Where Have All the Commas Gone?

Where Have All the Commas Gone?

Grammar is an essential part of any form of language. Without it, words and ideas would all blend together into meaningless noise. Why, then, does it feel like grammar is disappearing? Is it caused by the rise of social media, is it a symptom of poor educational standards, or does it all point to something more? Here is a quick look into the center of our language crisis and what we can do to stop it.

What is Grammar?

Grammar is the structure that gives meaning to our words, or as it is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, “the characteristic system of inflections and syntax in language.” While words and phrases have meaning on their own, grammar gives us defined rules about how the way we arrange those words changes what is being said. As an example, many people present the sentences “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma” to illustrate how something as small as a comma can drastically change a statement. However, with the rise of “text speak,” emojis, and the growing disregard for comma placement, many feel that grammar in our language is disintegrating. So if, as many claim, grammar is disappearing, how do we still know what everyone is saying?

Grammar is Evolving

Despite what so-called “grammar police” may say, social media isn’t actually killing grammar. In fact, social media has led to the formation of new types of grammar that are meant to give greater meaning and inflection to our words. Basically, social media is actually changing grammar so that our words are saying more than ever before.

For example, on Tumblr, a post with no punctuation can generally be accepted as a “ranting” format. If someone wants to let steam off their chest without opening up the table for argument, they can just leave out the punctuation and let their words come in a single stream of emotion. Using punctuation, however, indicates that a post is contributing to conversation. Instead of a cathartic rant, the post is now inviting people to answer a question or argue their own point. In this case, rather than removing grammar from our discourse, our day to day or “informal” grammar is being transformed to say more than text alone could ever before.

Formal Grammar is Often Classist

While informal grammar continues to evolve, formal grammar, unfortunately, is falling behind. This decline is likely due to the fact that the rules of formal grammar are so inaccessible to the everyday person. While there are many online and public resources that try to explain grammar rules, these resources use complicated intellectual jargon that treat grammar rules like mathematic formulas rather than as fluid communication guidelines. This disconnects grammar from the language itself, making it even harder to apply formal grammar to the language we use every day. To gain a better understanding of formal grammar, students typically have to take it upon themselves to study on their own. Unless they have plans to make a career in language arts, however, they have little motivation to do more than move on and forget the complex formulas they were taught.

Those with an intellectual and professional interest in how language is structured, on the other hand, tend to come from privileged demographics. Because of this, formal grammar becomes a secret known only to the intellectually elite. Meanwhile, those who didn’t have access to the time and resources to learn grammar on their own are restricted from professional and educational opportunities because they can’t write like collegiate scholars. To further the cycle, those very same elite classes are the ones who are then put on the boards that make the decisions on formal grammar rules, such as for MLA, APA, and Chicago Style formats. With the working class left out of the rule-making process, formal grammar becomes more and more removed from how the majority of the population actually communicates.

Grammar is Losing its Focus

Because of the often elitist approach towards formal grammar and its use, the true nature and purpose of grammar is easily lost. Grammar is, at its core, a tool to organize thoughts into words that can be understood. Whether it be spoken, written, signed by hand, or even tapped out in Morse Code, language needs a structure to organize abstract thought into meaningful communication.

When looking at a sentence to see if the grammar is correct, therefore, we should not be asking “did they follow all of the rules?” Instead, the most important questions that should be asked are “do I understand what they’re saying” and “is there an easier way to say this?” When we nitpick at the little technicalities and ignore the greater picture of what is being said, we lose the entire essence of what grammar was meant for. We lose our communication.

Thankfully, we don’t have to say goodbye to formal grammar forever. Linguists have taken notice of the problem and are working to use social media to teach grammar without the messy jargon. Teachers are also finding new ways to teach grammar with a focus on practical application rather than on rules alone. However, the most important thing for us to do is to be more understanding when others don’t follow our expectations. Everyone is still learning, whether it be about formal structure or the new informal rules. Instead of using grammar as a tool to put others down, we all need to take a step back, forget about pushing rules, and encourage communication.

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