In 2003, Lynne Truss, a British writer, wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves on the subject. The title originates from a joke. A panda goes to a bar and orders a ham sandwich. After eating, he takes his pistol, shoots in the air. On being asked why he did so, he shows a badly punctuated wildlife manual. The entry for Panda in it read: “PANDA. Large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” Obviously, the unnecessary comma after "eats" has distorted the meaning.
The Guardian and The New Yorker have reviews of the book, the latter quite critical. There is also a website, where you can play the punctuation game. There was recently a news item on the most costly punctuation in Canada.
Commas essentially signify pause. It’s not an essential device though, since even without it we can logically deduce a pause.
Harold Ross, the founder of New Yorker, was obsessed with the use of commas. During his time James Thurber, American writer and cartoonist, who served with the magazine, was asked why Ross put a comma in the following sentence: “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” Thurber replied, “That’s Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
Some of my favourite sentences on the use of comma are:
- Don’t stop. (Keep going.)
Don’t, stop. (Stop what you are doing.)
- You don't really like it; you're only pretending to please me. (You are pretending to please me.)
You don't really like it; you're only pretending, to please me. (You are pretending to like it.)
- He was kicked by a mule which annoyed him. (The mule annoyed him.)
He was kicked by a mule, which annoyed him. (The kick annoyed him.)
- Her brother, who lives in Mumbai, will come tomorrow. (She has only one brother)
Her brother who lives in Mumbai will come tomorrow. (She has more than one brother.)
The best is perhaps this:
The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is nothing."
The women wrote: "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."