Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Don't Worry: Commas Are Still In

So there is an interesting article on Wired about Bart Kosko’s book on noise. The book shows some interesting things, like how a little bit of random noise can actually make things sound clear plus a description of what pink noise actually is (it’s not necessarily riotgrrl music). The last comment bewilders me though.

I noticed there aren’t any commas in your book. Is this your way of cutting back on punctuation noise?

Commas are a kind of channel noise. You’re not getting to the verb fast enough. Why make us wait? The comma is on its way out. Use small words. The perfect illustration is a swear phrase: Go to hell! Screw you!

Wait, what?

Commas are on their way out? Really? I had heard that the Oxford comma had crept out of AP style and that was gradually becoming standard, but that’s one limited usage of comma. The comma is hardly useless, and I think it serves some important clarifying roles in written language, primarily by preventing ambiguity where the sentence might be unclear.

Exhibit A: “I love fucking Maggie Gyllenhall and apple pie.” vs. “I love fucking, Maggie Gyllenhall, and apple pie.”

The latter sentence has one clear meaning: “There are three separate things I love: sexual intercourse, actress Maggie Gyllenhall, and pastry with apple filling.” The first sentence is, however, problematic. Aside from the fact which it implies that I love fucking Maggie Gyllenhall (something I can’t personally attest to, but would, in fact, probably enjoy), it also can be easily interpreted that I enjoy sexual relations with apple pie ala Jason Biggs (again, I can’t personally attest to this, but this time I suspect I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as Maggie Gyllenhall).

This whole list thing is pretty obvious and important use for the comma. I actually (mid-writing this) realized that I had used it before in the title of the post “Fuck, Mom, and Baseball: Wherein the Comma is Important.”

Exhibit B: “I’m a cowboy bitch.” vs. “I’m a cowboy, bitch”

The latter is the intended meaning: an aggressive assertion of one’s masculinity evidenced through your fulfillment of the cowboy stereotype and the subsequent belittling of the person you are addressing. Without a comma, however, there is nothing to do but prepare for the subsequent and inevitable barrage of Brokeback Mountain jokes.

I just think commas are too useful to be on their way out. As for the rest of his silliness about using small words and getting to the verb faster, it seems to run counter to his comments about the comma. He seems to be striving for clarity in writing (though I’m not necessarily sure his advice is any good). In any case, calling for the culling of clarifying commas seems to run counter to this philosophy.

With that in mind, I think it’s safe to write off his practice of no commas as a petty literary pretension. It’s like Selby using foreslashes instead of apostrophes: a gimmicky device of a mediocre writer trying to divert attention away from the quality of their work.

Not that I’m trying to say Kosko’s book is bad or that his prose is rotten. I’m just saying that his punctuation policies are a pretentious affectation of dubious merit.


Blogger Woon Wei Zhong said...

Nice Blog you have there.
Days of my life

12:13 AM  
Blogger Kellen said...

Thank you.

10:33 PM  

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