Comma clusters and texting style

My writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this month with posts about text messaging and comma usage.

How’s your txtng style? analyses how the language you use in text messages differs from your style in email and your prose elsewhere. I compare the grammar and style of my own text messages with what I know about others’, and I dismiss the suggestion that texting is somehow harmful to language:

New modes and styles of expression are an important part of language change and growth – they have ‘spawned all sorts of clever, funny and inventive new uses of language’, as Michael put it. Texting, like slang, is an ‘active frontier’, and the innovation and flux it illustrates is a sign of linguistic health. So long as communication is effective, and young people learn (or are taught) when texting style is inappropriate, there is no call for alarm. Despite occasional panic, texting is not ruining language – it’s just another way for social creatures to be social.

In the comments, readers have added their thoughts on texting in general and on aspects of their own habits and strategies, including abbreviations in other languages and how different phone types can influence text messaging style.


A clutter of commas looks briefly at the subtlety and diversity of comma style. Gertrude Stein admitted to a “long and complicated life” with punctuation marks; such complication, I write,

is conspicuous in the comma. From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression. Ernest Gowers wrote that the correct use of commas – “if there is such a thing as ‘correct’ use – can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste”.

But it’s not quite so vague and elusive as this might make it sound. There is such a thing as correct use, but it may be better to think not of rules but of conventions – and to remember that these change over time and from one context to the next.

Few modern writers, for example, use commas as frequently as Dickens did; I consider the contrasting effects of ‘open’ and ‘close’ punctuation. Adrian (of The Outer Hoard) experimented by re-writing my post with his own punctuation to see where we differed, and he shares his findings in the comments.

Further comments are welcome at either location. You can also visit my Macmillan Dictionary archive for older posts on words and language.


Lane Greene follows up on “A clutter of commas” at the Economist‘s Johnson blog, saying he has “never understood why some people think that their personal comma preference is linguistic law”. Greene recalls an editor of the New Republic insisting that commas always appear in pairs. See Greene’s post for more on this strange belief.

Update 2:

Ruth Walker at the Christian Science Monitor joins in the discussion: “Proper punctuation can be a marvel of space-efficient communication.”


10 Responses to Comma clusters and texting style

  1. Repunctuating your punctuation article was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, and had just been waiting for the right moment. I did something vaguely similar once in a Language Log comment; perhaps that’s where I got the idea. Anyway, it was fun.

    From our Twitter discussion afterwards, I got the impression that you might orchestrate a more formal experiment at some point. After all, more interesting than my repunctuation of one text would be several people’s independent repunctuation of the same text (or, better, texts, representing different writing styles and perhaps authors). I guess the format would be that the selected text is presented with punctuation removed, commenters are invited to add punctuation, and the original punctuated source text is revealed the following week. What are your current thoughts about this?

    Regarding Dickens’s commas, I think the key cultural difference is that his stories were meant to be read aloud to a live audience, and therefore his commas were meant as instructions for an orator. They are, as often as not, dramatic pauses. Whereas nowadays we read silently to ourselves far more often than we read to anyone else, and too many commas get in the way.

  2. P.S. Looks like I forgot to add the link for the aforementioned Language Log comment. Here it is:

  3. Stan says:

    Adrian: Yes, I’d like to carry out the experiment on a slightly larger scale. I don’t know about it being more formal, but I could dedicate a post to it, much as you’ve proposed. Selecting text from different authors/styles/eras is a good idea, though I would aim to keep the number and length down so as not to discourage participation. It probably doesn’t much matter whether the text is available online, but I could try to assemble suitable lines or passages that aren’t readily googlable. It may be a while before I get around to this.

    And I agree with your point about Dickens. In the Macmillan post I mentioned commas “guiding intonation and suggesting pauses for the reading voice”, but I could have been more explicit about this being a voice that reads aloud.

  4. By “formal” I just meant “scientifically controlled” and “following a planned procedure”, referring to such things as the punctuation being removed before the respondents see it.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    I agree with Adrian, and I support his suggestion. It occurs to me that we often forget that commas and other punctuation marks are really (hopefully) agreed-upon shorthand for words. For example, when writing a speech for someone, I would, in addition to using punctuation, write “pause” at certain intervals, or “emphasize,” as is done in scripts for plays. Referencing Dickens and other writers before the advent of modern technology, we also tend to forget that reading, as well as music, were group activities, with both actors and auditors.
    The other night I happened to watch a segment of “Bramwell,” which is set in the mid-1890s. In one scene, the guests at a dinner party sing songs from “The Pirates of Penzance” to the accompaniment of the piano. A chapter of “Little Dorrit” might well have been substituted for the music, with appropriate commas provided by the author.

  6. Stan says:

    Adrian: In that case: yes.

    Marc: I wouldn’t consider them shorthand for words. I see them more as shorthand for aspects of structure, rhythm, tone and so on, which can also be indicated with words such as “pause” and “emphasise”.

    There’s a good description in the Fowler brothers’ King’s English:

    the work of punctuation is mainly to show, or hint at, the grammatical relation between words, phrases, clauses, and sentences; but it must not be forgotten that stops also serve to regulate pace, to throw emphasis on particular words and give them significance, and to indicate tone.

  7. Ado_Annie says:

    Had I written the above text from King’s I would not have used the last comma.

    I would enjoy a trial by punctuation. If and when you do send out such an experiment I would like to be included.

  8. Barrie says:

    Let’s not forget the usefiul role of commas in differentiating between integrated and supplementary relative clauses, as in this example from Huddleston and Pullum:

    Politicians who make extravagant promises aren’t trusted.
    Politicians, who make extravagant promises, aren’t trusted.

  9. Stan says:

    Ado_Annie: You’d be very welcome to join in the comma style experiment. The last comma in the excerpt from The King’s English is an Oxford comma; there’s another after “clauses”. I think the second one in particular is quite helpful here.

    Barrie: A good example of commas that are grammatically necessary, or necessary to omit, in order to convey the intended meaning.

  10. […] on Stan Carey’s blog there’s talk of conducting a punctuation experiment sometime. It’s an idea that I tried […]

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