Commas aren’t always essential for clear communication, but they can make a serious impact on setting the tone in writing, and much more. Here’s more from the Huffington Post:
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.
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