In defence of the comma2 min read . Updated: 15 Feb 2014, 12:31 AM IST
The innocuous punctuation mark has no place in modern communication, says a professor. But are commas worth saving?
High on any list of Internet irritants is the grammar Nazi, the pedant who will pull you up in the middle of a heated argument (is there any other kind online?) about a misplaced apostrophe, a missing capital letter, as if such footling errors invalidate your point.
On Urban Dictionary, a sublime definition is proffered for the phrase “grammar Nazi", an entry written with either black irony or blithe indifference. Or both, mixed with crushing condescension. “Grammar Nazi’s", it begins, that apostrophe daring said grammar Nazis to respond, “are by far the most hated people on the internet. Due to the simple fact you know in daily life their ether absolute nobody or somebody with nobody".
Surely grammar does not matter online—in comment forums, on Facebook, on Twitter, on any site where the object is communication. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK, showed that people could read words in English as long as the first and last letters were correct, however scrambled the order in between. Tehoertialcly, tihs snetnece souhld not be too dfificlut to raed.
Last week, John McWhorter, an English professor at Columbia University in New York, US, caused a tempest in a thimble when he argued in the online magazine Slate that were you to remove commas from most “modern American texts... you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all." He is, of course, on solid ground.
The comma is a whimsical piece of punctuation. Inconsistency in its usage is perhaps natural; the comma is meant to represent a breath and we all breathe at our own pace. In the original Slate article in which McWhorter is quoted, the journalist notes that much of our quotidian written communication is in the form of texts, “hastily typed emails", instant message chats and tweets. If you’re a habitual tweeter, you know not to waste characters with fussy, fusty commas.
Punctuation is a product of fashion and usage. Rules change and are not taken seriously to begin with. A defence of the comma should not be made just on Trussian grounds (that is Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the 2003 best-seller; the misplaced comma in the title is a sufficient riposte to those who doubt the comma’s contribution to clarity). A comma is not just an occasionally useful squiggle of punctuation. It reveals a way of thought.
Pico Iyer, writing in Time back in 2001, observed that a “world that has only periods is a world without inflections... It has a jackboot rhythm." The period, or the full stop, is about conclusions reached, doubts vanquished. There is a reassuring certainty to the full stop. We find certainty attractive, whether in the fulminating talk show host who has all the answers, or that guy on Twitter who knows exactly what his position is on everything and feels compelled to share it. In a world, virtual or real, in thrall to instant reaction, the comma asks for pause. No wonder we find it an impediment when all we want to do is get straight to the point.
This is why we should love the comma. Embrace its stutters and doubts. Love the comma because it encourages digression, parenthetical meandering. Love the comma because it is used inconsistently, eccentrically, individually. Above all, love the comma because when all communication, all thought is breathless, it demands that you take a breath.