Eats shoots and leaves

Eats, shoots and leaves:

The death of the comma? U.S. academic claims punctuation mark could be abolished from English language with ‘little loss of clarity’

I think we’ve already disproved that one.

39 thoughts on “Eats shoots and leaves”

  1. US academics have long fought wars to abolish the hyphen and the adverb, and to use long, unpunctuated rows of nouns as adjectives. Consequently they often succeed in making their English incomprehensible. What, I wonder, can their motives be?

  2. Systematic misspelling is needed to facilitate the demise of the old, redundant comma.

    “Eats shoots and leafs” will do the trick nicely.

    The schools are already working on it.

  3. In my view – they will replace it with the hyphen.

    @dearieme
    Suspicion academics’ motives doubleplusungood.

    @Mr Ecks
    I’ve even heard in serious professional writers’ circles that English should be phoneticised. I don’t agree on practical grounds, besides the fact that the written and spoken language are different things (historically less so in English than other languages) and now diverging rapidly. After a century of near-universal literacy in the ESW the peasants are now wearing their illiteracy as a badge of hono(u)r to the extent that txt-lol-DAILY MAIL WEBCOMMENTSPEAK, is fast becoming an established variant of written English.

  4. That last sentence maybe proving that the comma should be obliterated. Or that bloke in Germany is not up to proofreading on a Sunday morning.

  5. The hyphen does a different job in sentences and makes writing seem breathless and ill considered when used in place of a comma. The comma earns its keep by doing the job of the pause in spoken English. Maybe you can do away with semis in the way Jane Austen did, and maybe you can even do away with the Oxford comma, though I doubt it, but the comma itself will be see all of us out.

  6. Do we really need them?

    How long have we used commas for? Ancient Greek had no punctuation or gaps between words. And there is a tradition of deliberately not using them in legal documents as they can cause ambiguity.

    Using them badly or using them sometimes but not always causes ambiguity. But never using them is fine. See Tim’s example. Without a comma you can tell from context. And the famous Oxford comma would not be needed if you never had commas at all.

  7. What is so hard about commas, or it’s and its? It’s piece of piss territory. But:

    @Luke ‘Without a comma you can tell from context.’

    Try reading a complicated sentence with lots of commas and abiguities in it, Luke, and then read the same sentence with the commas removed.

    If you have any facility at all with the language, you will find it very much easier and quicker to comprehend the words correctly punctuated.

    Of course, that gives people who have a facility with the language ‘an unfair advantage’.

    See (it’s fucking hilarious):

    “A hostile campus climate has been the norm for Students of Color in this class throughout the quarter as our epistemological and methodological commitments have been repeatedly questioned by our classmates and our instructor,” the group’s letter reads.

    The statement accuses “the professor” (it does not identify Rust by name) of correcting “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies” and “repeatedly questioning the value of our work on social identity and the related dynamics of oppression, power and privilege.” The “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate,” it continues.

    Watson, whose research focuses on black men and microagressions in higher education, said some within the division – he did not wish to name specific professors or peers – have questioned his research as “too subjective,” he said.

    In another case that best exemplifies the “grammar ‘lessons'” referenced in group’s letter, he said, another student who chose to capitalize the first letter in the word “Indigenous” in her research papers saw it changed to a lowercase throughout.

    Watson said that correction disregarded the writer’s scholarly advocacy and had other “ideological implications.” Rust also insisted on Chicago Manual of Style form in research papers, even though some in the group wanted to use American Psychological Association style, in line with their more social science-oriented research.

    The letter also alleges that the professor has failed to address the “escalating hostility directed at the only Male of Color in this cohort” and crossed a line by physically shaking that student’s arm in a “questionable, patronizing and facetious effort to remind [him] of the importance of dialogue.”

    Watson said that, during a discussion on critical race theory during which he was wearing a T-shirt that read “Dialogue Matters,” Rust tried to stop the heated conversation by shaking his arm. Making physical contact with a student is inappropriate, Watson added, and there are additional implications when an older white man does so with a younger black man.

