It seems there are two extreme groups of people in this world. Those who care very little about grammatical structure and those who are endearingly called “grammar police“, who cling to the rules as if they were scripture (or at least the rules they know). One of the most beloved devices for the second group of people to use is the very popular, yet often misunderstood comma.
We, as grammar police, love to use that little device, the comma, to string together multiple ideas, sentences, and lists, oftentimes, even when we don’t need to (see what I did there?).
Part of the reason may be because a lot of us aren’t sure what the rules dictate as to when to use them or not, instead inserting them into sentences whenever we feel there should be a slight pause when reading the sentence out loud or in our heads. This usually translates into an abundance of commas, just to remain on the safe-side of the grammar law books. Because there’s nothing worse than a run-on sentence. Well, except maybe starting a sentence with ‘Because’…
However, there is one professor who seems to be taking the side of the text-happy, grammar-dismissing thugs of the English language. Professor John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, believes that in today’s language, commas are unnecessary, and in fact, removing them from most text would cause little loss of clarity.
McWhorter said that as Internet users and even some writers become increasingly idiosyncratic – if not indifferent – in their use of the punctuation mark, it may have outstayed its welcome, ‘The Times’ reported.
You “could take them 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,” McWhorter said.
However, while Professor McWhorter may be right in some sense (I mean, nowadays if we can understand what someone is saying when they write, “LOL ROFL, TXT U SOON. G2G!” it’s hard to make the claim that a little thing like a missing comma would throw the meaning of a sentence into chaos, does it mean we should abandon its usage altogether? If you go by Professor McWhorter’s reasoning, then why not get rid of capitalization? I don’t think anyone would be confused by a sentence that began with a lower-case letter. While we’re at it, there’s no real need for superlatives and adjectives either. And in fact, written language altogether can go by the wayside. Why not go with the basic cave-paintings of yesteryear? Alright, maybe I got carried away there. But my point is that language is more than just a basic relay of information in as short of a way as possible. Language is a form of art. It is a tool by which to express oneself and describe all the subtleties that exist in one’s mind. By limiting the tools in an artist’s toolbox, you get less pleasing art. The same is true for language. By taking away something just because it’s not necessary, all you’re doing is changing the Mona Lisa to a stick figure drawing.
I’m a little surprised someone who has spent his entire career rising to the ranks of a Columbia University English professor would be so willing to devalue the artform he holds so dear. Although, it could just be that he’s at the point where he’s had to read so many grammatically incorrect papers with commas thrown in every which way by his millenial students, that he’s to the point where he wants to just get rid of them entirely. That actually would make a lot of sense.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.