London, Feb. 8: Hunted, ineptly skewered, gruesomely spliced, and often left wandering in a syntactic wilderness, the comma is a serial victim. Is it time it was put out of its misery — and ours?
An American scholar has suggested that the comma could be abolished without doing much damage to the English language. John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, argues that as Internet users and even some authors become increasingly idiosyncratic — if not indifferent — in their use of the punctuation mark, it may have outstayed its welcome. You “could take them out of a great deal of modern American texts and you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all”, he said.
He cited the Oxford comma, inserted by the grammatically zealous after the penultimate item in a list, as an example of the mark’s obsolescence. “Nobody has any reason for it that is scientifically sensible and logical in the sense that we know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water,” he told the online magazine Slate. “So these things are just fashions and conventions. They change over time.”
The comma was a late arrival in Britain, borrowed from Italian printers in the early 16th century and replacing a forward slash-like mark called the virgule. Tudor writers, accustomed to putting in punctuation to follow the rhythms of speech, took a while to get the hang of it. The confusion lasted into the 19th century, when Jane Austen largely eschewed the comma, instead sprinkling dashes over her drafts.
Kathryn Sutherland, professor in bibliography and textual criticism and the curator of a digital edition of Austen’s papers at the University of Oxford, described the novelist’s punctuation as “a score for the voice”, arguing that her writing was meant not so much as prose but as conversation. Austen’s style was heavily corrected for the print edition by her classically educated publisher William Gifford as a new fashion for grammatical rigour swept through late Georgian Britain, she added.
Simon Horobin, professor of English language and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, said: “The general tendency, especially online and in (text messages), is towards lighter punctuation, and this is clearly having a knock-on effect on the use of the comma.”
He named “splicing”, where a comma is used to bind two grammatically separate sentences into one, and mistakes in “bracketing”, where commas wall off a subordinate clause or interjection from the rest of the sentence, among the most common errors.
English grammar is increasingly divided between the Internet, where punctuation is going back to its historical role as kind of musical notation tracking spoken English, and the more formal sphere of edited writing, Horobin believes. “I’m sure it can be confusing for children who are more and more exposed to non-standard writing,” he said.
Authors are ever more ready to frolic on the frontiers of English punctuation. “I’m tired,” as the American writer Tao Lin wrote in a recent poem. “Grammar is stupid / I’m going to kill grammar and symbolism.”
David Foster Wallace, another US novelist, once warned an editor of dire consequences if he dared to correct the deliberate “non-standard features” in one of his manuscripts, including “commas before prepositions at the end of sentences”.