Friday, February 7, 2014

A Comma in the Valley

“There’s no denying that commas are helpful little flecks of punctuation.”  Matthew J.X. Malady

I was reading an article the other day on Slate (an online magazine) where the author Malady suggests that it may be time to put the lowly comma to rest. He points out in his article that no one uses commas in speaking and that very few people have trouble understanding what a person is saying whether or not they use a comma when writing.

He didn’t use any commas in his column which contained probably 12-1500 words and I had no trouble following his comments or illustrations. He also points out that we live in an age of tweets and instant messages where it seems that no one uses punctuation at all. Of course I beg to differ. Even when sending people a text message I capitalize first words and names and proper pronouns. I also use punctuation punctiliously. I can’t help it. That’s just the way I am wired.

Malady recognizes the place of commas in history time and space as he notes in the opening line which I quoted above. Commas are helpful little flecks of punctuation. The well-worn illustration of “Let’s eat Grandma” could be understood as a Cannibal child’s suggestion (without the comma) or as a plea from a child to his grandma if the comma is properly placed between the “eat” and the “Grandma”.

It seems to me that context would make clear what is intended so that while it is a useful illustration for demonstrating the value of a comma it is not as important as the grammarian would wish us to think. The English-speaking cannibal family will understand the suggestion one way while a well-cultured grandmother will understand the comment without fear of being consumed by her ragamuffin grandkids.

What does this have to do with us here in the valley?

I find myself pondering the role of rules and why we have them. I have been following Malady’s practice in this column and know that there are many places I should have inserted commas and I would invite any teacher reading this to feel free to have his or her charges read it over and red-mark it to their hearts’ delight.

I do not intend to do away with commas in future columns as I find them useful. I like separating items in a list and clauses in a sentence. I think they help bring unruly thinking into some sort of order. I also have confidence that people who text and abbreviate sentences words and phrases will still be able to write properly when they need to.

We may be able to point out all the problems head-hunters see when reading resumes and college papers and the like. There may well be evidence that our grasp of grammar spelling and proper punctuation may well be atrocious and nowhere near what it was in years past but I’m not so sure.

There has always been a gulf between the standards of English we read and write and that which we speak and use in daily discourse. We can all benefit by taking care when putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard and it really does pain me not to be using any commas in this sentence. I also believe however that writing is a gift some of us enjoy and delight in and others find as painful as a root canal sans Novocaine.

I am one who enjoys writing and word play and puns and all of that. I am also a bigot in that I sometimes stand in judgment of those who use poor grammar and make spelling mistakes. I don’t want to be judgmental.

What should count is a person’s character and not their ability to diagram a sentence or put commas where they belong and don’t get me going on the place and use of semi-colons. A comma is simply an invitation to pause and reflect in humbleness.

In the end I have come to realize that the role of a comma is underrated as it provides the reader and writer with a break. That ever-so-brief hiatus allows one to think and to ponder what is being said. Perhaps doing that more often could help us build better character in this our valley. Let’s give it a try, shall we?