Comma Police

…No, not the song by Radiohead. I refer to those communication “experts” who have, for mind-baffling reasons, seen it fit to allow the virtual eradication of the comma from the written word in the English language.

These days, commas in text are about as sparse as hens’ teeth, and it’s not only unfashionable to have them in your document or letter or whatever; it’s actually deemed to be WRONG. Just look in any “official” document, any business letter or e-mail, and – if the Comma Police have had their hands on it – I bet you will struggle to find more than about two commas in it. (Word “Wizards” and so-called computer ‘Help’ don’t do much to help either.) They’re becoming extinct – I tell you.

Personally, I love commas. [Sorry – Personally I love commas.]
Actually, I think this might be, of all my rants so far, the one which irks me most of all, for unknown reasons! [Sorry – Comma Police Transcription required: Actually I think this might be of all my rants so far the one which irks me most of all for unknown reasons!]
GAD. Not only does it sound ugly but it looks ugly too.

I’ll tell you why we need commas, and why the eradication of the humble comma is a bad thing. Firstly, commas do for the sentence what phrasing does for a piece of music. It’s all about breathing and timing; making sense of a random string of words, and, ultimately, bringing them to life. At each comma, we, as the reader, are expected to slow down, to pause, to HALT, before proceeding to the next phrase. It gives personality and voice to the words, introducing subtleties of rhythm, and tone, and even gravity that the Comma Police wouldn’t get if it belted them across the ears. Probably the invention of computers and everything having to be done online and automatically without thought these days has contributed to the demise of that gracious pause in the flow of words. See? These days everything needs to be done now now NOW and there is just no time for pausing – or appearing to pause to catch one’s breath hence the lack of punctuation and phrasing. Phew!

But no. We’re no longer supposed to use commas. They’re bad form. According to the communication experts, if we have to put loads of commas in a sentence, then obviously our sentence is too long, and needs to be broken up into a few, simpler, shorter sentences, all for the reader’s benefit. “Cut out the commas!” we’re told, “They’re so last century!” – Or is it, as is my suspicion, that we are merely – YET AGAIN – having to pander to the lowest common denominator, that is, to people who can only read sentences of 10 words or fewer; people who can only understand monosyllabic words? I.e. Readers of The Sun.

If it is, then I resent this fact. This “dumbing down” is to the implicit detriment of ALL written work, in my (humble) opinion. Some of the most enjoyable stuff I’ve ever read has been absolutely littered with commas, with sentences going on for days (e.g. Dickens), but we still get the gist of it because there are natural breaks, and pauses, and the sense spins out through the writer’s careful use of phrasing. And correct phrasing is an art form. Why would we actually WANT to make our words sound like a computer-generated monotone, instead of something hand-carved and lyrical?

No. The REAL illiterate, in my view, are the Comma Police, those bland punctuation Nazis, who cannot understand a sentence if it is a paragraph, or even if it spills over more than two lines (oh, the horror!). It’s like we’re being penalised for pausing, or for having an attention span. I really, really resent this demise of the comma (among other punctuation extinctions). I shall continue to use LOADS of commas in my written work as long as it remains unfashionable; in fact, the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.


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