Girlfriend in a Co(m)ma

From Girlfriend in a Coma by Morrissey:

Girlfriend in a coma,
I know, I know,
It's serious . . .

As Kee Thuan Chye also says of losing precise meaning in prose:

In The Star paper yesterday, in the Mind Your English column, Kee Thuan Chye, also its editor, wrote on the use of the comma in prose and, a little bit, on poetry. He advised readers to take the stand halfway between Thurber and his editor Ross. Thurber hated the way Ross always inserted commas into his sentences - Ross loved commas by half.

My experience with my editor on the matter of the comma is the direct opposite: my managing editor avoids commas at all costs. One time I had to do a write up of an exhibition in Singapore. He took me to task for writing sentences – especially long ones – with more than one comma. So I had to go back to edit the piece and split any sentence I find having more than one comma.

In his column Kee implies that today’s poems do not need as many commas as those in the days of, say, Worthworth; especially after words like and and oh. He says: The general shift today is away from commas. I only partially agree with that. He is right in this view when you often come across modern poems with short lines, especially ones from Americans. I notice that most British poets tend to enjoy placing commas in their lines, either at the end of them, or in the middle, for effect.

One way any good poet would try not to use too many commas in a poem is to truncate a line at the forward end or right-side of a defined phrase or clause boundary, usually a logical grammatical grouping of words. That’s when you usually pause in the reading, at the end of the truncated line, after the last word in it. This is known as an end-stopping. If a line is truncated in the middle or any where inside a grammatical grouping, you would normally not pause at the end of the line but continue reading past it down to the start of the next line. This is run-on lines. However, you can still effect a pause in your reading a run-on line, if you want, but only a very, very slight one.

He talks about Thurber asking why do we need a comma before “in the West End” in a sentence ending with “. . .suggesting that together they should revive the Old Vic company, not at the Old Vic theater, because the roof has been damaged by bombs, but at the New Theatre, in the West End.” Kee himself explains: we need a slight pause to indicate the importance of the four words to follow.

I myself have an alternative explanation, or analysis:
If the comma is not present between New Theatre and in the West End, the writer would be pointing out a particular New Theatre which is in the West End – not the one (if there was one) in the east nor north, nor south. By this method, in the West End would actually be qualifying (identifying specifically) which New Theatre. The comma could be there because the writer is telling us they should revive the company at the New Theatre and, like an afterthought, or just some extra information, that it is in the West End. Also, he could possibly imply that there is only one New Theatre. And, placing in the West End right at the end of the sentence gives this phrase particular prominence.

What I like about Kee’s article on the comma is he himself actually does what he tells his readers to follow. He actually applies his own dictum to his own writing itself. Like in this sentence : loss of precise meaning is serious, in prose. He effects a pause - a comma - before in prose to emphasise this seriousness, particularly in prose.

Kee could well have just written: loss of precise meaning is serious in prose. Or, a feckless sub-editor or some editor above him could have edited out the comma, without realising the context of it.


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