My copywriter blog

How a comma can save your life

by | Fun stuff, Grammar

In matters of life and death, it pays to check your comma usage. Read to the end of this post and you’ll find out why.

Grammar matters.

In particular, your use of the comma.

Yes, it’s true.

Because comma placement can change the meaning of a sentence.

  • In business writing, get comma placement wrong and it can cause you embarrassment. What’s more it could cost you your reputation.
  • In the legal world, get comma placement wrong and it can cost you a case and money.

Make no mistake about it, where you place a comma is significant, even in these days of social media, when character limits encourage us to strip out punctuation.

Moreover, even in these days of conversational writing, when we’re told to throw away the school books, and write in the way that we speak.

My point is this, just because you’ve been told to adopt an informal and conversational style of writing, you still need to follow some basic grammar rules.

Why do I say this?

Because at the end of the day you want your reader to understand your intention, so your writing needs to be clear and easy to read and understand.

So what makes the comma so important?

First off, commas give clarity to a sentence.

To give clarity commas group and separate words, phrases and clauses. And tell you where you need to pause. You could say they help you to breathe when you read.

Beyond that, and as I mentioned before, comma placement can change the meaning of a sentence.

To illustrate this, I’d like to tell you a story about how comma placement could cost you your life.

This is the story of a Russian Czarina called Maria Fyodorovna, and how she saved the life of a man exiled to death in Siberia… by merely moving a comma on a death warrant.

The Czarina’s unfeeling husband Alexander III (1845-1884), had signed the warrant, on which was written:

“Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.”

Fortunately for the man, Czarina Maria was more forgiving.

To save his life she transposed a single comma in the sentence so that it read:

“Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.”

As a result, the man was set free.

The moral of this story: The comma is the most misunderstood of all punctuation.

So, be careful where you place commas, as comma placement affects the meaning of a sentence.

Read your copy through. Then read it out loud to make sure readers cannot misinterpret your sentences.

Just one more thing, The Guardian Newspaper’s Keith Waterhouse once advised:

“Commas are not condiments. Do not pepper sentences with them unnecessarily.” Quite so, but a well-placed one is the difference between “what is this thing called love?” and “what is this thing called, love?” And between “let’s eat, Grandma!” and … well, you know the rest.”

And finally

If you would like help writing marketing copy that is grammatically correct, then drop me a line to get information about pricing.

Claire Hawes, copywriter and owner of The Content BoutiqueAbout Claire Hawes

Claire Hawes is a marketing communications copywriter. She enjoys writing engaging copy that helps businesses to get noticed and attract enquiries. Claire’s experience mainly lies in the business to business sector. Her clients include both businesses and digital marketing agencies.

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