A professor of comparative English at Columbia university said that commas should be abolished. He said we should get rid of them and no one would care. He says we should kill them. Destroy them. Take each one and murder it in cold blood.
And the reaction? Pages of internet newsprint devoted to the story and angry responses from members of the public leading to personal attacks on the man.
Well, it was almost like that. We did get comments like these to the professor’s remarks about commas:
“A damn Yank dictating that we should drop the comma from OUR language? Only to be expected though from a nation that has helped to demolish it.”
“The descent into mediocrity continues.”
“Anything emanating from America regarding correct usage of the English language needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.”
“The Professor of Stupid at the University of Pointless.”
“Just another dumb American professor.”
But to me, it all seemed a little off. Something didn’t smell right. Since when do professors make outrageous claims about language like this?
So I thought I’d take a look.
The whole thing seems to have originated in an article in a Slate Magazine written by Matthew J.X. Malady who writes about language and usage in a provocative, pushy way that seems designed to get a reaction.
The article was called Will We Use Commas in the Future? and posed a simple question. A legitimate question. One that has a pretty obvious answer but one that it is perfectly fine asking nonetheless.
Malady then quoted Professor John McWhorter from Columbia University who said 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.”
You see that? Professor McWhorter uses 3 modal verbs there; he’s very cagey about it all. He doesn’t say we must get rid of commas outright. He doesn’t say we should take reprisals against anyone who uses them. He isn’t aggressive or outrageous or provocative or threatening.
No, he merely suggests that if commas were removed from some texts then in some cases there might be no loss of clarity.
He’s a cautious man is Professor McWhorter.
Then the professor goes on to talk about how people have two different registers: formal and informal and whilst in informal writing we might drop a comma or two (especially in restricted length messages like Twitter), in formal texts he notes that his students haven’t dropped commas at all!
Again, good, reasonable arguments from the professor.
But then it went wrong.
The Slate article was picked up by the UK Independent and a few other papers.
Then a few more.
And as the article spread around it lost all the cautiousness of the original and became bolder and more definitive. We started to see headlines like these:
“The comma may be dying out, says US professor” UK Independent
“Comma: is it time for a full stop?” Calcutta Telegraph
“Comma may be abolished from English language: US academic” New Delhi Television
“Death of the comma – the punctuation mark is dying out says US professor” Irish Independent
“Scholar says comma should be abolished” The Australian
So we went from Professor John McWhorter saying that under certain circumstances the comma might not be necessary, to him saying we should get rid of it all together!
Ok, this is a trivial example. But typical, and the fault of shoddy journalism and reactionary fools.
- A reasonable statement is made.
- It is taken out of context.
- It is exaggerated.
- Ad hominem attacks begin.
Stop and think, people… after all, we’ve seen embassies attacked and people killed over little more than simple misunderstandings and misinterpretations like this.
Commas in English Punctuation – how to use commas properly
Will We Use Commas in the Future? – the original article in The Slate
Death of the comma – the punctuation mark is dying out says US professor – from the Irish Independent (and no, he didn’t say that)
The death of the comma? – from the Daily Mail online; the comments are suitably Mail
The comma may by dying out, says US professor – the UK Independent; the comments are suitably Indie