Will We Use Commas in the Future?

Language and how we use it.
Jan. 28 2014 2:25 PM

Will We Use Commas in the Future?

Maybe.

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

There’s no denying that commas are helpful little flecks of punctuation. They allow us to separate written clauses and do good work when especially numerous or complicated groups of things exist in a single sentence. But do we really need them?

That’s a trickier question.

In some ways commas are like ketchup and mustard. We’re glad those things exist. They surely make our french fries and hamburgers taste better. But we’d all survive without them. Some assert that the same is true of commas. Linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter suggests we “could take [the commas 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.” 

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That may sound crazy to folks who bristle at Oxford comma problems or enjoy pointing out that life without commas could result in lots of sentences like “let’s eat grandma.” But support for McWhorter’s contention isn’t tough to unearth. We needn’t look any further than our beloved cellphones and computer screens. We’re dropping commas more than ever because so much of our daily writing now consists of quick text messages and hastily typed emails. We’re also engaging in frequent IM discussions and drafting lots of sub-140-character tweets. Commas don’t thrive in those environs.

Here’s one recent example from social media: Last week Gmail crapped out for about 50 minutes. So people took to Twitter for the purpose of gabbing about it. And many folks in my feed did so without using commas. One New Yorker writer went with: “ok gmail is down we can just use twitter what could go wrong / back to work.” An editor at BuzzFeed tweeted “whoa whoa guys I can’t respond to all zero gmails at once.” Writer and biographer Rachel Syme joked about causing the problem: “I rubbed my genie lamp and wished for one of those Freedom programs that keeps you from email but I wished TOO BIG sorry guys sorry.” And writer Jen Doll capped off the Gfail afternoon with this: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”

Similar comma-less dispatches crop up often in the text-messaging context. University of Michigan English professor and language historian Anne Curzan says that the decreasing use of commas in texts and tweets may be tied to efforts at making communications more stylistically fun and more similar to spoken conversation. She’s talked with her students about how they are repurposing punctuation in their day-to-day communications with friends. They tell her the period is being reimagined to signify seriousness or anger. And the ellipsis can be used to convey skepticism or sometimes unhappiness about something. But she says the comma doesn’t seem to be getting repurposed in texts. It’s being purged.  

Curzan suspects that’s because commas have come to be associated with a more proper and polished approach to writing that doesn’t intuitively jibe with forums that aspire to be highly conversational. She says if you use commas in your text messages “in some ways what it signals is that you’re being more formal.”

It also could signal that you’re an old fogey. And it may get you made fun of by your kids. Consider these recent tweets that concern comma usage:

Swearing off commas altogether might be welcomed by the millions who don’t feel confident in their usage of the frequently perplexing mark. Commas are tough to master and easy to mess up. There is no universally accepted set of rules for their use. Even the most seemingly straightforward comma guidelines are burdened by exceptions and inconsistencies and caveats. So we often find ourselves devising our own subjective justifications for where to place them.

McWhorter offers the Oxford comma as an example: “Nobody has any reason for [using a comma after the penultimate item in a series] that is scientifically sensible and logical in the sense that we know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water.* So these things are just fashions and conventions. They change over time.” Curzan adds that whether someone is using commas properly in specific instances is “going to depend on what style guide you use.”

Many take their comma cues from William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style. That nearly 100-year-old publication instructs sentence drafters to “enclose parenthetic expressions between commas” and to “place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause.” It says writers should use a semicolon or a period instead of a comma in that case if there’s no and or but. McWhorter waves off any suggestion that such things are “the rules.” He points out that William Strunk “also probably wore spats. He probably also wore a detachable collar. We wouldn’t do any of those things now.”  

McWhorter and Curzan both suggest that the lack of definitive comma guidelines results in a punctuation mark that is especially malleable and prone to use modifications. (There is no similar confusion about when to place a question mark or a period.) And it’s not surprising that we’re seeing commas being dropped more frequently in the social media and online context during an era when so much of our day-to-day writing attempts to mimic speech or exude a conversational tone. But what might this mean for more formal written pieces? Is it inevitable that 10 or 20 years from now we’ll be reading New York Times articles that don’t include any commas? Will college professors soon be grading compositions devoid of commas because students can’t effectively distinguish between the 400 texts they send each day and the essays they need to submit for class?

Signs point to no.