In high school, we were required to read an essay by Pico Iyer titled “In Praise of the Humble Comma.” I am in grad school now, and yet I still can’t forget the name. Iyer stated, “The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said—could it not?—of the humble comma.” I am no punctuation buff, but I think punctuation, for writers, can be an attempt at risk. A chance to stab a sentence with a comma and pray the essay does not come out bloody—it can be invigorating. A rush.
Punctuation lacks attention in a text-driven society. We punctuate with emoticons. What could once have been said with a semicolon is now said with a smiley. No “I love you, darlings”; simply a wink or a small yellow face with accentuated lips and batted eyelashes (If a picture is worth a thousand words, what the hell happened to the words?). Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore the advent of social media networks like Twitter and Facebook; I believe these platforms have opened up new methods for conversation, and are instilling a new genre of writers for an evolving generation. What I don’t understand is why punctuation has devolved so drastically. There is a whole other conversation about the loss of proper grammar, spelling, language. In some of my publishing classes, students argue that as long as the message gets across, as long as people are writing, then short-form media is a wonderful tool. But for me, the problem begins in the loss of punctuation to save space.
In undergrad, I studied creative writing and worked at the writing center and copy edited for a mom’s magazine. What I learned: college students and mothers still don’t know how to use punctuation, if they use it at all. I have my share of mistakes, especially with humble commas, but I know the basics and the errors (I still don’t really know how to use a comma in every situation; even the Chicago Manual of Style is confused about the process). Comma splices would make my copy editing professor cringe. And periods? Some students didn’t use them. Workshop after workshop. Dependent clauses. That and which. Missing commas. And this is just for English. Spanish pronunciation is defined by its accent mark.
For reading or performing Shakespeare, punctuation is vital for emotion. In my senior year of high school, my teacher asked us to memorize part of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy—with the punctuation. So this: “To be or not to be—that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And, by opposing, end them.” would read as this: “To be or not to be dash that is the question colon/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune comma/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And comma by opposing comma end then period“. Speaking the punctuation made us notice the intentional pauses, the lengths of breaths, the dash, pregnant with the thought of existence.
So my advice for staying properly punctuated? Listen to Iyer. The humble comma gives breath and takes it away. Read aloud. If you stop, the sentence stops; you’ll notice the distinction.
Note: Today is the the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. A pause, a dash, a moment of silence.