When Lynne Truss tried to remind the Anglophone world that there is a not-so-subtle difference between eating, shooting and leaving, on the one hand, and eating shoots and leaving, on the other, and it all depends on where one puts the comma, a lot of people, mainly Americans, called her a grammar fascist. Yet, one does not have to feel a great deal of passion for the comma to agree that the opening sentence of this editorial, already quite long, would have been an incomprehensible mess without the use of this particular punctuation mark. Perhaps it is best not to get too worked up, therefore, by an academic’s recent expressions of doubt regarding the contemporary relevance of the comma. It should also be kept in mind that this academic — who teaches literature in New York — was talking about the dispensability of the comma in “a great deal of modern American texts”. So, the rest of the English-using world need not bother. But there is a point about grammar fascism that is always worth making. It is true that too much prescriptive conservatism about language-use tends to look, at the end, like comical self-importance, a parody of Dr Johnson. Languages, when they are not the classical ones, are living entities, and it is ultimately quite impossible to police them. Everything, from the simplification of spelling to the coining of new words, is subject to unstoppable change, and all that one can speak up for, at any time, is intelligibility, which need not exclude inventiveness — and this is true for both everyday and exceptional uses of language.
But, having said that, it remains legitimate to wonder what really is wrong with the comma. And why should it be smart to refuse to make the effort to use a language with the right sort of pauses for the sake of clarity, euphony and felicity? Punctuation marks attest to the closeness of writing to speaking. Even when a piece of text is being written or read silently, a lot of its meaning and tone depends on how the reader hears it in his or her mind’s ear; learning to write and read is an important part of learning to listen, and vice versa. So, being able to work the differences between the comma, semi-colon and full-stop, is, ideally, an integral part of human linguistic intelligence. Dismissing precision and nuance as too much unnecessary work sounds like a sloppy excuse for sloppiness.