Features

How to stop being scared of full stops

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

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.

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Show comments
  • trace9

    There was a weak Little Comma
    Who couldn’t find any Wise Momma
    So it went to the Bard
    Who thought very hard..
    & Said Christ just bee as Thee Wanna..!

  • Adam Schwartz

    Here in the U.S., we have an online bulletin board called Craig’s List where it’s common to see a post containing a long paragraph that’s one long run-on sentence with no punctuation. Maybe people who write such posts pick up the habit from texting. In any event, literacy for the sake of literacy has lost cachet.

    • JimHHalpert

      Texting and twitter are probably the culprits. After all, how much punctuation does a 160/140-character missive need? A posting on Craigslist must seem like an essay to the modern writer.

      An economist looking at this might see a “tragedy of the commons”. Writers save time by not para marking/capitalising/punctuating, meaning that readers have to expend extra cognitive effort putting it all back in. It’s the linguistic equivalent of littering. (Of course, all writers are readers too.)

    • Berkelebhoy

      Nice try, Adam. But here in the U.S., and everywhere, really, given the ubiquity of the web, it is known, formally and informally, as craigslist. That being said, your final sentence is spot on.

  • Cassandra

    ‘Ysenda Maxtone Graham’ . I am sure that I am not the only person who thinks that you are perhaps a Radio Transmitter situated somewhere in the Midlands?

  • Sean L

    Much ado about nothing.

  • Helen of Troy

    Christ: if the fate of civilization resides in this, we are lucky indeed. (Punctuation is easy; politics is difficult.)

    • gmcurrie
    • Gwangi

      Punctuation easy? Not for very many people, it isn’t. And the standards of punctuation and spelling even from education people and even from journalists is utterly appalling these days.

  • Howe Synnott

    Ysenda M – thank you; a touching lament.
    Yea verily – you describe a common complaint concerning the comma. Alas, it’ll come to nought.
    ‘Tis a futile gesture – grumbling about grammar; try to rest easy – despite these cruel provocations.
    There are few true anchor points in English – it is constantly evolving.
    Time for some verse.
    Oh..
    It’s very ‘post modern’ – this English of today,
    So Samuel Johnson has been heard to say.
    On our changing tongue, it’s time for a tome,
    As the English language, globally does roam.
    Oh..
    From West Germanic origins, did it first spring,
    Its evolving and borrowing – new words do bring.
    Then add portmanteaus and neologisms, as well,
    And politician’s contributions – that list does swell.
    Oh..
    Expanding the concept – of modern English words,
    There are sporting and reality stars – in their herds.
    Now appears a noun – from an adjective or adverb,
    Welcomed warmly – no longer implausible or absurd.

    • davetheginge

      The glyph-conscious and I lament your incorrect use of hyphens — be precise, dash it!

      • Howe Synnott

        davetheginge – thank you. Dash it – I am undone.
        So, why use a hyphen – because it’s more fun. Dramatic effect is the imperative pursued – mother English ever forgiving the foibles of her errant adherents.

  • Gwangi

    I always used to teach teenagers to use a full stop if their writing was going on for over 2 lines hand-written (which is one line typed). That still holds. FAR too many commas used when there should be a full stop (or a semi-colon for the few who know how to use them).
    And don’t get me started on the apostrophe…
    Even supposedly educated and intelligent BBC and Channel 4 journalists seem to think “it’s” is a possessive! Grrrr…..

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    It’s only by using a full stop that one can start off a whole new sentence. In transactional terms, the full stop would be that permanently settled position one happily finds when some transaction is done and dusted. Only after this point ie the full stop, does one find the complete range of options from which to choose, available. It’s a market thing.

    • bondi1000

      Your first sentence contradicts itself, since it isn’t preceded by a full stop.

  • bondi1000

    “Even signs, whose whole purpose is to be assertive, run scared.” Do you mean “Even signs, the whole purpose of which…”? You may even mean “Even those who compose signs, the whole purpose of which…”, since signs have no capacity for fear.

  • Gerschwin

    …!!

  • Teacher

    It’s the sentences which begin without capital letters that make me weep. I know that Smart phones decidedly aren’t where punctuation is concerned. But really. When I see my graduate friends and family posting on Facebook without punctuation I am embarrassed for them.

    • Ugo

      you know, the fact simply is that if i write with a pen then making a capital letter is the same effort than a normal one.
      with a keyboard though, it can get annoying. and punctuation too: i’m totally convinced that semicolon and colon are nearly unused because they’re on the upside of the key…
      the larger part of what we write on the net is (curiously…) perceived as it’s said informally, casually, almost privately.
      truly is that it’s prolly the most public externalization we can ever make, but since it’s perceived as something relaxed then the urge to put the pants on is pretty little.
      the real difference is between someone who does know how to properly punctuate and choose not to in an easygoing environment, and someone whose life is a mess of xoxo b*…

      • Teacher

        Ugo, you are perfectly entitled to take that view. People who wear tracksuits in public also think it’s their right to dress how they like. Nobody tells them differently. But you might want to have a think about why some dress smartly, speak properly and write correctly at all times. If it really did not matter they wouldn’t bother.

  • Ugo

    i’m a huge fan of the dot-dot-dot thing.
    to me it simply implies that the written is just a part of a longer, uninterrupted think flow. that’s also the reason why in informal writing i skip capital letter (except in names) and take some liberty on accents too.
    after all, though i’m seldom worried about making sentences every sentence should be a starting point rather than an end…

    • Mark Bolton

      Thank you. I concur. I am with John McWorter on this one. If one were extemporising on “That spotty dog has been in the rubbish again, if I catch it then …. :-/ Looks like ia mgong to be late for chior practice and probably a bit begraggled, hold my pew…no pun intended” Stops are employed for pausing in scripts. All the precision required is packed right in there. It is much closer to the tone you would have adopted in a ‘phone call. Provided the meaning is clear then job done. If, by contrast, one is trying to clearly convey a multi factorial logical construction, a different register would be deployed. I respect those can who communicate using the same tone and register with an interlocutor (being careful to remain sincere and not be patronising). It is a sign of friendless and a search for common ground. It show a willingness to put aside social background. Bravo for plain speaking.

  • Chris W

    Could you at least call them by their name. They’re called ellipses…

  • Abu Nudnik

    They keep you awake at night? You live a charmed life.

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