On full stops and commas…

Posted by on May 22, 2022 in Blog | 2 comments

grayscale photo of sand with wind marks

Let me start with a brag, and follow it with a confession. I won the English prize at school. True, that was not far off 50 years ago but I haven’t forgotten the thunderous applause as I walked up to receive my prize. Well – that’s how I remember it, though others might say they simply recall yawning quietly and longing for speech day to end. But here is my confession. In spite of that prize I have always been grammatically challenged. For example, I’m never quite sure when a sentence requires a comma, though I do know that it is different to a full stop, and that it signifies that a brief pause in speech is expected. It is to help you draw your breath, not the end of the sentence. If you write by hand and are a little untidy (mea culpa) you might confuse a comma for a full stop. After all, the difference is just a tiny hook on the end of the dot. But grammatically – or in terms of the role it plays in a story – there is a big difference between a comma and a full stop. You carry on if there is a comma, but if it’s a stop – well, you stop, or at least for a while you do.  (Oh, and by the way, if you are one of my American friends, you might like to translate full stop [or fullstop] as period.)       

Have you ever hit a dead end? A sudden full stop in what you thought was an ongoing story. You know what it’s like. It wasn’t something you expected, but that’s how it’s turned out. 

I’ve been a pastor and an academic for many years. In the early stage of my academic career I correctly realised that to be considered a serious academic, you must publish. I had recently completed my Master’s research and wrote an article based on it, sending it off to a reputable journal with very high hopes. After all, I won the English prize at school, so clearly I could write.

In academia, articles have to be peer reviewed before they are accepted for publication and the peer review I got back was a scathing rejection. The reviewer didn’t like the article at all, and added that I was a grammatical incompetent as I consistently placed apostrophes in the wrong place. Rather foolishly, I read the review over and over, saying to myself at the end of its 23rd reading: “Well that’s that. Clearly I can’t write, full stop.”

For well over a decade I didn’t try to publish anything again. I still wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for some friends who suggested I see the rejection as a comma, rather than a full stop. They reminded me that around 75% of articles sent for peer review are rejected, so why should I have expected to be through the door on the first attempt (clearly they didn’t know that I had won the English prize!) They assured me that all that was needed was a bit of perseverance. It took a few years before I believed them, during which time they consistently confirmed that I thought well, wrote well, and had views that should be read. And when I objected that I had tried and been turned down they said, “So what? It happens. It doesn’t mean you can’t write, just that you must persist.”

They gave me the confidence to turn a full stop into a comma.

The first version was, “My article was scathingly rejected – full stop.” They suggested I make that a comma: “My article was scathingly rejected, but I know you must persist in life, so I’ll give it another shot.” That has now become a really long sentence: “My article was scathingly rejected, but I know you must persist in life, so I gave it another shot, and now I have published 6 books, helped edit another, am on the final chapter of yet another, have written over 30 academic articles and hundreds of inspirational pieces.” The simple truth is that I wouldn’t have unless some good friends had got alongside me and effectively said, “you can turn that full stop into a comma”. 

Turning full stops into commas is the heart of the Christian message. If it’s Good Friday you probably say: “Jesus was crucified, dead and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.” It’s an obvious full stop, the end of the story. Except it wasn’t. We now correctly say: “Jesus was crucified, dead and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea – comma – but on the third day he conquered death, transforming it into the gateway to life eternal, and forever changing the course of history.” 

Sometimes remarkable things happen during the comma. When you pause for breath you can evaluate where you have been and where you are going. There are many things to be learnt during the comma periods of life. Often the key learning is that there is life ahead, that failure is not final, and that a pause could be a good thing. 

We might have a ministry of helping others turn full stops into commas. Often to turn a stop into a comma requires someone to intervene on your behalf. Something has to be added. It takes a bit of effort. It means you carefully read where the sentence has got to and ask what it will take to give it a different ending. For example, perhaps you are a teacher. There is a student whose sentence proclaims: “I am a 9 year old, and I still can’t read.” And that could be that… endless doors shutting because that is where the sentence ends. Or it could become: “I am a 9 year old and I still can’t read – comma – but now the wonderful Mrs Jones is working with me, and its starting to make sense.” That’s a life changed… 

Or: “My home life is a mess, so I cause havoc at school.” Could someone intervene so that becomes: “My home life is a mess, so I cause havoc at school, but the amazing [your name] sees through that, and hasn’t given up on me, so I’m starting to hope again.” That’s a life changed… 

One last question that could take us in a completely different direction: With church attendance numbers in significant decline, are we facing a full stop or a comma for the Christian faith? And what will it take to turn this potential full stop into a comma?

As always, nice chatting (oh, and did I tell you, I won the English prize at school).

Please repost or send to any who might find this helpful. You are free to reproduce the post with acknowledgment.

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com


  1. Even age retirement age (60), God turned my full stop into a comma – when life became challenging and thrilling. Once again not long before 80 God changed the “end” stop into something totally new, challenging and stretching. I have learnt new skills and published three of my husbands books. When serving the God of great things, he still uses us no matter the stage of life – if we don’t add the final full stop . . . . . . . . . . and allow Him to do so.

    • Thanks for being an inspiration to us all Ruth, a wonderful example of what the God of great things can do.


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