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.

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.

Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.