1995: ON THE USE OF COMMAS
Letter to Writing Magazine.
Angela Bromley-Martin (prize letter, WM. July) raises the question of punctuation in the phrase ‘John Smith, the Managing Director, and Joe Bloggins attended…‘. Does it mean two or three people?
Unfortunately she bases her argument on a false premise. Language works by means of the understanding of conventions. When I use the word ‘dog’ I am understood because English-speakers know the convention that a certain type of animal bears this name. Likewise French-speakers have a convention that the aforesaid animal is called ‘chien‘.
Now whatever Ms Bromley-Martin learnt at school, the fact is that the vast majority of English-speakers are wholly unaware of the rule in question. We may, if we wish, blame politicians, educationalists, teachers or the feckless younger generation; the hard fact remains that the rule is now ignored by most users of the language – and that means most potential readers. Since the aim of writing is to convey meaning, there is no point using conventions that will not be understood: it is as futile as writing in Serbo-Croat for an English-speaking readership.
So, with or without comma, whether it is intended to indicate two or three persons, the phrase in question is ambiguous and therefore bad English. We should write EITHER ‘Both the Managing Director John Smith and Joe Bloggins,,,‘ OR ‘The Managing Director, together with John Smith and Joe Bloggins…‘.