Thursday, 13 September 2012

Belching out the inadequate comma: grammar and child labour

I know it's pedantic, but there is a particular sentence construction - or misconstruction - that grates on me so much that it genuinely reduces the amount of pleasure I get out of reading an otherwise awesome book. And that is: the use of the inadequate comma.

I am currently reading Belching Out The Devil by Mark Thomas: a fascinating in-depth investigation into the many abuses, human rights violations, environmental damage and general bad fuckery perpetrated by the Coca-Cola Company. It's pretty much my favourite kind of book in that it teaches you an awful lot without making the experience difficult in the least. Instead, it tells you a story, leads you by the hand, and makes a load of irreverent jokes along the way.

But every single page contains at least one instance of The Inadequate Comma.

Take this sentence, for example: writing of Indian farmers campaigning against Coca-Cola's exploitation of natural resources in their local area, Thomas writes,
And that is exactly what they have done, a small group of people has truly agitated Coca-Cola.
See what I mean? That comma is just not enough. The two halves of the sentence need a sturdier barrier to divide them. Virtually any punctuation mark would have done a better job, with the possible exception of the question mark ("And that is exactly what they have done?"). Consider, for example, the dash:
And that is exactly what they have done - a small group of people has truly agitated Coca-Cola.
Or the much-maligned semi-colon:
And that is exactly what they have done; a small group of people has truly agitated Coca-Cola.
Or - and this is my personal favourite, the punctuation champion I would have chosen had I been editing this tome - the colon:
And that is exactly what they have done: a small group of people has truly agitated Coca-Cola.
This is the kind of job the colon is made for: set out the parameters of the subject, colon, show how this example fulfils the parameters. It asks a question: what have these people done? COLON: this is what these people have done.

I know. It's petty. It's not the greatest threat to world peace. But what is having a blog for, if not to stand on one's tiny virtual soapbox and explain how much better the world would be if one were in control of everything, from renewable energy policy to arms limitation treaties to copy editing?


In apology for picking on lovely Mr Thomas' otherwise excellent book, I shall quote some of my favourite passages from it. He writes wonderfully on the awkward helplessness of being a rich white westerner visiting developing countries and wanting desperately to make things better without having a clue how. On a trip to El Salvador to find children working in hazardous environments harvesting sugar cane, he describes a family, sleeping in a shack, cooking in the open, with the kitchen area delineated by a wire stretched in a square.
I have wandered into this world without walls carrying a simplistic set of values picked up off the Fairtrade shelf, where kids working = bad. And I curse myself. I have forgotten that there is another equation here in this place where a piece of wire marks out a room, and this is as true as the first one and it is this: kids not working = really bad.
Later, having found some child labourers, he continues:
 But our very presence reprimands the cutters, the families and the children. Just standing by the field, we judge them, our presence alone says, ' you shouldn't be letting your children work on the cane harvest. But what are they going to do, go without money? So we judge them for having to work like this. We judge them for being poor. They did not ask us to come, they did not want to tell their story.
He acknowledges that "for all our discomfort, which is nothing compared to the discomfort of actually having to work in these fields", child labour still continues under the aegis of Coca-Cola (at one or two legal sub-contracted removes), and it's still awful that children have to work in extremely dangerous conditions so as not to starve to death. The focus is on the people whose lives are directly affected by multinational amorality, not on middle class western guilt - but that guilt gets a thorough skewering. Undoubtedly worth a read, incapably-languishing commas or no.


  1. i like this phrase, "the inadequate comma" as much as I hate the thing. it's also a pet peeve of mine, and i'm no grammar nut. i just love colons and semi-colons. someone actually made fun of me for using semi-colons in my blog (way too informal of a place for something so persnickety). but there's something worse: the inadequate comma!

    and the book sounds excellent despite the fact that the editor should be fired. i'll check it out.

  2. Thanks Deb, glad it's not just me! (I'm getting really self-conscious every time I use a comma now - is this comma up to the task??)

  3. Pretty much what Deb said. Will get the book, and will try my hardest to ignore the inadequate commas, which also drive me up the wall.

    I overuse the dash. I am on a mission to replace dashes with semi-colons or colons where grammatically appropriate, and to rephrase my sentences where they are not! I think I actually mentioned the dash overuse in my inaugural blog post as something to work on in my writing, and I still haven't fixed it. Fail.

  4. I'm a bit of a dash addict too, but also colons, semi-colons, the uncouth double question mark (see previous comment)... god I love punctuation. I might spend this entire weekend punctuating like a fiend.

  5. Oh, this is one of my pet peeves too. I believe the technical term is "comma splice." But I like your name better!

    1. Ha, I really should google these things before going off on a rant about them...

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