Younger students may experience greater difficulty in separating informal writing from the more formal. But as we get older we become better equipped to develop and maintain those boundaries. Neither Curzan nor McWhorter have noticed their current students dropping commas from formal writing assignments more often than those in the past. And a recently published study examining texting’s impact on college-level writing concluded that “university students recognise the different requirements of different recipients and modalities when considering textism use and that students are able to avoid textism use in exams despite media reports to the contrary.” (Textism is their word for the language of texting.)
That finding makes perfect sense to McWhorter. He says that Americans have become accustomed to an English language that doesn’t vary widely by region or over time. So we may expect that people will struggle to use two different forms of the same language. “There’s this sense that if there’s something colloquial and spontaneous and non-standard the proper question to ask is what’s going to happen to the standard [form].” He adds that we shouldn’t be surprised when someone who sends hundreds of texts each day is able to “write a paper about Walt Whitman that weekend and knows where to put their commas.” And that dual approach to comma usage may be “exactly the way it’s going to stay.” In other words: One realm doesn’t have to engulf the other just because they are different.
But some of the most talented and engaging young writers are pushing those boundaries on purpose. Here are a few sentences that appear near the end of a brutally honest and introspective Brooklyn Magazine essay that Edith Zimmerman recently wrote about lifestyle changes: “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!!! I mean I am but also it really has changed my life.” Writer Mary H.K. Choi recently published a piece in the Awl on SoulCycle that was drafted to be highly conversational. It is evocative of the sort of thing one might read on Facebook. Choi uses commas in places. But it’s immediately clear when reading the essay that there’s something atypical about its form and style. She writes at one point: “It’s gross but I don’t care because I need it and I love it (ha ha so gross).” Then later in the piece: “The main things to remember is hand placement on the handlebars and each class includes a series of push ups on the bars but they’re the wussiest of all wuss-ass push-ups since it’s a tiny movement.”
Those sentences do not represent Choi forgetting she’s not on social media. The piece is different and conversational and fun. It may not be to everyone’s taste. And it’s unlikely that you’d find something like it in Slate. But I wouldn’t say it’s confusing. And you don’t really miss the commas.
Three of 13 commenters on the piece nonetheless went off on Choi. One asked if the writer was 12. Another wrote: “Did a very long facebook post somehow get published as an article. PROTIP when you write like this you sound ridiculous. Ha ha. Sorreee. Happy New Year!”
The criticisms seem more tied to style preferences than concerns about a lack of clarity. But they lead to an interesting question: What if that style became the norm in all writing environments and we got rid of commas altogether? Curzan notes that the result would not be without its associated challenges: “We know there would be problems. Lists need commas. Lots of clauses in a row benefit from commas.” That is undeniably true. But she adds that we’re pretty creative and capable when it comes to dealing with such language issues. It’s possible that we’d simply come up with some other way to avoid confusion in those cases. Problem solved. Sort of.
Getting rid of commas wouldn’t sit well with those who prefer traditional methods of doing things and aesthetic consistency over time. It wouldn’t be your cup of tea if you hate socks that don’t match or noticed before right now that this piece has yet to include a single comma.
“Let’s say everybody wore their socks mismatched,” posits McWhorter. “Well, you know, it wouldn’t look great, to the extent that we look at anybody’s feet anyway. But it would be very hard to say that it was creating any kind of problem. Now, of course, a certain smarty-pants kind of person could come up with some situation where somebody’s mismatched socks really did create some sort of social misunderstanding. And it would be just that one thing. Really, the world would keep spinning. And I think it’s the same thing with commas.”
Correction, Jan. 29, 2014: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that the Oxford comma comes after the last item in a series. It comes after the penultimate item.