When Commas Aren’t Commas

by Alan Eggleston

Possibly the most misunderstood punctuation mark is the comma. I have seen it used, misused, abused, and confused over the years by all levels of writers – and, presumably, editors. But imagine the case of the Official Corporate Comma added on the approval route by General Counsel.

For years, this particular corporate general counsel reviewed every last page of content that might see the outside light of day. He was the final stop after everyone else in the corporation reviewed it. Copy would come back to our writers full of all kinds of changes – claims from Marketing, refinements in claims from R&D, remarks from Sales, and on and on. General Counsel always seemed to add commas. We would often negotiate language changes with various groups, but we knew the placement of a comma could make or break a legal statement, so we faithfully adhered to his changes.

One evening I happened to share a table with the General Counsel on a corporate flight to an event. Many things were discussed on the long trip, but in particular, I joked that he often seemed overly generous with commas on corporate copy. He thought a moment, and then responded offhandedly, “Oh, those! That’s how I mark my place when I am interrupted.” Reading copy wasn’t the only thing General Counsel had to do on a busy day, and he must have taken a lot of calls and handled a lot of visits, noting his place with a simple curved tick. Here we were printing them all!

Admittedly, most of his commas were fine, and his tick marks were usually placed at sensible places – at phrases or in series or other places where it was plausible to place a comma. But once in a while you would see a comma placement and scratch your head, “What was he thinking?”

It pays to question even attorneys on their editing to decipher when commas really are commas.

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