But, are you happy?
But more importantly - is the punctuation correct?
This thought provoking phrase used in Labour's new billboard campaign has raised a touch of ire at Penhire.
Many people mistakenly believe that a comma can be used in writing to indicate a pause in speech. In the case above the pause is clearly intended for dramatic effect. It wishes to halt the voter (who might immediately answer "yes" - NOT the answer Labour is looking for) and imply he or she should stop to think deeply about the question.
A comma has many uses (eight according to Garbl's style guide!) but pausing for effect is not one of them.
Commas can be used to set to set off words and phrases such as however, meanwhile, in fact, in addition, moreover, nevertheless, as a result, thus, therefore, for example, finally and in other words. Usually commas are placed after such expressions when they begin a sentence, and before and after the expressions when they are within a sentence.
The use of "but" fits closely with this use. However, its brevity means that it is not required, complicating the sentence.
If the writer still wished to imply a more involved conversation was taking place with the reader they might have said:
Nevertheless, are you happy? (Perhaps too much implication that everything else is all fine and dandy)
Or for the same effect they could have simply said:
But are you happy?
Punctuation is not the only source of my ire with this campaign.
In a clothed, fed and sheltered society with new cars, plasma screens and designer handbags, happiness has become the latest "necessity" and I do not argue that it the equal of material needs. But in all reality, who expects the government to make them happy? Shorter commuting times may contribute to it, but happiness is an individually defined and complex concept. The most suitable definition I found in this case is "a deep sense of contentment with life".
The problem with humans is that most of us are walking, talking paradoxes, making happiness near impossible for an outside party to provide. For example, most people are happier when they are healthy. Yet the very same people are also find happiness in the things that counteract this very state - such as pints, chocolate bars and sleeping in instead of going to the gym.
The provision of happiness seems such a complicated business, I think it best we leave the government get on with fixing the health system and outsource it to the experts - ourselves.