God Bless Robert Samuelson

This is just to make sure you saw this important piece in the paper this week. Some people get all excited about taxing or spending or this or that public policy. But Robert Samuelson took the time to write about something that is very dear to my heart, and to my daily life. Study it, and become wiser:

We are, it seems, too busy to pause
By ROBERT J. SAMUELSON – Washington Post

I have always liked commas, but I seem to be in a shrinking minority. The comma is in retreat, though it is not yet extinct. In text messages and e-mails, commas appear infrequently, and then often by accident (someone hits the wrong key). Even on the printed page, commas are dwindling. Many standard uses from my childhood (after, for example, an introductory prepositional phrase) have become optional or, worse, have been ditched.

If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma’s sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can’t-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes “pause.” It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don’t have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma’s fading popularity is also social commentary.

It is true that Americans have always been in a hurry. In Democracy in America (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville has a famous passage noting the “feverish ardor” with which Americans pursue material gains and private pleasures. What’s distinctive about our era, I think, is that new technologies and astonishing prosperity give us the chance to slacken the pace. Perish the thought. In some ways, it seems, we Americans have actually become more frantic.

Evidence to support this hunch hasn’t been hard to find. Exhibit A is a story a few months ago in The Washington Post headlined, “Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?” We meet Megan, a 17-year-old honors high school senior. After school, she begins studying by turning on MTV and booting up her computer. The story continues:

Over the next half hour, Megan will send about a dozen instant messages discussing the potential for a midweek snow day. She’ll take at least one cell-phone call, fire off a couple of text messages, scan Weather.com, volunteer to help with a campus cleanup (at the local high school), post some comments on a friend’s Facebook page and check out the new pom squad pictures another friend has posted on hers.

Whew! And remember, she’s also studying. Naturally, the story includes the obligatory quote from a brain scientist, who worries that so much multitasking will turn young minds into mush. “It’s almost impossible,” says the scientist, “to gain a depth of knowledge of any of the tasks you do while you’re multitasking.”

In reality, multitasking isn’t confined to the young. It’s hard to go anywhere these days — including restaurants and business meetings — without seeing people punching furiously on their BlackBerrys, cell phones or other handheld devices. More mush, maybe. At the least, serious questions of etiquette have arisen. In one survey, almost a third of the executives polled said it is never appropriate to check e-mails during meetings.

Next, there’s work. Unlike most rich nations, the United States hasn’t reduced the average workweek during the past quarter-century. In 2006, annual hours for U.S. workers averaged 1,804, barely different from 1,834 in 1979, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By contrast, the Japanese cut annual hours by 16 percent to 1,784, the Germans 20 percent to 1,421 and the French 16 percent to 1,564. A study by economists Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas and Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan argues that long working hours, especially among the well paid, may be an addiction, akin to alcoholism and smoking. (The paper is titled “The Economics of Workaholism: We Should Not Have Worked on This Paper.”)

I could go on, but the column is only 800 words, and more evidence would simply reinforce the point: de Tocqueville’s “feverish ardor” endures. There’s always too much to do, not enough time to do it. The comma is a small victim of our hustle-bustle. If we can save a few seconds a day by curtailing commas, why not? Commas are disparaged as literary clutter. They’re axed in the name of stylistic “simplicity.” Once, introductory prepositional phrases (“In 1776, Thomas Jefferson….”) routinely took commas; once, compound sentences were strictly divided by commas; once, sentences that began with “once,” “naturally,” “surprisingly,” “inevitably” and the like usually took a comma to set them apart.

No more. These and other usages have slowly become discretionary or unacceptable. Over the years, copy editors have stripped thousands of defenseless commas from my stories. I have saved every last one of them and piled them all on a secluded corner of my desk. They deserve better than they’re getting. So here are some of my discarded commas, taking a long-overdue bow: ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,.

I’m not quitting quietly. By my count, this column contains 104 commas. Note to copy desk: Leave them be.

Mr. Samuelson also writes for Newsweek.

God bless Robert Samuelson. He is fighting a battle I’ve fought for over 30 years now. I thought I was alone.

Back in the early ’80s, I had a reporter covering the Jackson, Tenn., city commission who just wouldn’t use commas. She was in a hurry, of course — the commission met at midmorning, and it was our policy to have a story about that meeting in the edition that was actually on the streets downtown at noon. As I edited her story, I would call her over and point to all the places where I was inserting commas (among other changes, of course).

This was at the very tail end of the typewriter era. One day, she strode impatiently back to her desk — I can see her now — and sat back down at her IBM Selectric. Less than a minute later, she whipped out the paper, strode back over to me and handed the page to me with a flourish. It was a page full of commas. She urged me to hang onto them and insert them into her copy at my leisure, rather than bothering her about it when she was busy.

Ellen Dahnke went on to write editorials at The Tennessean. In the spring of 2005, I saw her at a reunionReunion
of Sun staff from those days when everyone was young. That’s where I got this picture (with Wichita Eagle cartoonist Richard Crowson and Washington lobbyist Joel Wood). She was fighting breast cancer. She and my wife, a survivor since 2001, talked at length about it.

We lost Ellen back in December.

I like to think that on the editorial board, in those later years, Ellen had the chance to slow down and think. I like to think she had time for the commas. Silly, I know, but I think it’s a thought that would make Ellen smile.

One thought on “God Bless Robert Samuelson

  1. weldon VII

    When crying about comma use or something equally grammatical, as I myself am prone to do, make sure you yourself do everything properly.
    “He is fighting a battle I’ve fought for over 30 years now.”
    Your sentence illustrates a battle I’ve been fighting for MORE THAN 30 years.
    “Over” refers to position. “More than” refers to quantity or number.
    Check your stylebook. If that has changed, a government conspiracy funded by Doug’s retirement funds must be afoot.
    That’s a joke, Brad. Please don’t take the last sentence seriously.
    By the way, your assertion elsewhere on this blog — that I, as a libertarian, have difficulty grasping how law alone creates property rights — was a condescending insult unsupported by any evidence.
    The fact is, Brad, the plodding explanations you call your “communication” bore me.
    I’d be willing to bet the only concept you can grasp that I can’t is your intellectual superiority.
    Day after day you accuse those who disagree with you of falling short of the intellectual discussion you want, but more often than not, you just don’t recognize that you’re losing the argument.
    And if the discussion doesn’t go where you want, well, that means you asked the wrong question. Surely a newspaper guy should know how to ask a question to get the answer he wants.

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