WHERE HAVE ALL THE COMMAS GONE?
C. Neuroticus Absolutus
Lately you may have found yourself stumbling through seemingly simple sentences your “properly” educated mind discovering that commas are no longer where expected completely interrupting the natural rhythm of your eyes moving comfortably from word to word. In fact, the normally dependable, ubiquitous commas are missing, forcing you to scan ahead, pell-mell, searching for the nearest punctuational oasis—a nearly extinct semicolon cousin, or a gratifying period. From newspapers to novels, TV to advertising copy, e-mails to text messaging, there is a dearth of commas. Should you find a paragraph of prose containing anything approaching the average number of commas we used to see, it was probably written by an octogenarian. You would think that people who profess a great pride and love of country would feel the same about the language that lets them freely express the depth, intensity, fire and passion of their love and pride. Yet, among them are some who have declared war against the comma, an utterly reprehensible tribe: Punctuational abolitionists.
These dastardly do-wrongs fall into several categories:
A) Those who are slovenly in thought, speech and writing; it doesn’t matter whether it’s the result of unwillingness to learn proper punctuation, poor teachers or peer pressure. This group just doesn’t give a tinker’s damn, as evidenced by their lack of effort to improve.
B) Those in this group care, but lack the where-with-all or motivation to tackle and remedy the problem.
C) The evil-doers in this last category are financially motivated—those who would transform our language for a buck or even less. These treasure seekers are the linguistic leeches of society who believe that a larger bottom line is more beautiful than a well-written phrase. They are the publishers, editors and agents who, in trying to improve their bottom line, have embraced phrases like “write tight,” and “less is more.” Maybe it’s a plot by Hemmingwaysian extremists attempting to get us to write terse, unpunctuated dialogue. Or maybe it’s a bunch of geeks who want to convert the comma and the period keys on computer keyboards to permit single key-stroke access to a smiley face and to allow the addition of a phallic finger, so often needed in replies to spammers who jam our e-mail boxes. Users have suggested an abundance of applications for the latter, including expanding the range of expression in inter-office communications.
Don’t place commas where they impede the flow of the sentence; use them only where necessary to alleviate misunderstanding or misinterpretation, we are told. As unbelievable as it sounds, even The Chicago Manual of Style 14th Edition, my bible of modern American English usage, has the audacity to agree with these purloiners of punctuation! However, on the back fly of the cover is this puzzling statement: “. . .This revision process has been guided by a set of basic principles: consistency, clarity, literacy, good sense, and good usage, all of them tempered by a respect for the author’s individuality of expression.” (The italics are mine.) In spite of the sane reasoning implied by that statement, a noticeable change has taken place. Adherence to these Rules of Punctuation is out. My revered manual of style says placement of commas is, for the most part, a matter of style. If that’s true, what’s wrong with MY style? Why don’t MY old-school commas survive editing?
Academics countrywide purvey this new philosophy simply because it’s easier to teach one rule than twenty, and grading compositions is easier because no one ever uses commas correctly anyway. Besides, editors demand it of the professors as well, who in turn need the approval of these same editors to get their own work published—punctuational back scratching if you will. Frankly, “write tight” and “less is more” seem more like the pleas of editors and agents for writers to help them get through the slush pile and the morning’s batch of hopeful queries.
Punctuation gives us the ability to write like we speak. In addition to providing clarity of meaning, punctuation conveys important clues that identify the writer’s mood, voice, character and personality to the written messages on each page. I offer two famous speeches to exemplify this point: JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” and MLK’s “I have a dream” speeches. Listen for the pauses, full stops, inflections, intonations, and cadences and imagine the hand gestures, posturing and body language—all endemic in our spoken language. Today’s youth find this so important that—instead of using punctuation—they force us to parse their statements to deduce the hidden meaning of a smiley-face emoticon, or to obey their wishes and actually LOL, stand aghast in shock when OMG or WTF appear on our screens, and sigh in ecstasy when they bestow the status of BFF upon us.
Given that punctuation makes reading easier, what reason could there be for removing commas? Perhaps it is a matter of economics.
Publishers are benefiting millions of dollars for having mounted a direct attack on the lowly comma, eliminating as many as they can from what they publish. A writer was once able to provide insight into his mental processes and emotions by inserting a comma—a brief pause in the flow of thought—to permit the reader a sliver of time to digest the texture, emotional color, and importance of a phrase, and to allow the writer to maintain the desired meter or to add a silent emphasis to his words. No speaker is more boring than one who rushes through his or her thoughts without pause, like a singer who hasn’t learned proper phrasing—where a breath serves as a comma, a momentary pause in the lyric and production of tone that allows the maintenance of cadence and provides an enhancement to, not a distraction from, the message of the song.
Nowadays, editors would have you rush onward through the text, thus missing the subtleties the writer intended to communicate—all for the sake of saving fractions of a cent worth of ink and pennies for the cost of an additional page or two. For a single book, the cost is almost negligible; but given the total production of a large publisher, it is easy to see that serious savings are possible. Given the chance, most of us would willingly pay the small additional cost to be able to read what the author intended. But then, no one asked me or any of the other millions of readers who support the publishing industry. Instead, the choice was made to denigrate the work of writers for a few pieces of eight rather than pass the meager cost of a comma on to the public. Then, as we readers know, the cost of books went up anyway. This is the MBAs’ old capitalistic axiom: “Give them less, charge them more.”
