I am, unapologetically, an over-user of commas. Case in point: I could have written the previous sentence as, "I am an unapologetic over-user of commas," but opted not to. I wished to emphasize just how unapologetic I am about my comma usage. I also wanted you to read the first sentence of this essay not as a cold fact, but as a casually broached conversation starter. That's the comma's unique, multi-faceted power: It can highlight, it can clarify, it can create a rhythm. Most importantly: It can force us to pause. Which is why Slate's fascinating piece, "Will We Use Commas in the Future?" (A: Maybe.) is disconcerting.
The piece is a break-down of linguist John McWhorter's assertion that commas could be removed entirely from our writing (including classic literature! blasphemy!), and clarity would remain mostly intact. His reasoning? Because Internet. Twitter's 140-character limit makes its users punctuation-averse, and in other, less-restricted online mediums, the meaning of punctuation marks is shifting; periods denote anger, ellipses imply skepticism. According to McWhorter, these changes have not made it more difficult for us to understand each other; therefore they must be valid. Writing is shifting to become more colloquial, and commas, he argues, are prohibitive to this shift.
In theory, this is a fine, descriptivist concept; people shape language, not the other way around. People are hurriedly removing commas, and it's only a matter of time before pedantic authors and English teachers get with the program. But there are a few gaping holes in McWhorter's argument. First, he glosses over the few occasions on which commas are necessary for clarity. Second, he mistakenly associates commas with stodginess, when in reality, they can make a statement more conversational. And third, he seems not to acknowledge the rift between efficient writing and complex writing.
Commas for clarity
The elimination of commas can lead to confusion, as in the unfortunately comma-less sentence, "Let's eat Grandma." A few other examples:
- A magazine headline reading, "Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog."
- A sentence which, without commas, becomes more restrictive: "The monks who were running jumped aside" as opposed to "The monks, who were running, jumped aside."
- A sentence that, in the absence of an Oxford comma, makes the speaker seem like he/she is talking to inanimate objects: "I had eggs, toast and orange juice" as opposed to "I had eggs, toast, and orange juice."
Sometimes, there's no getting around the fact that the correct point can't be conveyed without a comma.
Commas for complexity
The above are obvious examples. The missing commas alter their meanings entirely. There are subtler situations that don't necessitate commas, but which benefit from them. Here are a few:
- The example used in The Elements of Style to illustrate a parenthetic statement set off by commas: "The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot."
- The first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, an elaborate run-on conveying the tendency for "the nosiest authorities" to ramble and use superlatives: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."
There's a case to be made against the first example, which when written without commas still makes sense: "Unless you are pressed for time the best way to see a country is to travel on foot." The same point is conveyed, if ungrammatically. But the version with commas is more pleasant to read. It's broken up phonetically, and puts the most important aspect of the statement at the beginning.
The second example is a creative use of the comma. The gist could, of course, be understood if the commas were replaced with periods. But the tone would be altered.
It should go without saying (but puzzlingly doesn't) that language can be made better by including more than what's necessary. There's been a recent push for simplifying language -- the maddening Hemingway app suggests the removal of adverbs, and Spritz, an irritating new speed reading app, flashes words and short phrases on a screen for quick ingestion. But when we use lowest common denominator language, we disallow more complicated thoughts.
Commas for conversation
Okay, so that covers the importance of commas in more serious writing. But what about the colloquial stuff? If written language is trending towards more casual chats than elaborate essays, do commas still have a place? Well, duh.
Yes, the Internet has created a new, more relaxed tone for written conversation. You needn't look any further than BuzzFeed's Style Guide, which includes such important distinctions as "haha (interjection); ha-ha (n.)" to see that writing on or for the Internet isn't much different from talking face-to-face. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's plenty of room for complexity in conversational language, and commas play a part in contributing to that complexity.
As evidence for the comma's downfall, the Slate article references a quote from Brooklyn Magazine, in which an author creatively removes commas from her writing: “Although I really want to tell you about this white noise machine I just got!!!!!!!!!!! No but it seriously has changed my life!!! hahahah I don’t even know if I’m joking or not!!!" This stream-of-consciousness style is nothing more than a trend in online writing; it's a way to convey excitement over a subject while simultaneously demonstrating awareness that said excitement is rather silly because said subject is a little petty. It is not, as McWhorter argues, the beginning of the end of commas. A slew of sites with relaxed editorial voices deploy commas liberally:
- Rather than conveying excitement, commas used to enhance a piece's conversational tone might set off an interjection, as in, "Oh, did you just shake your head so hard in disbelief?"
- They might also lead off a paragraph outlining an offhand opinion, as in "But frankly, this just reminds me of the time I visited an e-commerce company...".
Are commas essential for clear communication? Not always. But sometimes they are, and they certainly allow us to convey a variety of tones, conversational or otherwise, in our writing. A comma-less future would, I believe, be a linguistic bore, if not a communicational disaster.