Tuesday, 23 September 2014

How to use commas

 How to use commas

I was reading recently about an interesting US case which concerned, amongst other things, the use of a comma in a contract.  It formed part of the volcano of litigation that has erupted following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Although the case concerned US law, the principle that punctuation can have a material bearing on the interpretation of legal documents applies as readily in England and Wales as it does on t’other side of the pond.

The case turned on whether a comma was missing from a clause in the contract. The clause had a markedly different meaning with the comma missing compared to when the comma was added.

With the comma missing, the clause read:

“[…] as additional insureds in each of [Transocean's] policies, except Worker's Compensation for liabilities assumed by [Transocean] under the terms of this Contract."

With it added, the clause read:

“[…] as additional insureds in each of [Transocean's] policies, except Worker's Compensation, for liabilities assumed by [Transocean] under the terms of this Contract."

It’s a great illustration of the fact that, sometimes, use of punctuation can be absolutely critical. In this case, it was critical to the tune of $750,000,000!

That got me thinking even further (it does happen occasionally!). My recent post on the written communication skills of young lawyers focused on, amongst other things, poor sentence structure in the writing of lawyers to be. A big part of that poor sentence structure is the misuse of commas.

So how difficult is it to educate yourself about how to use commas correctly?  Not very difficult, as it turns out.

Two seconds on Google turned up a very useful guide produced by the University of Bristol.

Here are a few excerpts from their guide on commas.

The comma is a much misused and often over used piece of punctuation.

Here, here!

1. To separate the elements in a list of three or more items

The potion included peanuts, pop-tarts, bran flakes and coleslaw.

There appears to be some debate about whether or not to include a comma to separate the last two items in the series. [Use of a comma in this situation is known as an Oxford comma. Conventionally, it is normal] to omit the comma before the final 'and' unless there is a danger that the last two items in the series will merge and become indistinguishable without the comma.

His favourite puddings were black forest gateau, apple strudel, and jelly and ice cream.

Using an Oxford comma after the word ‘strudel’ is the sentence above is advisable so as to indicate that the jelly and ice cream is a single item.

2. Before certain conjunctions

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so to separate two independent clauses. They are called co-ordinating conjunctions.

She was a fantastic cook, but she would never be as good as her mother-in-law.

He hated his neighbours, so he never invited them round.

A common mistake is to put the comma after the conjunction.

3. To separate introductory elements in a sentence

Use a comma to separate introductory elements in a sentence from the main part of that sentence.

Given the appalling weather conditions, Jonny was lucky to make it home alive.

As the night drew to a close, the revellers wandered home.

4. To separate parenthetical elements in a sentence (i.e. to serve as brackets)

A comma is used to set off parenthetical elements in a sentence. The parenthetical element is part of the sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.

Sarah, the most intelligent pupil in the class, was always late for school.

The pyramids, one of the wonders of the ancient world, lie just outside Cairo.

If you are using a comma to do this, it is important that the aside is opened and closed with a comma. A common mistake is to omit the second comma.

Eagled-eyed readers will have no doubt noticed that the case of the missing comma, mentioned above, concerns a comma used in just this situation. (The use of commas in my previous sentence is another example of it, of course.) Permission to roll your eyes: granted.

Be right back

Paul Rylance, in the excellent Writing and Drafting in Legal Practice, provides another example of the pitfalls of poor comma use:

“A counter-notice must be given to the landlord, who may, or may not, be the immediate landlord who served notice terminating the tenancy and must be given within two months of the landlord’s notice.”

So, is it the “immediate landlord who served the notice” or just the “immediate landlord”?  It should have been the latter.

A better handling of it would have been to use brackets – as shown below:

“A counter-notice must be given to the landlord (who may, or may not, be the immediate landlord) who served notice terminating the tenancy and must be given within two months of the landlord’s notice.”

Personally, I’m not sure you really need the commas within the brackets after “may” and “not”, but I’ll defer to Paul’s better judgement on this one.

5. To separate direct speech or quoted elements from the rest of the sentence

Commas are used to separate direct speech or quoted elements from the rest of a sentence. Use a comma to separate the quoted material from the rest of the sentence.

"That house there," he whispered, "is where I grew up."

6. Commas are used to separate elements in a sentence that express contrast

He was first attracted by her charming personality, not her stunning looks.

She is intelligent, not pretty.

He thought the building was enormous, but ugly.

I think commas used in this situation are ripe for abuse. Providing both clauses of the sentence are very short and it’s genuine contrast that’s being expressed, I think it’s fine. However, it doesn’t take much for these situations to slip firmly into semi-colon territory.

7. Commas are used for typographical reasons to separate dates and years, towns and counties etc.

His home was in Streatham, East London.

My father was born on March 13, 1949.

8. Commas are used to separate several adjectives

The old, ramshackle, dilapidated house had a charm of its own.

That rather dull-looking, badly-dressed, clumsy man is actually a university professor.

Rylance identifies some other instances where commas should be used:

[9.] In reported speech, to mark a person addressed. For instance, “thank you, your honour”.

