Monday, 17 March 2014

Full Stop for Comma?

Linguist John McWhorter, an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, U S A, has suggested that comma could be abolished as a punctuation mark without much damage to the language. He believes that comma is used as just by a convention and as a fashion. The good Professor says that internet users and some writers have become indifferent about use of this punctuation mark and hence comma can be treated as past its expiry date!

The late Gertrude Stein, the American novelist, says that a comma enfeebles, distracts and annoyingly dilutes what must be intense.

Oscar Wilde delighted many by confessing that he had spent most of a day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out!

So much so that The Times of India recently carried a full second editorial without using a single comma!!

However, the renowned author Pico Iyer firmly believes in the power of pause which is provided by a comma. He has written a memorable essay, ‘In Praise of the Humble Comma’.

In this essay, Pico Iyer says that comma is like God’s gift of breath to us. Comma gives the mind, “quite literally, a pause to think”. It gives the mind, a resting place, he says.

To quote him, “Punctuation marks are road signs placed along the highway of our communication – to control speeds, provide directions and to prevent head-on collisions. Comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down.”  Punctuation tells us when to rest, when to raise one’s voice.” It is the way one bats one’s eye-lids, lowers one’s voice, or blushes demurely.”

Iyer further says - When V S Naipal writes, “He was a middle-aged man, with glasses”, the first comma can seem a little precious. Yet it gives the description a spin as well as subtlety that it otherwise lacks, and it shows that glasses are not part of the middle-agedness, but something else.”

Aiyer adds,  “ Punctuation is a matter of care, care for words, yes, but also, the more important , for what the words imply. Only a lover notices the small things, the way the afternoon light catches the nape of the neck; or how a strand of hair slips out from behind the ear, or the way a finger curls around a cup.” For him, this little mark is actually about love. 

 In an interview published in The Times of India of 14.02.2014, Iyer says that we need the comma now more than ever before especially the traffic has increased so dramatically in every sense.

So, is there going to be a full stop for comma in the modern days of SMS and texts where the most important need is of saving time by using collapsible words like ‘wrds’, ‘txt’  and ‘gr8’or even ‘u’ (for ‘you’) and ‘r’ (for ‘are’)? 


  1. I, for one, can not think of English without a comma !

  2. An old chestnut: " Alexander III personally wrote the death sentence of a prisoner with the following words: "Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia." His wife Dagmar (daughter of Christian IX, king of Denmark) believed the man innocent. She saved his life by transposing the comma. The sentence then read: "Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia."

    1. This reminds me of another example how punctuations totally transform meanings.

      'I met him two hours after he died.'

      The original text read,' I met him. Two hours after, he died.'

    2. There is still another similar anecdote in an Odia story.

      A king who was away from his kingdom, sent a young man to his minister with a sealed letter. The letter read, 'Visha yaku dia.' (Give poison to this fellow.' The minister read it as 'Vishayaku dia.' Give Vishaya to this fellow.' The name of the king's daughter was Vishaya. The minister got Vishaya married to the young man!