The Enemy Of The Comma

Reading & Writing

The Ending Soars into Very English Tragedy

‘A novel from the author of several previous books,’ said the Amazon logline about ‘Jubb’, one of Keith Waterhouse’s astonishing black comedies. Was there ever a less appealing biography?

I’m not sure I want to live in a world where ‘bibulous hack’ Waterhouse is out of print. His novels are now only available from secondhand shelves. 

Leeds-born Waterhouse became a campaigning journalist in London, arguing against the colour bar, human rights abuses and arms sales. A sense of moral outrage led him to the new satire scene, where he wrote for ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and ‘The Frost Report’. He penned a screenplay for ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ and rewrites for Hitchcock’s ‘Torn Curtain’, plus books for several musicals, but of course it was 1959’s ‘Billy Liar’ that put him on the map. It’s the tragi-comic tale of an imaginative 19 year-old who sees his dreams being crushed. Will he risk all on a nebulous career in London or remain at home, a constrained fish in a small pond?

Billy’s dark night of the soul takes on a resonance that remains pertinent today. Everyone seeks to tie him down and clip his wings. The ending masks a very English tragedy, making Billy a great British literary character. An award-winning film version was directed by John Schlesinger, with a debut by Julie Christie. It was followed by a hit TV series and a musical version starring Michael Crawford, with songs from John Barry.

After a negligible sequel called ‘Billy Liar on the Moon’, which saw the older anti-hero trapped in suburbia, there were many other joyous novels, including the workplace satire ‘Office Life’, in which a handful of befuddled employees set off to discover what their company actually does for a living.

Low Life

Waterhouse exhibited a certain amount of nostalgie de la boue that extended to mythologizing Soho and its denizens, especially the alcoholic columnist Jeffrey Bernard, whom he immortalised in the play ‘Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell’, featuring a stellar performance by Peter O’Toole as the acerbic scribe who gets locked in the Coach & Horses pub overnight.

In later years he wrote a number of lyrical memoirs about his childhood, and in the process was incorrectly dismissed as a nostalgist by critics who had failed to see the astringency in his writing; this ultimately damaged his standing. His sparkling, evocative novels deserve a far better fate.

Although Waterhouse never lost his Yorkshire sensibilities, he was an old-school Fleet Street journalist who believed in good grammar and correct spelling, and created the definitive manual about clear writing, called ‘On Newspaper Style’.

The Enemy of the Comma

Originally written in 1989 as an in-house style guide for the Daily Mirror’s journalists, it was published for public consumption and remains just as relevant and funny today.

Herein are laid out all of the journalist’s cheap tricks for grabbing readers by the throat, from hitting interviewees with fixed questions to rewriting dull stories into tabloidese using tough action verbs like ‘rap’, ‘probe’, ‘bid’, ‘swoop’ and ‘axe’. He was alive to the eroding nuances of language. Here he is on one of my pet hates, the curse of the polysyllable;

There is no such word as ‘miniscule’. ‘Utilise’ does not mean ‘use’, it means ‘make use of’. Nor is ‘following’ quite the same as ‘after’. Following their appearance at the Theatre Royal, the Fol-de-Rols are disbanding suggests a decision made consequent upon what sounds like a disastrous appearance. After their appearance…suggests they had already made up their minds earlier.

He’s hot on descriptive prefixes, clichés, which and that (which informs, that defines), and smashes through the grammar rules in a handful of succinct pages. He’s especially down on the use of mixed plurals, where you begin with a plural, add a possessive and have to add another plural, becoming trapped by your own sentence construction.  Ie. ‘Adjectives should not raise a question in reader’s mind, they should answer it.’

While we’re on adjectives; ‘Red-haired’ tells us a person has red hair. ‘Vivacious’ tells us nothing except that someone has sat down at a computer and written the word ‘vivacious’. ‘Angry’ informs. ‘Tall’ invites the question ‘how tall?’ Adjectives used for effect should not be too clapped out to evoke anything in the reader’s mind. Grim death. Vital clues. Brutal murder. They add nothing to the nouns they accompany.

My own curse is also a Waterhouse bugbear, the inelegant variation. This is where you don’t want to repeat a key word so you vary it awkwardly. Britain eats too much sugar. We consume tons of the stuff. 

About the humble comma he says;

It is not the function of a comma to help a wheezing sentence get its breath back. The semi-colon too is often used as breathing apparatus. Commas are inserted when sentences lose confidence in themselves. A healthy sentence can get by without either aids so long as it keeps its nerve.

