I prefer not to join the noisy critiquing of the misuse of English in and around business (amply covered by the likes of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway among others). I also have an enduring affection for HP, one of my earliest clients who, I fear, has somewhat lost its Way in the past few years. But given that I had so recently sung the praises of the humble comma, I felt compelled to comment on the company’s strange use of the mark in its current run of UK print ad headlines:
Flex, when in flux. (Flex when in flux would do much better.)
Move, able. (Clever clever nonsense.)
Dream big, data. (I guess HP is talking to companies about big data rather than to data about dreaming big, but that’s not what that comma says.)
These from a campaign which also uses the admirably distinctive and eye-catching words Thwart, Foil, Stymie and Crimp as headlines in other ads.
So come on HP, less of the confusing marks and more of the lovable language.
Quietly powerful comma…
Pawn of the punctuation game, workhorse of sentences everywhere – it’s easy to take the humble common-or-garden comma for granted.
Its everyday uses are amply explored in Strunk and White’s timeless The Elements of Style. But there’s magic in this humble mark, too. I came across two examples of its quietly powerful ability to steer our thoughts and feelings in Albert Camus’ short and sweet as a fig The Sea Close By (currently on sale for a mere 199 of your pennies):
“But above all,* there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses… I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes…”
*This comma tugs you back gently before toppling you into the brilliantly vivid depiction of Algiers in evening.
“Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming,* night.”
*This comma wraps you up in the experience, rather than the description, of night.
So praise is due the comma, the unsung hero of communication.
Musick to my ears…
Picking up on the apparent importance of knowing your “its” from your “it’s” when applying for jobs, the FT’s Michael Skapinker touches on the lovably liquid nature of English: “English has always changed. It is a permanent referendum. If enough people start regarding “its” as the contraction of “it is” and “it’s” as the possessive then that is what they’ll eventually become and everyone will write them that way.” My money’s on the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe, driven by the evolving influence of texting and other bite-sized digital communications and the power of context to help clarify: it’s often easy to see whether you mean “its” or “it’s” thanks to the surrounding words, which in turn makes the mark less necessary.
As with punctuation, so with spelling. We now happily write “music” rather than “musick”, as in Samuel Johnson’s day. Three centuries on, music’s notes haven’t changed but its spelling has. That’s fine with me. In line with the inherently democratic character of my mother tongue, I’m happy to let the people decide, over time through their usage and abusage, how they want English to evolve. For one of the great good things is that we’re free to use our language clearly and characterfully for our own ends.
In this respect, I’m on the side of Michael Skapinker’s “affectivists” – a term “conjured out of Sir Ernest Gower’s book, The Complete Plain Words, which remains a superb guide to clear communication nearly 60 years after it was first published. The aim of writing, he said, should be to affect your readers in the way you wish them to be affected.” Musick to my ears.
Awhile ago I was asked whether or not Mr should be followed by a full stop. As you can see by the way I’ve just written it, I reckon not.
When it comes to abbreviations – eg Mr, Dr, ie etc – I adapt The Economist’s less is more rule on capital letters: use lower case unless it looks absurd. Indeed less is more is a pretty good principle to adopt for all punctuation.
Full stops, commas, dashes and so on are there to help rather than hinder understanding. Too many and you’re in danger of obstructing the flow of your communication, like barnacles on a boat.
So as a general rule I’d say that if a piece of punctuation doesn’t aid clarity or add character, leave it out. Dr.? No!