[10.]  Usually after a phrase that begins with a present participle (-ing). For instance, “standing to address the court, he began his speech”.
[11.]  To mark off words and phrases such as “therefore”, “however”, “of course” and “for instance”. Depending on where in the sentence the comma appears, use of a comma in these circumstances can be very similar to a pair of parenthesises or to separate an introductory phrase from the rest of the sentence.

I believe that the comma is probably the most abused piece of punctuation in English and it’s a problem which seems to be getting worse, not better.

The comma can be a particularly difficult piece of punctuation to get to grips with. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

First, there are a multitude of ways in which commas can be correctly used (with some similarity between those categories in certain instances).

Secondly, there’s a degree of discretion as to where commas can be used correctly. Rylance notes the existence of a ‘catch-all’ category for using commas:

“[…] to insert a pause into a sentence so as to break it up into articulate phrases or clauses. The test […] is to read the whole sentence, noting where the voice naturally pauses.”

For the record, that absolutely shouldn’t be taken as carte blanche for whacking in commas hither and thither, just because your voice might pause naturally there.

Thirdly, there are a number of conflicting authorities on correct comma usage. Those authorities are probably best treated as guides rather than absolute rules; providing you don’t stray too far from them, you should be fine.

I think most people’s writing can benefit from some careful consideration of proper punctuation from time to time (mine included).  And you might just find that reflecting on your use of commas when you’re at a loss in the office on a quiet afternoon is time very well spent.  It’s just a pity you can’t get CPD points for it!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Know the Risks of Cheap Cosmetic Surgery while Travelling Abroad

Guest Post

cosmetic surgerySo you’ve decided you want cosmetic surgery, or are at least seriously considering it. We imagine you’ve also heard about the op-and-holiday packages that companies promise across the world. It’s true that you can potentially undergo cosmetic surgery at a lower price abroad, but like most things, you often get what you pay for.

Of course, there are highly-skilled plastic surgeons wherever you are in the world, but if you’re looking for cheap deals, it’s likely that you’ll go under the knife in a country where the rules and guidelines aren’t very strict.

Safer in the UK?
Although not every surgical operation is going to be entirely risk-free, if complications arise in the UK, the surgeon is bound by a duty of care to provide follow-up treatments. However, abroad, sometimes what you get is what you get. In the UK, clinics won’t often have a representative that you can go to. However, as documented by this Wrexham based solicitor, in an incident regarding a crooked nose, they said that ‘you may gain compensation if it is possible to reveal that the doctor did something wrong which a competent doctor would have done.’

Beware of the holiday sell. Often, people are suckered into deals where they never meet the surgeon and receive professional advice before the op. You should want to see some of his or her previous work. Cosmetic surgery is a very serious business and should be treated as such. Bear in mind that you may be able to have a holiday before your surgery, but after, you won’t be allowed to drink, lie in the sun, or partake in energetic activities (and you probably won’t want to either).

It’s so important that you can have a follow-up appointment and extra treatment. You need to have all this worked out before you leave the country because it’s unlikely that you’ll receive the attention you need, when you’re back home. If there is a serious problem, you might have to travel back to have it fixed! Or cough up for a UK plastic surgeon. After all that expenditure, you might have saved money by getting cosmetic surgery in the UK to begin with!

Minimise The Risks
This isn’t something you should do on a whim. Research the procedure for a very long time before you consider doing it. You have to meet your surgeon and make sure that he or she is the right one for you. Make sure they are fully registered and highly recommended.

Find out how cosmetic surgery is regulated in the country you plan to visit and ascertain how well these standards are enforced. Really, your surgeon should be able to speak English well, so you can understand their advice and they can respond to your concerns and questions.

Think Of The Worst
Things may go very wrong! This is something you have to face up to and you must consider the risks involved. What kind of insurance arrangements does the clinic have? Will your travel insurance cover any of this? It really is worth getting some straight advice legally and medically in this country, before you consider going abroad for cosmetic surgery.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why have Microsoft removed numbered comments from Word 2013?

Word 2013 Splash Screen

On the whole, I’m quite fan of the latest version of Microsoft Office – Office 365. There are some features which are genuinely useful and which represent a significant improvement to those found in earlier versions of office.

One such feature is the ‘Simple Markup’ view in tracked changes. This can make navigating a document littered with countless tracked changes much easier and is a nice halfway house between the previous view options of essentially all or nothing.

Sometimes, though, Microsoft makes crazy retrogressive steps by removing useful functionality. I don’t know whether this is in a bid to simplify a complicated product, that they’ve got sick of a particular bit of code or whether it stems from some misguided focus group reporting it should be removed on the grounds of obsolescence.

A prime example of this is the removal of self-numbering comment balloons from Word 2013. Oh yes. With previous versions of Word, inserting a comment balloon would automatically prefix it with the author’s initials, followed by a number (starting, funnily enough, at one).

Word 2007 Comment
How things used to be…

In the latest version of Word, however, only the author’s name appears.  That makes referring to specific comments made by the same author rather tricky.

For lawyers, self-numbering comments were really useful and saved heaps of time when referring back to specific comments within a document. Yes, it’s true that you can use the numbering function to insert numbers manually, but it’s a poor substitute.  And having to waste time adding the numbers manually really grates on me.

So, please, Microsoft… bring back self-numbering comments to Word.

Pretty please….?

Or should I dust off that copy of WordPerfect again?