Friday, March 6, 2015


There's a controversy going on about commas and other points of punctuation nowadays. The latest word, or not-so-latest word in newspaper style, is that commas take up too much space. Further, serial commas should be avoided with as much caution as serial killers. Even E.B. White, the essayist I most admire, had something sassy to say about commas in an interview in the Paris Review: "Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim."

I realize that too much use of anything is bad for the reader's eyesight and brain capacity, but I'm troubled by the trend to omit ideas, abbreviate words, create acronyms, and excise punctuation to the extent that even periods will soon die a swift death in the name of "saving space." I once won a First Place award at State Rally for being able to take shorthand at 140 words per minute—those squiggles and lines were a real space saver in lined tablets—but even so, when I transcribed the material, the words fit in as much space as that required for typed copy.

Can you imagine the dawn of the run-on sentence with all its abbreviations, acronyms, loss of punctuation, and other literary trimming? Would it read something like this:

During the bitter winter of 2015 when temps dipped below freezing in the am and even lower in the pm our electrical power was shut off and we could not use the computer which was penalty for having used too much electricity because we did not try to save space by omitting commas periods and certainly exclamation points when composing copy for periodicals like the NYT and WP and long books similar to War and Peace and had ignored those green lines that denoted too many words in a sentence and the basic rules of punctuation established by Strunk and White who believed in comma serialization and other outdated rules for style so we got out a yellow pad and a pencil and wrote a piece of flash fiction which is the latest form of abbreviated writing that has no plot and few characters and certainly reduces the amount of space that a story takes up on a page while writing in the manner of someone like Gertrude Stein who happened to call her run on unpunctuated style automatic writing or James Joyce who invented stream of consciousness technique both of them I am sure who created in the interests of saving space

Just looking back over that piece of unpunctuated nonsense makes me wonder about the future of literature. However, think of the money publishers could save by printing one-page books, or perhaps we're already at that point in human literacy. After all, we have the smart phone and text messages to save our brains and spare publishers the trouble of having to print something in black ink on paper that might be kept for future generations.

'Seems that if we don't become involved in this mass excision of punctuation and language, those who follow us will know we didn't do much toward saving a civilization dependent on trees. However, if we retain the comma, period, and long sentences that express large ideas, we just might expand human consciousness.

1 comment:

Puzzled said...

Worked for James Joyce