Comma-pocalypse 2018: The Death of Commas, and Why We Need to Save Them

Estimated reading time: 12 minute(s)

grammar commas clarity copywriting
The nationwide comma shortage has big implications for clarity in marketing.

Commas. Those inky flourishes that have been helping readers catch their breath—and catch a writer’s meaning—for centuries.

They’re becoming, in a word, scarce. The Comma-pocaplyse has been secretly murdering commas by the dozen. Defenseless, discarded, lifeless: these cute little curls are mired in the sand, drowning in the sea, left gasping from a mysterious plague of non-use. Even among writers.

But, we need them. Here’s what I’ve seen, and here’s why it’s not too late to pull the comma back from the shadows.

Let’s eat grandma

—20th century t-shirt

For the naysayers, here are a couple of real-life examples of commas gone horribly missing:

“In 2011 the findings said X.”

—21st century white paper

“Jason Smith, renowned bestselling author gives us great digital advice.”

—21st century blog post

“A lot of the work relies on heavy collaboration both with your team and other departments.”

—Article from yesterday

“Unable to eat diarrhea.”

—Unfortunate list of symptoms (courtesy of BuzzFeed)

If these grate on your inner grammar geek like that jackhammer down the street, I’m with you.

According to many, digital communication is the degradation of language. Some of our brightest cultural critics—from George Orwell to Steven Pinker—have urged us to take greater care with our language, if we want to improve our world.

It’s not a stretch to attribute the Great Comma Recession to technology. The speed at which we can text or tweet gives us shortcuts…and the occasional short circuit.

In 1929, William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury played with punctuation, abandoning commas, periods, and quotation marks to create a stream-of-consciousness narrative:

“My God the cigar what would your mother say if she found a blister on her mantel just in time too look here Quentin we’re about to do something we’ll both regret I like you liked you as soon as I saw you I says he must be…” (The Sound and The Fury, p. 105)

Today, punctuation receives similar treatment, only it’s not a Faulkner thing anymore.

A mind, torn

As Chief Content Officer of a growing copywriting and content agency, the question of whether they comma’d—or no, they didn’t!—keeps me riveted and wry. When I come across a missing comma, I announce to no one in particular that [insert writer’s name] has joined the anti-comma revolution.

Not only am I a proponent of applying rules to grammar, it’s my job. Commas support clarity. They speed understanding. They allow a mind to digest. Plus, their absence can really piss a person off.

Let me illustrate with a few revisions I recommended to a client during a recent training session:

  • From “Our clients by default” to “By default, our clients”

The comma here is absolutely functional. It helps the client organize what’s to come and spares the reader having to figure out your word morass.

  • From “This is true too,” to “This is true, too,”

This comma, while, optional, helps the reader subconsciously grasp that the sentence to come is an addendum to a mini-list.

  • From “Overall it’s a nice formality to have,” to “Overall, it’s a nice formality to have,”

The comma here signals to the reader’s brain that a summary is coming. Without the comma, you wouldn’t need the word “Overall,” which is a clue to the reader that this is not just another sentence.

All of that said, I’ll take a writer with storytelling chops and crystalline logic over a comma maven without such rare gifts.

There’s a huge distinction between strategy and story. One of the biggest things I hear from clients is how they struggle to turn their sales message into a concise, compelling story. That is not a grammar issue: it’s an issue of craft. And when the ultimate goal is sharing your team’s message, nothing is more important than clean, clear communication.

A comma-less future? Not if we can help it.

Ultimately, is the vanishing comma something to be concerned about? Depends on who you ask. But, rest assured, they won’t be disappearing from our work at MarketSmiths anytime soon.

Commas are every bit a part of the beauty that is written English: little cues and shortcuts and signposts that enable the brain to get organized and for communication to pass quicker from one brain into another. Which gets at the heart of our mission—to help businesses speak in ways that easy to understand and more considerate of their audiences.

If you’re looking for a copywriting team that’s as dedicated to your business as we are about grammar, look no further. To find out what clear and powerful writing can do for you, get in touch today.

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Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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