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Comma shouldn't needlessly split up a subject from its verb

By Pharaoh Ochichi | November 26th 2016

The cover of Eats Shoots and Leaves says it all. That if you’re unsettled about the apostrophe, dazed by the comma, or simply baffled by the semi-colon, you need to link up with Lynne Truss, the punctuation stickler. And Truss doesn’t disappoint – she just dazzles.

Note, for example, how she defines punctuation marks. That they’re ‘the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop.’

The title of her work expresses different meanings, depending on how you punctuate it. First, the title ‘eats shoots and leaves’ (without commas) means the subject consumes shoots (parts of plants) and leaves (flat green parts of plants).

Second, if you insert commas to become ‘eats, shoots, and leaves’, it would mean the subject consumes something (not mentioned), fires bullets and goes away.

A quote from the book will help illustrate the point. ‘A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.’ So, the presence or absence of a comma in a sentence can affect the meaning.

Truss, a New York Times and Amazon bestseller, loathes sentences such as ‘Parents, are being urged to take advantage of a scheme designed to prevent children getting lost in supermarkets.’

And if she detests such a construction, she would rant and rave if she comes across the following extracts from a story headlined ‘From technology to its people, Ethiopia is just magnificent’ (Saturday Nation, November 5, page 10).

The first sentence of the article: ‘Addis Ababa, is one big construction site.’ The second, ‘The true story of Addis, is that it is a town fast hurtling into the transport hub of Africa and the newly minted metro and electric trains are proof of this.’

And the third, ‘The Ethiopians, are the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.’

Truss, a former BBC programme presenter, would be annoyed with the writer of the three sentences for needlessly using commas to split up the subjects from their verbs (predicates). In the first sentence of the opinion article, for instance, while the subject is ‘Addis Ababa’, the predicate is ‘is one big construction site,’ with a menacing comma in between.
Glenn Leggett, David Mead, Melinda Kramer, and Richard Beal in their ‘Handbook for Writers’ advise that subjects shouldn’t be separated from their verbs.

But sentences that divorce the subject from the verb aren’t uncommon, as an excerpt of a letter to the editor exemplifies. ‘The fact is, the formerly lethargic Ministry of Education mandarins cannot be all over the country at the same time to ensure smooth administration of the exams.’ (Talking Point, DN, November 21).

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