It’s amazing the things that people argue about on the internet. Here’s a typically spot-on review of the last Dan Brown book by Clive James in Prospect Magazine. In it James cites the following criticism of Brown’s prose…
Dr Sienna Brown, described as a “pretty, young woman”, in keeping with Dan Brown’s gift for inserting the fatal extra comma that he or one of his editors believes to be a sign of literacy.
Ah, commas. Awkward little things. We’re all guilty of overusing them sometimes. Me included. I now include a ‘get the commas’ routine as part of every revision process, though I doubt I catch every one.
What fascinates me here though is the argument that ensues in the comments on that article. This begins with someone pointing out…
I think Brown got his comma right in “pretty, young woman.” Like that, it means a woman who is both young and pretty. No comma (a “pretty young woman”) and it would have been a woman who was only approximately young.
And it descends into some pretty heated bickering after that. I’m not going to try to rule on this argument. I’m not qualified. If I wanted to use the phrase I’d write ‘pretty young woman’ because it seems to me to make more sense. ‘Young woman’ is a connected idea. You wouldn’t write ‘distracted, young woman’. So why throw in that extra comma for the adjective ‘pretty’?
There’s a tip there, by the way. When faced with a dilemma it’s often worthwhile to think of it from a different perspective. Ask yourself ‘what would I do if I changed a word or two here?’
An awful lot of writing questions can be answered by common sense, a little work and a determination not to write ugly. Honest.