Typical mother-to-mother email, January weekday, 2015: ‘Thanks so much for helping out yesterday, Jamie had a great time with you all, thanks also for bringing his games kit home, let me know if you need me to help tomorrow… xx’
Emails and texts like this, flitting across the ether in their thousands, demonstrate the free-flowing currency of helpfulness — mother going the extra mile for mother, in her Volvo, every day — in school-run land. But have you noticed the appalling punctuation? The use of the ‘weak comma’, or ‘splice comma’, where there should be full stops? My guess is that you have, especially if you are over 45 and went to a good school: one at which you were well punctuated. I learned that the passive verb ‘to be punctuated’ could be used of a person as well as of a sentence in this magazine last week: Julie Burchill mentioned that her husband was a keen grammarian: ‘Once he punctuates one, one stays punctuated.’ Well, I wish Daniel Raven would come and punctuate the breathless texters of 2015. Those commas are pathetically weak: as weak as inflatable plastic fences where sturdy brick walls between sentences should be.
What is the psychology behind the increasing use of the weak comma among the under-45s? I think it is simply a fear of the full stop. The full stop sounds (to the unpunctuated) too scarily abrupt and final. The full stop announces, ‘I have just asserted something’ — even if that something is as harmless as ‘Jamie had a great time with you all.’ It feels safer to shroud one’s remark in a gentle, liberal, unassertive comma, so no one can pin you down to being accountable for having actually made a statement.
‘Sorry, been on the road all morning taking Thomas to the orthodontist, manic end of hols, really kind invitation though, he’d love to join in, what time would you like him?’ Perhaps another reason for the endless succession of commas in such a missive is that it broadcasts the life of a conspicuously multi-tasking parent, doing a thousand things at once, juggling orthodontist, plumber coming, other phone ringing, plus the hectic social lives of the children. There’s simply no time for full stops, they take too long, the voice has to go down, better just use a comma, on to the next thing, oh, that’s the Majestic wine delivery man, need to collect Emily from swimming, thanks for your help… .
The dot-dot-dot ending of paragraphs (see above) is another full-stop-avoiding technique: the fade-out rather than the sudden ending. ‘And Emily’s friends aren’t always reliable…!’ The dot-dot-dot implies, ‘There’s much more that could qualify what I’ve just said, so don’t challenge me on the absoluteness of the bare remark I’ve just made.’ Like the weak comma, the dot-dot-dot seems (to the unpunctuated) to be a softer and safer landing: a landing on cotton wool. It, too, drives me mad.
Even signs, whose whole purpose is to be assertive, run scared. ‘Do not lock bikes against tree-guards, bikes will be removed.’ ‘In fire emergency do not use elevator, use exit stairs.’ Semicolons were aching, pining, begging to be used in those cases. Just imagine how weak the first sentence of The Go-Between would be if L.P. Hartley had written, ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ Luckily, he was punctuated and used a colon.
I’m afraid Shakespeare, though, could be accused of using a weak comma in ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’. In the Second Quarto (1604) it’s a comma; in the First Folio (1623) it’s a comma; but in some of the 20th-century editions of Shakespeare I’ve got at home it has been changed to a dash (‘To be, or not to be — that is the question’) or (in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) a colon. Someone, somewhere, has decided to pick Shakespeare up on his weak comma. But no one seems to have tampered with ‘The King is dead, long live the king’. Perhaps those commas are poetic licence. But they sometimes keep me awake at night.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.