  8. If we’re talking about grammar then what gets my goat is the use of “the below x” rather than “x below”.

  9. For any way you can say something you can find a different way to say the same thing. Commas are just one option. You could say “Eats then shoots and leaves”, for example. Or we could take English back a few hundred years (and I get the distinct Impression that this is happening anyway), and capitalise Nouns like they do in German. Eats Shoots and Leaves. No comma needed because it’s clear Shoots is not a verb.

    You’d still leave a bit more pause between “eats” and “shoots” if “shoots” was a verb than a noun. Which is why the comma works nicely there.

  10. @Interested,
    It is indeed hilarious, aided and abetted by someone genuinely thinking that “microaggressions in higher education” is a subject worthy of “research”.

    It’s also illustrative of the USA where there is a strong prescriptive focus on grammar (though I love little more than eliminating pompous capitalisations and I would definitely have picked on “Indigenous”. Getting your “which” and “that” correct really is an elitist thing there. This culminated in Strunk and White’s dogmatic abomination. Grammar should be descriptive, not prescriptive, and certainly not an attempt to fossilise the language around one’s personal preferences. Try Strunk and Whiteing James Joyce, or Salman Rushdie, or Anthony Burgess. You end up with a completely worthless result.

    When I worked on an internal company style guide I insisted on it being introduced thus:
    “Rule 1: If breaking any of the following rules confers greater sense or clarity upon what you are trying to say than following the rule, break the rule.”

  11. Interested
    “Try reading a complicated sentence with lots of commas and abiguities in it, Luke, and then read the same sentence with the commas removed.”

    How about the twat who wrote a sentence with “lots of ambiguities” learns to write?

    And I have read complicated documents with the commas removed – loads of legal documents, where they were removed to *avoid* ambiguity. It works if you know that no commas will be used. See Ian B’s example:

    “I owe my success to my parents, Margaret Thatcher and Adam Smith.”

    You can improve that by adding an Oxford comma after “Thatcher”. Or you could do what 19th C legal draftsmen did and write:
    “I owe my success to my parents Margaret Thatcher and Adam Smith.”

    Either way is clearer than the conventional single comma. It is correctly used in Ian’s example but adds confusion.

    Down with ambiguous confusing and unnecessary symbols that serve only to make middle aged pedants write ill-informed grammar books to be read by Telegraph readers. The 140 character limit of Twitter will merely hasten their end.

  12. One thing all this really proves is that grammar isn’t algorithmic. So, Noam Chomsky, wrong again. Quelle surprise.

    “Rules of grammar”- an algorithmic system- appears to be descriptive of reality because it is a close approximation to an idealised form of speech. But the fit is not perfect, and cannot be. There will always be real world exceptions necessary to make the speech (or writing) functional.

    “Tom has a jack in the box.”

    Now we just need to know contextually whether he’s a child or a car mechanic…

    “Tom has a jack, in the box”.

    Oh, righty.

  13. @ Ian
    You’re not restricted to the comma, you know.

    Which is the problem with a lot of people’s writing. Endless passages strewn with commas.
    There is a jack’n the box under the workbench.
    Much closer to how the phrase is used in speech & adds the informality of the toy.

    So;
    I owe my success to my parents, And Margaret Thatcher and Adam Smith.
    And stuff the convention on not starting sentences with conjunctions.

  14. Ian B, FWIW, I don’t think linguistics bods really care about commas, as commas are conscious creations, rather than rules unconsciously followed.

    But in your example about jacks context is only needed in writing. If someone was speaking you could tell which they meant. No native English speaker would pronounce them the same.

    And what’s the big fuss about theoretical ambiguity? We all live with it perfectly happily. “I’d like a bat for my birthday” could mean I want a willow thing for playing cricket or that I want a flying blind mammal. But no parent has ever made a mistake as to what their child wants.

  15. Interested – the best part is, they get into tens of thousands of dollars of debt to spend years learning fancy ways to say “brown skin good, pink skin bad”.

    It’s as if the universities have been taken over by that dodgy monorail salesman from The Simpsons.

