The origins of the filthy comma

I have been whoring my literacy out for money over a period of several years now. During that time, I have attempted to assist my customers with UCAS applications, Masters dissertations, PhD theses, book reviews and academic papers. From these various sources, I have compiled a list of my favourite errors and corrections, which I share with you below. Normally, I am at pains to help those customers of mine still in education to understand the importance of good referencing, but on this occasion I have left everything unsourced and anonymous, to save the blushes of people who may wish to employ me again.

I have put this list together partly just for funsies, but also as a means of explaining (or perhaps merely illustrating) my obsession with words. My purpose is also to explain, in a partial way, the name of my blog and why the comma is filthy. This is in the same spirit as At the Drop of a Hat, in which you may remember Michael Flanders explains that the ‘Song of Reproduction’ is in fact about the reproduction of sound, ‘in case any of you should think the title a little near the bone’.

  1. ‘Whaling could not have taken place without a goodly supply of Wales’. I think our reviewer means ‘whales’. The preceding sentence where he measures the catch in terms of an area the size of Wales may have confused him.
  2. In the paragraph on Yorkshire, I think you mean ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’, rather than ‘where there’s muck there’s bras’. Alternatively, you may mean ‘where there is muck, there are also bras’, but this would contradict what you go on to say about Middlesborough in paragraph two.
  3. ‘The Ecuadorian land was heavily forested, unlike the Brazilian’. I fear this has connotations of which you may not be fully aware.
  4. ‘It could also be argued that the food eaten by morbidly obese people is a terrible waist.’ Yes, it could. However …
  5. ‘This causes several problems to arse’. Although I’m drawn to the idea that Bretton Woods had consequences for Europe’s buttocks that have hitherto languished in obscurity, you appear to have lost the will to live in the middle of a sentence.  I suspect that you mean ‘arise’.
  6. ‘Zahedieh rightly calls the archival record ‘crappy’ (p. 9)’. I wonder if this should read ‘scrappy’?
  7. ‘However, the female parts of the beach in Iran have been located in this area’. I think you mean ‘The parts of the beach reserved only for women are located in this area’, unless I have been grossly misinformed about Iranian beaches.
  8. ‘The greatest biodiversity is happening in the cylindrical forests’. I would very much like to see this statement illustrated with a diagram.
  9. ‘The soil is light, sandy and cancerous’. Eek!
  10. ‘…two perfectly smooth bodies sliding over each other’. There isn’t anything grammatically dubious about this; I just love it when you talk dirty.[1]
  11. ‘Proofreading’ is one word (as is ‘irony’).
  12. ‘Chinese people prefer to pay for an item after inspecting themselves.’ This may be entirely true.
  13. ‘My thesis will follow a hieratical structure’. I assume this is your way of telling me that you made the initial drafts while in the queue for confession.
  14. ‘With that, it was declared that England had signed the King of Spain’s bread.’ A delightful image, but sadly even less pertinent than the original metaphor.
  15. I’m not sure it’s wise to commission a review of a book about the history of sado-masochism from Professor Spanck.
  16. I cannot agree with the reviewer that a history of castration is ‘a snip’ at £150.
  17. ‘At six hundred pages, this history of fonts and typefaces is not for the feint-hearted’. Please advise as to the journal’s policy on feeble puns.
  18. ‘The economic crisis is some serious shit.’ I suggest that this is a little too street for a PhD.
  19. I cannot read the last word of this paragraph as there is a small spider mashed between the pages, but (rather beautifully), I think it is probably ‘fly’.
  20. I prefer a comma after ‘sex’. As a serendipitous, self-creating correction, the filthy comma will never be bettered.


[1] This memorable phrase appeared in a thesis written by my dear friend Hates Commas. I read it several years ago and it was the last piece of copy-editing I did for free (I was paid in weird chocolate). In my defence, I had rather lost the will to live at this point: the thesis was on nanophysics and was full of baffling diagrams and lengthy sentences bulging with technical terms. Every so often he would write something like ‘from this, we can easily see’, at which I would mutter under my breath, ‘easy for you, you smug bastard’. He also had a total disregard for the common comma (hence the pseudonym), such that in a document of some seventy pages, I was forced to add over three hundred and twenty commas (although I admit nobody forced me to count them). I was correcting it by hand and towards the end started writing pissy notes in the margin (‘No. This is just plain wrong’ reads one; another, ‘Don’t make me shoot you in the head’; and a third, in the final chapter, ‘I don’t believe Dr. Bart Hoogenboom is real. STOP INVENTING PEOPLE’).[2] I mention this in case any potential copy-editing customers might be given the impression that I just throw flirtatious asides into my comments at random: I do not. That’s extra.

[2] Dr. Hoogenboom is, annoyingly for me (although I’m sure he’s charming), entirely real. I normally give customers a spiel about not expecting me to catch factual errors, but this experience also taught me to check before breaking the glass on the capslock key.

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