Waterhouse didn’t live long enough to see his beloved profession wrecked by articles that consist of press releases glued to ALAMY shots, with pre-digested copy dropped onto the page with barely a rewrite. I imagine the proliferation of illiterate online articles would have had him tearing his hair out.

Waterhouse remains unfashionable, but good writing never goes out of style.


26 comments on “The Enemy Of The Comma”

  1. Tim Magee says:

    That conk though! There’s hope for humanity as long as the world can create and sustain a nose like that.

    I rarely get moved to comment on things, but being reminded of KW did the trick handily. I attempted Jubb at too tender an age having enjoyed his Punch columns. I bounced off it then. Naturally I still have it. Maybe three decades and change later I’m ready for it.

    Re new Bryant & May: I’m still young enough that July seems impossibly far away. Are we there yet?

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Varying the word. Yup, that’s me. I don’t like the bell ringing sound of a repeated word but how to replace it? (Shove in anything and come back to it later.)
    Commas and semi colons. Yup, that, too. How many commas can you fit into a four word phrase? Each of those fits the rules as I learned them and I usually obey the Oxford comma as well – for clarity only, of course.
    Journalism, as Mr. Waterhouse would no doubt agree, is not literature. I haven’t met a style manual yet that I didn’t argue with (with which I didn’t argue sounds pedantic) Even literature can be improved with journalistic clarity and a little brevity very rarely hurts.
    That being said I’m going to see if that manual of his exists in our local collection – or as a second hand volume somewhere.

  3. Peter T says:

    With TW3 and The Frost Report, he suffered the misfortune of launching the meteoric rise of David Frost. Greatness must always bring its burden.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    His books are still available in kindle, some of the Penguin versions are still available as new, they tend to put the publishing date and then just say which printing inside. last version 2015. The seem to update about every 5 years but I guess covid has slowed things down. But lets not talk about the increased profits and furlough payments.

    I picked up The mirror style fairly cheap a few years ago, but it seems to have soared in price. The one Admin mentions is available through Abe for about 11 to 15 dollars, other sites are available.


  5. Brian Evans says:

    I use them occasionally, but do we really need exclamation marks?-as in readers must realise I am being funny so I feel the need to signpost the fact. As for the apostrophe, please let’s ban them. If I had written “lets ban them” everyone would have known exactly what I meant. They are more trouble than they are worth. Even some university students seems to think a plural requires one-as in “university student’s.” They are more trouble than they are worth. Apostrophes not university students. Oh, I don’t know though…Do we need to differentiate between peoples, people’s or peoples’? We all know when we see a plural of an item that may belong to more than one person without the need for it to be (often wrongly”) sign posted. Or should that be sign-posted? Or signposted?

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Oo-er, did anyone notice I said “They are more trouble than they are worth?” twice. By the way, should the question mark I have just used be inside or outside the quotes? Seriously, I am never sure.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Peter T, I’m with you on that one. I friend of mine used to be a steward on Concord and he said Frost was the nastiest, most arrogant passenger he ever had to deal with.

  8. SteveB says:

    I can’t think of Keith Waterhouse without mentally adding ‘and Willis Hall’

  9. SteveB says:

    I disagree about apostrophes, they encourage clear thinking which is especially helpful when learning other languages.

  10. Richard says:

    Since you asked, Brian, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks if (as in your sentence) the quotation itself isn’t a question:
    Oo-er, did anyone notice I said “They are more trouble than they are worth” twice?

  11. Peter T says:

    The question of should we use a question mark in the middle of a sentence? comes to mind. For me, who often forgets to put them at the end of a sentence, it looks very ugly. After all, in text other than dialogue or an examination paper, who is going to answer? so why bother to emphasise the question?

  12. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Richard. I’m pushing 70 so you would have thought I’d know that by now. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it was yet another senior moment.

  13. Liz Thompson says:

    A word in favour of the ill-treated exclamation mark. I use it all the time in informal emails and personal letters. It expresses surprise, outrage, incredulity and alarm. OK, I wouldn’t use it in any formal communication, but what about fiction? If I were (please note subjunctive – another ill-treated grammatical item) conveying a character’s feelings, mannerisms, or attitudes, I would find it helpful to the reader. Do not throw the baby out with the bath water (exclamation mark optional).

  14. Peter Dixon says:

    The question mark, like the exclamation mark, has a dot at the bottom which is a full stop. Both of them can only be used at the end of a sentence in written English. Of course, in the spoken word, Australians throw question marks in at any point in the conversation.

