Samuelson: The Comma's Fate

I have always liked commas, but I seem to be in a shrinking minority. The comma is in retreat, though it is not yet extinct. In text messages and e-mails, commas appear infrequently, and then often by accident (someone hits the wrong key). Even on the printed page, commas are dwindling. Many standard uses from my childhood (after, for example, an introductory prepositional phrase) have become optional or, worse, have been ditched.

If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma's sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can't-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don't have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma's fading popularity is also social commentary.

It is true that Americans have always been in a hurry. In "Democracy in America" (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville has a famous passage noting the "feverish ardor" with which Americans pursue material gains and private pleasures. What's distinctive about our era, I think, is that new technologies and astonishing prosperity give us the chance to slacken the pace. Perish the thought. In some ways, it seems, we Americans have actually become more frantic.

Evidence to support this hunch hasn't been hard to find. Exhibit A is a story a few months ago in The Washington Post headlined, TEENS CAN MULTITASK, BUT WHAT ARE COSTS? We meet Megan, a 17-year-old honors high-school senior. After school, she begins studying by turning on MTV and booting up her computer. The story continues:

Whew! And remember, she's also studying. Naturally, the story includes the obligatory quote from a brain scientist, who worries that so much multitasking will turn young minds into mush. "It's almost impossible," says the scientist, "to gain a depth of knowledge of any of the tasks you do while you're multitasking."

In reality, multitasking isn't confined to the young. It's hard to go anywhere these days—including restaurants and business meetings—without seeing people punching furiously on their BlackBerrys, cell phones or other handheld devices. More mush, maybe. At the least, serious questions of etiquette have arisen. In one survey, almost a third of the executives polled said it is never appropriate to check e-mails during meetings.

Next, there's work. Unlike most rich nations, the United States hasn't reduced the average workweek over the past quarter century. In 2006, annual hours for U.S. workers averaged 1,804, barely different from 1,834 in 1979, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By contrast, the Japanese cut annual hours by 16 percent to 1,784, the Germans 20 percent to 1,421 and the French 16 percent to 1,564. One commentator in the London-based Financial Times calls America "the republic of overwork." A study by economists Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas and Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan argues that long working hours, especially among the well paid, may be an addiction, akin to alcoholism and smoking. (The paper is titled "The Economics of Workaholism: We Should Not Have Worked on This Paper.")

I could go on, but the column's only 800 words, and more evidence would simply reinforce the point: de Tocqueville's "feverish ardor" endures. There's always too much to do, not enough time to do it. The comma is a small victim of our hustle-bustle. If we can save a few seconds a day by curtailing commas, why not? Commas are disparaged as literary clutter. They're axed in the name of stylistic "simplicity." Once, introductory prepositional phrases ("In 1776, Thomas Jefferson ... ") routinely took commas; once, compound sentences were strictly divided by commas; once, sentences that began with "once," "naturally," "surprisingly," "inevitably" and the like usually took a comma to set them apart.

No more. These and other usages have slowly become discretionary or unacceptable. Over the years, copy editors have stripped thousands of defenseless commas from my stories. I have saved every last one of them and piled them all on a secluded corner of my desk. They deserve better than they're getting. So here are some of my discarded commas, taking a long-overdue bow: ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,.

I'm not quitting quietly. By my count, this column contains 104 commas. Note to copy desk: leave them be.

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