Nuts about commas

by Tom Albrighton 23 August 2010 Copywriting reviews

Can I really get another post out of the copy on a peanut bag? It seems I can. (And for those who are wondering, yes, I do get through a fair few peanuts. I read the packets while I’m illicitly munching them between meals.)

I’m sure many a client has heaved a sigh over their copywriter’s tiresome insistence that a comma must be inserted at some particular point. When I used to check the printer’s proofs at a publishing house, the production manager would be incredulous at the idea of incurring big cost for such a footling change. (The cost was for running out patches and ‘cutting in’ or even ‘doubling in’ on the imposed film before remaking the ozalid – ask your parents, kids.)

Yet there are times when this tiny punctuation mark can make a huge difference to the meaning of a sentence. And it may be that the sentence is quite an important one. Consider this text, which appears on a packet of salted peanuts from a leading UK supermarket chain:

Do not give this product to small children who can choke on nuts

The literal meaning here is ‘if there are any small children around who can choke on nuts, don’t give them this product’, with the implied meaning ‘if there are any small children who can’t choke on nuts, it’s OK for them’.

Now consider how the phrase should have read (with comma inserted):

Do not give this product to small children, who can choke on nuts

Here, the meaning is very different: ‘Small children can choke on nuts. Don’t give them this product.’

The problem stems from the use of ‘who’ in both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. If we were talking about something inanimate, rather than children, we would have to change the wording as well as insert the comma. For example, note the difference in meaning between these two phrases:

He stopped the first car that was driven by a woman.
He stopped the first car, which was driven by a woman.

Loyal readers may recognise this as the sentence I used to explain the difference between that and which many moons ago.

As I hope I’ve made clear, these grammar points aren’t dead customs or academic debating points. They really do affect meaning, and if you’re giving health advice, that meaning is important. That’s why copywriters go nuts over ’em.

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