People often ask me what’s the most common error I meet when copyediting. And, somewhat boringly, I reply it’s to do with commas.

Usually, they are missing commas.

When I began editing, a former newspaper editor commented: ‘People leave out many commas nowadays. Don’t be afraid to put them all back in.’

And below, published today in a paper to remain nameless, is an example of why you should do just that. Think of commas as a handrail to help the reader descend a flight of twisting, uneven steps at dusk. Our reader is Frank.

Frank reads a story about the Mersey Hospital emergency department closing (‘Emergency department forced to close’), and he meets a flight of steps. I’ll reproduce it as it appeared on Frank’s phone app, as that compounded the problem.

Latrobe’s Mersey Community Hospital‘s

emergency department will close from

10pm until 8am due to a lack of locums

and North-West residents who believe

they have coronavirus symptoms

have been told to go to Burnie.

Frank launches briskly down the stairs.

Step 1: Latrobe’s Mersey Community Hospital‘s emergency department will close from 10pm until 8am… Frank muses that this is not quite as awful as the headline had him believe, but let’s leave that for another blog.

Step 2: due to a lack of locums… Frank sighs; this is not good news.

Step 3: and North-West residents who believe they have coronavirus symptoms… Ah, here’s another reason, and an odd one; perhaps demand is falling for ED. Frank feels unsteady and tightens his grip on the handrail.

Step 4: have been told to go to Burnie. Wham! Where did that come from?

Frank backs up the steps and has another bash at the twisting descent, cross at having to do this twice. But he’s no fool, so he mentally inserts a comma after locums.

Latrobe’s Mersey Community Hospital‘s

emergency department will close from

10pm until 8am due to a lack of locums,

and North-West residents who believe

they have coronavirus symptoms have

been told to go to Burnie.

Frank can see now that the journalist was writing a compound sentence (with two independent clauses), not a list of reasons at all. He’d been fooled by ‘due to… and’. Now he sees the first clause has the reason for ED’s overnight closure, and the second clause has the consequence. And to join the two clauses of the compound sentence, Frank knows he needs a comma before ‘and’. He was lucky enough to learn that in Year 6.

Frank jumps onto the handrail and slides down it like that sprightly Year-6 kid he once was.

‘Don’t mess with me with your comma-less compound sentence,’ he says.

Better still might be to divide this compound sentence into two. Plain English advocates would favour this.

Latrobe’s Mersey Community Hospital‘s

emergency department will close from

10pm until 8am due to a lack of locums.

North-West residents who believe

they have coronavirus symptoms have

been told to go to Burnie.

In an age where every device will break a sentence at a different point, punctuation is arguably more important than ever. It helps avoid confusion, so people can read something the way the writer intended, the first time they read it.

And as the wise former editor instructed me on the subject of commas: ‘Don’t be afraid to put them all back in.’

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If you’d like your commas checked, contact Mel at mel@hitsend.com.au or phone 0439 918 994.

Hit Send edits long documents and has a fast proofreading service.