Tuesday, April 17, 2012
(illustration credit: Peter Arkle)
Professor Ben Yagoda has a great piece on commas in the NY Times. The article, Fanfare for the
Comma Man, discusses current student comma trends and how those trends may one day become standard punctuation. Some highlights:
As a professor at the University of Delaware, I read a lot of writing by college students, and in it a strong recent trend is reversion to comma-by-sound. I attribute this not so much to students’ love of the Constitution and the classics but to the fact that they don’t read much edited prose (as opposed to Facebook status updates, tweets and the like). Two things that you really need to read a lot to understand are punctuation and spelling. (Not coincidentally, spelling is the other contemporary writing disaster.)
As far as comma use goes, my students play it by ear. I see this most dramatically in sentences that start with conjunctions like “And,” “But” and “So.” (Your junior high school English teacher may have told you never to start a sentence with a conjunction. To the extent that was once true, it isn’t anymore.)
This brings up a key question: Who decides when and how punctuation rules change? The short answer is, no one. The longer answer is that presumably and eventually, the editors of “The Associated Press Stylebook” and “The Chicago Manual of Style,” and the worthies who decide such matters for The New York Times, the Modern Language Association and a few other enterprises reach a consensus on these matters, and their decisions filter down to the rest of us.