  15. Paul C says:

    I remember in my early teens cutting out KW’s columns out of the Daily Mirror twice a week and saving them. I even held my nose and bought the Daily Mail when he moved there (to avoid Robert Maxwell – very prescient), He was a wonderful writer and I think his best novel is the atypically quite angry ‘Thinks’ (Billy Liar owes too much to Walter Mitty ?) KW’s two volumes of autobiography are great reading pleasures which deserve to live on. How sad to see his star fading away.

  16. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Liz Thompson-I take your point!

  17. Peter Dixon says:

    Of course! He wrote Worzel Gummidge for TV. Pure genius.

  18. Roger says:

    Why bother with only one exclamation point or question mark? Why not follow the example of the Spanish and have them upside down at the beginning of the sentence too so we know how to read the sentence?

  19. Liz Thompson says:

    Hey Roger, I did Spanish at school, and I loved the two question/exclamation marks. It told you in advance what was coming up.

  20. Brooke says:

    In my imagination, Arthur looks like Waterhouse; it’s the keen cynical eyes.

  21. Peter T says:

    According to some internet experts (and a few authors of fiction, modern and Victorian), question marks and exclamation marks can be used in place of a comma mid-sentence. Personally, I agree with Peter Dixon that it’s wrong; it’s horrible; it’s ugly; and I’d send them to the same place as the commas that KW wished to eliminate.

    In the course of looking this up on the internet, I saw that the exclamation mark has several alternative names: bang, shriek, pling and ecphoneme. When used as a factorial sign, we used call it plonk.

  22. Roger says:

    You could signal how someone’s voice changed in the course of a sentence, Liz Thompson – an Australian’s remarks would begin with an exclamation mark and end in a question mark.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    The dot under the question mark does indicate the end of he sentence but it is the quotation’s sentence that it punctuates. The punctuation is part of the quotation therefor it remains there inside the quote marks.
    Is it pick on the Aussies week? Some Canadians will do that lift of tone that indicates a question whether or not the sentence is in fact a question. I wonder if the practice precedes the Valley Girls thingy. (The speaker is actually questioning there, but the sentence does not require a question mark because it is declarative in form. Why do we put a question mark after sentences which do not require answers but are in interrogative form? We seem to punctuate the form rather than the intent.)
    Those extra commas can become epidemic if you’re not careful. Anything which is present solely to add emphasis to a pronouncement should be set off with commas we were taught, as in “We will, I fear, never get to the end of it” because the words have nothing to do with the sentence’s meaning. You can move the placement around and not change the sense.

  24. Chris says:

    Hooray! Keith Waterhouse is not forgotten as one had feared. Billy Liar – one of those early 60s pivotal moments. Jubb so modern in its dark preoccupations. There is a Happy Land one of the great child’s eye books. Two richly rewarding autobiographies, documenting the glory days of Fleet Street. On TV Worzell Gummidge and Budgie.

    Forgotten too is Waterhouse’s contemporary Bill Naughton. No English short story collection should be without a story from The Goalkeepers Revenge or Late Night on Watling Street. Spring and Port Wine and Alfie were massively resonant in their day

    Frightening how rare it is for a deserved reputation to endure..

  25. Joel says:

    We write and read for legibility and meaning. Most of the English language ‘rules’ we now abide by (or try to, including avoidance of prepositions at the ends of sentences / phrases, and abhorrence of split infinitives) are artificial. They were ‘invented’ many centuries ago by Latin scholars based on Latin constructs, which has a strict grammar etc, and imposed on English because they had the clout and could..

    We use punctuation for clarity, and to try and avoid misunderstanding / ambiguity. So use what you damn’ well like if it helps your audience understand what you want to get across. That is completely different from cheap journalism which wants to sell you something, if not news then a viewpoint. I love commas and semi-colons; I avoid repeating key words in close proximity if I can, unless it makes the material look artificial and pompous (the latter I can manage indefinitely, as here) (and I hate putting bracketed phrases at the ends of sentences).

    We have humour, we have love, we have intelligence. We can cope with clarity and should be able to resist the weaselling of those who lack any or all of those. Yah, sucks, boo, nuhhh.

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    Beautifully put, Joel! Remember Churchill’s remark to his editor regarding prepositions at the end of sentences: “(this rule) is an affectation up with which I will not put.” If putting the object of a preposition results in a sentence like Churchill’s example I don’t worry about it. Learning some latin grammar cured me of worrying about split infinitives, too.

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