How a missing comma nearly ruined my breakfast


Following my earlier whingeing about misplaced and missing apostrophes, I’ve been getting all antsy about bad spelling.

I get a lot of press releases in my capacity as a business magazine editor and it enrages me when I realise that some stationery suppliers do not know how to spell stationery. And some manufacturers of licensed product do not know when to use ‘license’ and when to use ‘licence‘. I don’t mind ordinary people not knowing, because it can be confusing, but I do object to people who should know better being too lazy to use a dictionary.

Someone on Freecycle.com the other day was asking for ‘cloths‘ and someone else was on the lookout for ‘clothes hangars’. Maybe it’s pedantic of me to go ’eh, wot?’ and pull a face, because yes, I can work out from the context that they mean ‘clothes’ and ‘hangers‘; but why should I have to work it out? Why should I have to waste my time to accommodate someone else’s laziness? Why don’t they just say what they mean?

Every time these people spell something wrong, because they frankly can’t be arsed to spell it right, they run the risk of their message being misunderstood. They also run the risk of being laughed at, like the clueless English airman in ‘Allo ‘Allo who was described by other characters as “that idiot British officer who thinks he can speak French”.

More importantly they irritate the hell out of people like me, because it wastes my time when I have to stop and think about what is really meant.

I have every sympathy for people who have English as their second language because they are at least having a go, to the best of their ability; but it does make me cross when native English speakers, all of whom have had the benefit of at least 10 years’ free schooling, are unable to make themselves understood in their own language.

I’m a bit anal about commas too. I spent a night in a rather posh hotel recently, after an evening work function, and I was terribly excited at the prospect of getting a proper cooked breakfast in the morning. Breakfast chez moi tends to be a bit of fruit and some toast, but I’m rather partial to a nice sausage when the opportunity arises.

Eagerly perusing the breakfast menu I found myself rather baffled by the list of breakfast ingredients. “Bacon, sausages, black pudding, mushrooms,” began the list – so far so good.

Then it continued “egg fried bread”. Now, I don’t think I can be accused of pedantry by wondering what that meant. Did it mean, as I hoped, “egg, fried bread” (two ingredients I rather like)? Or did it mean “egg-fried bread” (one ingredient that I don’t)? Punctuation in a case like this is vital. I was happy enough in the end as what I got on my plate was “egg, fried bread”, but why didn’t they say so in the first place?

I also got rather grumpy about the description ‘freshly prepared juice‘: I wasn’t even quibbling about whether freshly prepared should have been hyphenated, but about the fact that they really should have used the term‘freshly opened‘. When, having tasted the muck they‘d poured me, I asked how recently it had been ‘prepared’, I was told the juice was indeed fresh – when it was put into its UHT long-life packaging back in May last year or whenever. This isn’t even a grammatical error – it’s factually misleading. Or a ‘big fat con’, as I prefer to call this mind of thing. ‘Freshly prepared’means a human being has just squeezed the juice out of a orange. It doesn’t mean they’ve just lazily opened a carton that’s been on the shelf for three months.

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