The Significant Comma – Why Punctuation Really Does Matter If You Want To Keep Anything A Surprise


I’ll warn you now, this post contains a spoiler. I’m going to be telling you the ending of Patrick McGoohan’s classic 1967 nonsense spectacular “The Prisoner”. Well, it’s been out for nearly 50 years now, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you’re probably never going to.

I have no idea whether I’ll be giving away the ending to the 2009 American reboot, because I didn’t watch it. Then again, neither did anyone else so I don’t suppose I’ll be doing too much harm.

This is the iconic intro to the original series.

As you can see, No 2 doesn’t want to tell Patrick McGoohan who No 1 is. He merely responds by re-stating to Mr McGoohan what his place in the hierarchy of The Village is. “You are No 6” he baldy states.

This sequence was shown at the start of every show, though with a different actor playing number 2. The thrust of the show was escape from and rebellion against The Village. The mystery of the show, however, was “Who is No 1?”

And this is the irony, because with the insertion of a simple comma in No 2’s reply, the mystery of “Who is No 1?” would have been solved. When Patrick McGoohan asked the question “Who is No 1”, if the answer had been “You are, No 6”, then watching the rest of the series would have been a bit redundant. Though it would have been unlikely that No 2 knew that No 6 was actually also No 1.

Nonetheless, that’s the power of punctuation.

Contrary to popular belief, punctuation didn’t start as a way of mentally torturing schoolchildren. It started off as a way of getting actors to deliver their lines with the proper intended meaning. The most famous example of this is a line delivered by Duncan in Macbeth. “Go, get him surgeons”. This entirely changes its meaning if you change the punctuation to “Go get him, surgeons!” Which some actors have been known to do inadvertently.

This example is given in Lynne Truss’ highly amusing treatise on the subject “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” The title is based on a joke about a Panda taking a gun into a café.  It goes like this :

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

This is a highly Bowdlerized version of the original joke, which actually involved the panda having sex with a female human. Presumably the book would not have been published if its central theme had been based on a gag about a giant talking bear buying a girl dinner, fucking her and then doing a disappearing act once he’d had his cross-species fun. Or if it had been published, it would have been an entirely different kind of book entirely.

The book itself sold in its millions, despite the fact that it is actually riddled with errors of grammar and punctuation. It was a brave thing of Lynne Truss to publish this book, given the impossibility of getting any manuscript through the publishing process and successfully sticking to the  “zero tolerance approach to punctuation” she is so keen on. The book did get people talking about the subject though, and for that we all owe Lynne a debt of gratitude.

If you delve into The Internet, you’ll find that punctuation is a remarkably contentious subject. People bicker and argue about it and sometimes get a bit more hot under the collar about it than seems proportionate. I’ve even been known to join in on occasion myself. I sometimes have to remind myself that this is, to some extent, missing the point.

George Bernard Shaw once famously referred to commas as “uncouth bacilli”. Despite being a bit of a fruit loop, he wasn’t entirely wrong. The English language is a massive, amorphous and beautiful beast. It turns round to us and says, like No 6, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.” English should enthral, delight, amaze and surprise you.

Punctuation is important, but pinning English down to a corkboard with commas can stifle creativity. Writers are reluctant enough to put out manuscripts as it is. The last thing we need is enjoyable writing never getting published because its author is still struggling with the quotation marks and semicolons. I say make allowances to let people get their thoughts out there and if you really know and care about correct punctuation that much, put the fucker in there yourself as you go along.

© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014


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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

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