There are certain things in life that we take totally for granted. Day and night; sun and moon; tears and laughter; life and death; anger and make-up; love, friendship … Similarly in the world of reading and writing, punctuation marks are a given and it is here that the totally taken- for-granted and understated, but critically important, comma comes into focus.
Acclaimed author Pico Iyer insists that there was a definite reason why it was invented, “It was to act as stop-signs, speed bumps, red lights. I’m not sure their use has diminished, especially as traffic in this highway has so dramatically increased!”
However (in recent times, in line with the nano-second world we live in and the zip-zap-zoom times we reside in) this punctuation mark appears to be in trouble. John McWhorter, an American linguist and political commentator, believes that removing the comma from modern American texts would lead to little loss of clarity. He adds that “Internet users and even some writers have become so idiosyncratic, if not indifferent, in the use of the comma that it could have well outstayed its welcome.” He added that today nobody has any reason for it because it is neither scientifically sensible nor logical in the sense we know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. So these things, he reckons, are really fashions and conventions that have outlived their utility and need to change with time.
McWhorter has support from Gertude Stein who dismissed the comma as “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath.”
Rising to its defense with undiluted passion and purpose is, once again, Iyer, this time with all cylinders firing! He declares that “the beauty of a comma is that it offers a rest, like in music, where it offers the piece greater shape and deeper harmony. It allows us to catch our breath. Without it, we lose our layers, shading, nuance and end up yelling at one another in block capitals!
Slow speech, in these terrifyingly digital ages, is the language of intimacy and depth. The comma can (and does) convert an attack into a caress!” Iyer makes a strong case for promoting “Subtlety and silence.” It is the pause between words that gives them their deepest meaning, the space between certainties, the critical area where power and essence reside. “Taking pauses of a language is like taking the net out of a tennis game. Where would all the fun go?
Are McWhorter and Stein on the winning side … or Pico Iyer? It totally depends on which school of language you come from. If you are hot ‘n heavy and bullish on digital lingo, (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, SMS, Internet Vocab.) then comma is not a big deal in the basic and uncomplicated road to communication.
However, if nuance matters and command of language and navigation is important, then comma is definitely a crucial team-player. The last words must go to the old fashioned, comma-fixated humorist, Dark Jar Tin Zoo, who unleashes a charming example of the use of comma. “Making love to me is amazing! Wait, I meant: Making love, to me, is amazing. The absence of two little commas nearly transformed me into a demented, self-help bozo … or a sublime sex-god! Excuse me, neither was real, honest or correct!”
Your take, esteemed readers!
Monojit Lahiri is a journalist who has been writing on Advertising, Cinema and popular culture and has been published in every mainstream Indian magazine for over three decades.