To Use Comma or Not? No Longer a Dilemma? - The New Indian Express

To Use Comma or Not? No Longer a Dilemma?

Published: 10th February 2014 08:44 AM

Last Updated: 10th February 2014 11:43 AM

Has John McWhorter stirred the purists’ nest? The professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University has boldly claimed that commas, in most US texts, are redundant.  

Published on an online news site, punctuation hardliners are calling the claim blasphemous. One even commented, “Commas save lives and prevent cannibalism. Let’s eat, Granddad. Or. Let’s eat Granddad.”

But English as some of us know it and were taught is ever changing. Text messages gave rise to ugly abbreviations and in its wake threw the comma and its cousins out of the window.

McWhorter has not ruffled all feathers. “It might just be part of the evolution of language. Twentieth century poet E E Cummings deliberately avoided capitalisation, in most parts, in his poetry. It was unconventional then, but many poets have followed suit since,” says Sandhya H P, lecturer at RBANM’s PU College.

But she also adds that, to her, language is all about communication, and as long as there’s clarity, whether the comma or any other punctuation mark is used or not, is irrelevant. “More than half of my students are first generation learners of English. So, in their writing, everything except the full stop, apostrophe and occasionally the exclamation mark is hardly seen,” she further says.

Commas are often inappropriately used and should therefore be abandoned altogether, is one of the arguments against its usage.

“That’s also true for grammar in general: the use of modal verbs - saying ‘How you are?’ instead of ‘How are you?’; using ‘no’ as a question tag as in “You went there, no?”; and, of course, plurals - saying childrens or mens - is shockingly common among teachers too,” Avaneeja Rajesh, head of department of English, Surana College, tells City Express.

Yet, the solution, she believes, is better teaching methods.

According to Rajaram R (Ph.D), associate professor, St Joseph’s College of Commerce, better teaching techniques would involve not imparting use of language through grammar workbooks. “Instead, learners should be exposed to a variety of samples of language, so that they can judge for themselves on how they want to use the language,” he states.

Rajaram refers to the comma as a ‘meaning manager’ as it helps readers perceive what the writer intends to convey.

“According to the computational model of learning, the brain tends to chunk or group related information, and the comma helps with that. So if someone feels that the comma is redundant, he/she may stop using it but not prescribe that everyone follow it,” he says.

Still, Rajaram feels that there is a high possibility that many of the punctuation marks that we know of today might soon disappear. “The rate of extinction of language is far higher than that for species. In years to come everyone will be communicating in six to eight languages only. English, which is a predatory language, will be one of them.”

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