But books need editing, you say. Someone must point out the drivel, the saccharine excrement of the mind—see what I mean?—the errors, the “this-will-never-sell” reality of publishing. There is little disagreement that perceptive agents and editors know their markets and should rightly continue to make choices based on this expertise. But having an agent, editor or publisher edit for comma, adverb or gerund usage, plot or character development or any other decisively artistic factor makes as much sense as having someone touch up an artist’s work before hanging it in a gallery for sale. The placement or selection of a comma or semicolon or adverb is no less important to the writer than if and where an artist lets a brush stroke fall on his canvas. Granted, this premise assumes that the writer has a measure of expertise, or a generally acceptable set of rules to lead him in his attempt to communicate what’s in his heart and on the cusp of his mind. We already have them: English grammar and the Rules of Punctuation. If a non-conformist submits his manuscript and violates these rules beyond what the agent’s sensibilities can stand, reject the work. Stop treating writers as a collective of illiterate thirteen-year olds who don’t know what they are doing. When a writer doesn’t understand the difference between bring and take, his education is sorely lacking. Blame the writer, his parents, his environment or his teachers. When a writer misplaces a comma, that’s a mistake, easily corrected; but when an agent, editor or publisher redacts a properly placed comma, that’s a crime. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines redact as: “to arrange in proper form for publication; edit.” Interpretation of “proper form” would seem to indicate required conformance to grammatical rules and their attending set of punctuation. Removing well-placed commas is non-conformance to the rules in addition to being an undeserved slap in the writer’s face. Those who sit in judgment in the publishing industry cry subjective choice, but notice that they always win. Your comma is gone and you had no choice.
Ask where the industry is headed and most will point to self-publishing, publishing on demand, and electronic publishing. The rapid growth of blogs may be indicative of the need, not only for us to communicate, but to allow our unedited voices to be heard. When the mechanisms are finally in place to handle massive e-publishing, some costs will undoubtedly be borne by the writer. Perhaps e-writers will encounter cost-per-word, cost-per-byte, total word- or byte-count along with storage costs per some reasonable unit of time. These costs will undoubtedly drive writers to seriously edit the content of their work, and the comma may still be the earliest victim. But it will be the writer who makes these decisions, not the publisher or a freelance or backroom proofreader. So much for the future of print editors. Remember scribes?
Not too far in the future, a new unsuspecting generation of mind-numbed, reality-show videophiles will seek solace and hope in the pages of novels surreptitiously scrubbed clean of the dreadful, ink-sucking, page-devouring commas, and who knows what else? Will there be any substance or beauty left for them to enjoy? Are adverbs, semicolons, and hyphens to be the next victims of these ivory tower publishers and their minions who find it more important to make a buck than to accept their intrinsic responsibilities as stewards of our linguistic heritage? No wonder science fiction writers have future humans communicate by thought rather than speech. Whatever advantage that may hold for us then, there are times now when a break from the verbal vulgarities and cacophony of everyday life is truly a necessity, an honest blessing. That’s when I used to turn to books. But more and more they grate on my grammatical sensitivities, the result of my being from the old school. Somewhere along the way, I learned that “Freedom of the Press” is usually true only if it’s your press.
The rules I learned in school included double spacing after a period that makes identifying the end of a sentence quite easy. Fellow writers tell me that this didn’t please the artistic senses of editors and publishers because the extra spaces left “rivers of space throughout the text.” Bullarney! Since when did publishers ever give a damn about the artistic sense of text? How many pages did they save per book by not having to include all those spaces? It’s textbook Economics 101 (printed double-spaceless).
Language is dynamic, ever changing and improving, allowing us to express ourselves in even more specific, subtler ways, with each new generation adding its distinctive mark to our lexicon and improving our ability to communicate more distinctly, more eloquently, and more intelligently. These dynamic changes are documented by the writers of each generation. That is their contribution to the present-day acceptance of changes in our vernacular and they simultaneously fulfill our collective duty to preserve the history of these changes. It isn’t the job or responsibility of publishers or editors to force linguistic change through coercion or intimidation, and certainly not for their reasons. Perhaps I name publishers, editors and agents unfairly for these crimes against our language, in which case I apologize. Maybe it’s some greedy bunch of stockholders or boards of directors who more rightly deserve the blame. Regardless, you can be fairly certain the change was monetarily motivated. I prefer to think it was that rather than ignorance.
Admittedly, as we become more and more obsessed with and involved in the World Wide Web, the public will doubtless suffer a decrease in the overall quality of material e-published as compared to current methods simply because fewer eyes will have traversed each line of prose to edit out typos, misspellings, verb/noun mismatches and their ilk. Notice that in our spoken language, we are continuing our slide into slovenliness, finding emulation of our down-to-earth, country cousins acceptable everywhere from the board room to airplane cockpits.
I predict that in the near future, with the ease of a few keystrokes and some guaranteed-best-seller-writing software, everyone will take his or her shot at writing the great American e-novel. The resulting dissonance between rules and reality will drown our senses, and we will all have lost something beautiful in the process. But, before that, let’s develop some spell-check software that knows the difference between its and it’s.
Having dispensed my allotment of bilious verbosity, I’m totally “commatose.”
What can we do to save our language? The answer is simply to use it properly. Writers must lead the battle to preserve the beautiful, the eloquent, expressive language that made them want to become writers in the first place. Regardless of whether someone will eventually remove them, writers must insert every proper comma to let them know that the battle continues, and that it will continue. I intend to press on in pursuit of victory. I am inserting ten extra, ten unnecessary, ten brave and beautiful commas at the end of this essay as a symbol of my displeasure with, and defiance of, the war against commas. I send them each off with a kiss, for I know they will surely die. I’ll miss them.
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