Friday, January 26, 2007

What's wrong with this sentence?

Here's a sentence written recently by one of my favourite political columnists:

"The left too has a heritage it may have forgotten, a libertarian, anti-statist tradition dating back to the 19th century."

And I'll answer the question above straight away: I don't think there's anything wrong with it. But, if I'd written it, I would probably have punctuated it a bit differently. (Commas on either side of "too" and a semi-colon after "forgotten", since you ask.)

My point? That, despite what disciples of St Lynne of the Truss may tell us, punctuation is very largely a matter of taste and judgement. Did I stumble over the writer's meaning because he failed to use the same dots and squiggles as I would have done? Not for a second. Would the sentence be any easier to read punctuated my way? Almost certainly not.

For persuasive writers, the only cast iron rule - to be enforced with "zero tolerance" - is that every mark we make on the page or screen must make it more rather than less likely that the reader will be won round to our point of view.