comma can move mountains. Well, OK, maybe not mountains, but...
Can you sing, Maria?
Can you sing Maria?
I know. You’ve heard it before. At least, regular followers, if I have any who aren’t bored senseless by my constant banging on on this subject, have heard it before. But I’m not apologizing. It matters. I’ve read three uncorrected proofs of new books in the past ten days or so, every one of them littered with glitches: misused or absent commas, sentences I had to read three times because they could have been taken three different ways, all manner of errors which someone, preferably the author, really ought to have picked up before the book arrived at the uncorrected proof stage.
The stuff of life, I called words. More so for writers than for anyone else. They’re the tools of our trade. And if schools don’t teach kids to use them properly any more (I suppose there’s a case to be made for encouraging creativity by not covering the pages of a story in red ink), it’s down to the publishing house to ensure that the book that makes it to the shelves is the book the author meant to write.
And that means editors. They’re not a luxury.
Is anyone listening out there?