The college students in my writing classes are, by now, digital natives. Writing, for them, is something done on a phone…or maybe a tablet/laptop. These students clearly don’t know the standard comma rules. The evidence shows that they know what a comma is, and they obviously see them in some of the more officiated writing online. We know they know what a comma is because they usually sprinkle them, sparingly, through the college essays they’re required to write. But they were not taught the standard comma rules, as I was in the second half of the 20th century, and they don’t care.

As a writing teacher, I stubbornly held on to those comma rules, editing student assignments, in part, by kindly showing students where they’re supposed to go and offering some of the myriad online tutorials where comma usage is demonstrated and explained in full.

I reluctantly admit that the comma is a truly endangered species.

Should we mourn their passing? Should we ascribe the passing of the comma to youthful decadence or ignorance? Or should we struggle for a more enlightened view?

All punctuation is for readers. But how much help do today’s digital-native readers need to parse a sentence?

Periods at the end of a string of words, usually sentences, seem safe. Capitalizing the first word of a new sentence is mostly safe, although it’s a convention sometimes neglected because it takes an extra key stroke to capitalize.

Consider the “inter-point,” a small triangle Romans used as a word separator when they inscribed words into stone. Instead of using a space, as we do, they inserted the little inter-point to show when a new word began.

So>their>writing>looked>something>like>this.

It helps to have a little mark to show when a new word begins, if you omit the space. The little inter-point helps to group related information—in this case the letters that form a single word. Consider the alternative:

Sotheirwritinglookedsomethinglikethis.

The comma is just another way to group related information, but instead of grouping letters into words, they group related words into more digestible units like phrases and clauses. The word comma comes from the Greek komma (κόμμα), which means a cut-off piece.

Wikipedia tells us that, in the 3rd century BC, Aristophanes of Byzantium invented a system of single dots (distinctiones) that separated verses and indicated the amount of breath needed to complete each fragment of text, when reading aloud, The different lengths were signified by a dot at the bottom, middle, or top of the line. For a short passage (a komma), a media distinctio dot was placed mid-level ( · ). This is the origin of the concept of a comma, although the name came to be used for the mark itself instead of the clause it separated. The mark used today is descended from a diagonal slash, or virgula suspensiva ( / ), used from the 13th to 17th centuries to represent a pause. The modern comma was first used by Aldus Manutius.

In those days, reading was an uncommon skill. Readers appreciated all the help they could get, evidently. The comma also seems to have helped those who had to read a passage aloud get the phrasing right. No tape recorders back then. So the bitsy comma helped readers and orators hear how passages should sound.

Even today, the most common advice (misadvice) about commas is that you add one whenever you’d take a breath.

 

Cut to 2016. Kids read all the time…maybe not novels but bits and chunks of text in tweets and texts and maybe, on occasion, an email, an article, or even a longer document. More important exchanges of information are relegated to phone calls—between peers—heaven forbid a college student should ever phone an adult!

Commas play little or no role in tweets and texts. They’ve been replaced by #hashtags, emoticons, elipses (…) or nothing at all. And, when readers read these teeny “documents,” they get it. Nobody misses the little comma, much, if at all…except for teachers, the gate-keepers, and those who struggled but were forced to learn proper comma usage and therefore inflict this pedantry on those they supervise.

And, to be fair, students will use a few commas, and sometimes helpfully.

The comma to set off an introductory phrase/clause is just about gone. Thus:

“When it rains on Monday morning I don’t go to class.”

Nobody is confused by this comma omission.

On the other hand, the comma to set off items in a list seems to persist. Thus:

“We saw The Blackbirds, Three Days Grace, Irridescent, and Linkin Park.”

My confession as a writing teacher: I’ve stopped marking the missing commas, the same way I’ve stopped pointing out to my kids where big trees used to stand in our neighborhood.

If the students in my college writing classes understand writing without commas, so be it. I also have to admit that my earnest attempts to teach proper comma usage haven’t helped at all…NOT AT ALL.

When I need a comma so I won’t be confused when I read what my students have written I add it. But, honestly, did you stumble over the last sentence even though I omitted the standard commas? But honestly did you stumble over this sentence that omitted the necessary comma. (Did you even miss the question mark) Or that last period…:-)

The bigger problem comes when these students enter the workforce and must write to co-workers, customers, and clients. THOSE WHO KNOW can actually feel offended when a writer omits a comma in the standard comma situation…my students say CHILLAX…the most important thing is the 411

Maybe we can experiment with new emotional punctuation such as ALL CAPS, bold type, emoticons, ellipsis marks…or whatever else conveys the nuance of emphasis and emotional truth.

And as long as students stay away from the land of paragraphs omitting commas isn’t the worst thing in the world…paragraphs are a whole other thing…instead of neatly framed paragraphs I see slabs of text that require mountain-climbing gear to traverse and a pickaxe to get at the main point…DON’T GET ME STARTED ON PARAGRAPHS…as my Mother would say Oi!

Do you really miss the commas?