Commas and Hashtags

Oxford comma lt blueHow can we be discussing the usefulness of the Oxford comma while at the same time composing tweets using 140 characters and trying to come up with effective hashtags for our missives? An example of the communication challenges of our digital times. In our never-ending attempts to make ourselves understood, we are now faced with an overwhelming number of choices of how to deliver information, opinions, feelings. Knowing proper punctuation and all the other vagaries of the English language is still important and offers perhaps more clarity than using emojis to express our deepest thoughts.

I was an English major so I have always paid attention to grammar. (Feel free to start finding errors in this document right now.) When I got my first job, writing was one of my responsibilities and I was told, ‘don’t worry about what your grammar teacher said to do with commas, just put them where you pause naturally’. The tip was a good one and I’ve followed it ever since. I suppose it was a way to keep grammar regulations at bay since most of us do not want to be bothered with its many rules and tricky nomenclature. We learn to speak (and hopefully to write) naturally. I’ve always found it interesting that we are taught grammar long after we have mastered language and people who are learning a second language are often taught grammar first. But if you are doing any sort of writing, you eventually come to understand the importance of grammar in making yourself better understood. Even it you don’t want to belabour its finer points, a rudimentary understanding makes you a better writer.

In spite of our rush to embrace seemingly simpler ways of communicating, many of us writers (and we’re all writers now) still ponder grammar and punctuation. How else would you explain the success of Mary Norris’ book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and, before that, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss? The title of the latter book makes an excellent case for the clarity produced by a well-wielded comma. As for Ms. Norris, the gatekeeper of all things grammar-related at The New Yorker magazine, she elevates the dreary position of ‘copy-editor’ to new heights. She says in the introduction to her book:

One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. In the hierarchy of prose goddesses, I am way, way down the list. But what experience I have acquired I want to pass along.

Very few of us will ever be able to, or will need to, write at the level of The New Yorker but most of us are writing something every day – whether it’s a Facebook update, a text, a tweet and even an email. Although I have no studies to back this up, I’m guessing that we’re now writing way more than we did twenty years ago when a business letter or memo was the most writing that many people did. Maybe we wrote thank you notes (yeah, right) and letters to friends and family (highly unlikely) but it was a rare occasion when we would take pen – or typewriter – to paper.

Back in the day, most of us would pick up the phone to chat with our friends and family rather than write anything. Now, many people would prefer a stint in jail than make a phone call, never mind answer one. They prefer to text – it’s quick, gets to the point and can be done pretty much anywhere – much to the chagrin of mothers everywhere. And don’t even think about voice-mail. Apparently it’s something only used by those over 40. Notice I didn’t mention Snapchat (mostly because it’s completely foreign to me).

So is all this ‘writing’ we’re doing now a good thing? Writing is always supposed to be good, no matter the spelling, the typos, and the annoying vigilance of auto-correct. That’s what we tell kids when they’re learning to write – the content is always more important. But conveying that content clearly involves another layer of effort – that’s where grammar comes in – though people sure take a lot of shortcuts. Oxford comma enthusiasts withstanding, texting abbreviations abound, including those irritating ones that we used before smart phones like ‘u r gr8’. An ultimate shortcut that I just heard about is the translation of Moby-Dick into emojis.

call me ismael

Within this environment there is also the ‘long-read’ movement – where articles available online amount to a few thousand words – obviously requiring more of a commitment. For those who want a break from # and @ and ‘shortlinks’ and bursts of tweets, focusing on well-written, thoughtful pieces is a welcome reprieve. At the other end of the ‘Emoji-Dick’ spectrum was a recent CBC interview with Clive Thompson and his remarkable but perplexing feat of managing to read War and Peace on his smartphone.

And let’s not forget the proliferation of blogs and vanity publishing to which ‘attention must be paid’. People are writing, writing, writing. But we also need curators. Unless you’re focusing on one very particular topic – and there are so many who do – we need someone to sort through stuff for us if we hope to make sense of the overwhelming supply of information. Whether we favour ‘long-readers’ or pithy tweeterers, we need some guidance. It’s a good idea to take some time and choose your guides – for the next little while anyway before the next wave of new devices.

Ultimately, we’re all trying to connect and doing our best not to be misunderstood. We’ve developed protocols on how to put together texts so as not to insult people and we’ve decided what a reasonable amount of time is before responding to a text (maximum 30 minutes – otherwise they think you’re dead or you hate them). In the end we want that nod of understanding and reciprocity that means you’ve made a human connection – you’re a valued member of the tribe.

– Miria Ioannou

This article is part of our issue COULD BE A SIGN: Ways of Communicating.


I am up at the lake in Muskoka and just read the above….. found it extremely interesting and felt true to me as well…. I tend to use …. dots and lots of them…. just because…. kind of breaks up my thoughts and I don’t worry really whether they are correct or not…. true we are all writing more which I hadn’t really thought about before…. this is kind of a stream of consciousness post…. thanks Miria…. enjoyed reading this….
Lynn Murray, Toronto


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s