  16. @ Luke

    “Either way is clearer than the conventional single comma. It is correctly used in Ian’s example but adds confusion.”

    In that particular case, it’s true. So what. Surely the answer is to use whatever reduces confusion, adds clarity or aids description – be it commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes or adjusting the script.

    Your first comment above on this went for full stops to make the point. Surely it doesn’t matter. Why do we “want to get rid of commas” or anything else. That, to me at least, simply seems pointless?

  17. In the Thatcher and Smith example you can eliminate ambiguity with word order. Put the parents last. Much clearer than the “legal” way.

  18. Matthew L, good spot.

    Can I recommend following the link supplied by Matthew L above, in which Geoff Pullum, scourge of ignorant and fusspot pedants, makes a case for commas. I may have been hasty…

    (Worth following the links to other stuff by him on prescriptivist poppycock.)

  19. @Luke ‘How about the twat who wrote a sentence with “lots of ambiguities” learns to write? ‘

    Well, yes, but sometimes there are unavoidable ambiguities unrelated to the twattishness of the author ie many sentences which contain words with more than one plausible meaning.

    Plus I note that your own comments are full of question marks, full stops, paragraphs, speech marks and so on. Is it just commas you’re against, in which case my head just exploded?

    if you’re against all punctuation, I just re-read your own comments and then my head exploded anyway.

    (I’ve read a lot of legal documents too. I usually add in commas etc to make them easier to read. It takes all sorts, I guess.)

  20. BIG – I recall Dutch and the Scandi languages have had Language Reform on the issue of capitalised nouns (think they used to be used across all the major Germanic languages, including English once). If I recall correctly reading speed dropped marginally as capital letters had helped signpost the roles of letters in the sentence, although I may be misremembering the result of the research.

    Tangentially I’m sure there was similar research on reading speeds for eg London vs LONDON on motorway signs, that plumped in favour of the former.

  21. I owe my success to my parents, And Margaret Thatcher and Adam Smith.
    And stuff the convention on not starting sentences with conjunctions.

    On the other hand, the convention of not ending sentences with commas is certainly worth preserving. Stuffed or otherwise.

  22. Interested
    “Plus I note that your own comments are full of question marks, full stops, paragraphs, speech marks and so on. Is it just commas you’re against, in which case my head just exploded?”

    Fair comment. I can (I hope) do grammatically correct stuff as well as most. I just react against middle class humanities graduates (like me) being patronising ( and usually wrong). Tim’s example was particularly woeful/Telegraph ranting.

  23. On the other hand, the convention of not ending sentences with commas is certainly worth preserving. Stuffed or otherwise.

    And sentence fragments.

  24. In which jurisdictions do lawyers leave out commas? I have practised in three common law jurisdictions and in every one I have seen commas used in contracts and legislation. I realise that the probably don’t use them in the US but then again the entire US legal system is designed to be impenetrable to non-lawyers, a handy way to keep it a closed shop I suppose.

    While it is loads of fun to argue over commas and semi-colons all day, I always remind those I work with that the purpose of language is to convey meaning. Provided that the meaning is clearly understood and, as far as possible, ambiguity is removed then job done.

    Ambiguity cannot be entirely removed from language because (a) language is inherently ambiguous as the same words can mean different things to different people and (b) some people are thickos.

  25. Why the fuck would we listen to an American – an academic, no less – on the subject of English grammar? These were the dolts who found trivial spelling conventions too difficult and had to simplify it, and then try to get us to follow suit claiming it was “better”. I’m sorry, but “sulfur” looks as if a retard is trying to guess how to spell “sulphur”.

  26. My grammar is generally pretty ropey, so I’ll refrain from adding my two-pen’orth except to note that Luke is incorrect in his claim (February 9, 2014 at 1:16 pm ) that leaving legal documents comma-free was to make them less ambiguous… IIRC it only applied to old Acts of Parliament which were drafted punctuation-free specifically to add ambiguity in order to allow room for “interpretation” of the law.

  27. Can you get insurance against Acts of Parliament? If you can get insurance against Acts of God, why can’t you get it against the Acts of mere mortals?

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