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The Dispatch

Dispatch – February 11: Self-induced com(m)a

When we graduate from school, we get the usual warnings: school is only the first of many challenges that life will throw at you. The worst troubles are yet to come. But what no one warns us about in Georgia is…punctuation. Nothing in our earlier lives prepares us for the agony associated with using commas – not even the best grammar books. Thus, punctuation rules become the first of many illusions of knowledge. These are the illusions that threaten to ruin Georgia’s younger generations unless, of course, those generations put an end to them first.

Here is Dispatch and Nini with this week’s newsletter to rant about the vague punctuation rules, a quest for illusory rules, and how they might be killing the talent in Georgia.

Where did the texts go?

Georgia is full of bright and creative young people, yet it’s incredibly hard to find anyone with a passion for writing. That’s a shame in a country where the culture of writing has historically played a role of national significance that extended to the late decades of Russian imperial rule, when the press led efforts to shape Georgian identity, and to the 1980s and 1990s when the writings of top intellectuals prepared the country for a new independence. The inertia continued into the early 2010s, as the WordPress era produced new generations of bloggers. As readers went online, the internet still offered them some fine texts on literature, culture, and social criticism. Young, opinionated Georgians stepped up to the platforms of popular media.

But the passion slowly waned and eventually disappeared, much sooner than the world’s top media sounded the alarm about its feared extinction. Several trends are certainly to blame: videos and podcasts took away some readers. Facebook, Georgians’ favorite social network, offered users easier ways to get their thoughts off their chests. The marketing boom led companies to chain the most creative minds to the treadmills of “copywriting.” A persistent sense of emergency overwhelmed the Georgian intellectual space and forced a transition to more dispassionate writing, delivering dry facts and proffering simple truths. This left little space for experimenting with “less urgent” matters.

Over the past years, your best chance of reading an opinionated or creative piece was among conspirational essays of courtier philosophers or the long letters of government leaders themselves who, with a pang of a sudden ego boost, harassed the already tortured soul of Virginia Woolf with their stream-of-consciousness analyses of current events.

Sure, there are still some good newspapers, magazines, and blogs to enjoy when one looks closer and digs deeper. But the culture of writing as we knew it has all but died. There is little for younger minds to draw from or to be inspired by. Writing for a living has become a job where one ends up by some Dickensian life accident rather than something to aspire to.

When, to, use, a, comma?

However, there may be another, less zeitgeist-related reason why Georgians stopped being enthusiastic about writing in their native language – because IT IS NOT FUN.

Here are three main comma-related killjoys: firstly, the rules governing the use of a comma are very ambiguous; second, there is a widespread denial of that ambiguity; and third, the harsh collective punishments are meted out to the would-be writers from pious protectors of the sanctity of language when they get that ambiguity “wrong.”

Punctuation – or what Georgians elegantly call “the resting signs” – is one of the many rules of the Georgian language where grammar books don’t provide all the answers. There are some hard and fast rules, but every slightly complex sentence contains situations where those rules either don’t apply or, if they do, they make little sense. The unspoken confusion only made things worse: fearful of making mistakes, many, have, been, putting, commas, after, every, single, word, while others have rejected them altogether.

The resulting frantic use of “resting signs” is that some Georgians rest too much while others find no rest at all – which, while not directly related, pretty much mirrors the way Georgians see each other these days…

Just check out any random Georgian comment section: some comma-less comments will leave you gasping for air to the point of suffocation, while others will give you the kind of nausea you get on an average Tbilisi “marshrutka” ride when the driver slams on the brakes every two meters. And if reading is painful, there is even more pain when you try to put the words together yourself. Instead of the joy of playing with language, rhythm, structure, or ideas, the entire process of writing in Georgian becomes a long ordeal of trying to figure out where to use a da** comma and where to skip it to avoid burning in some king of syntax hell.

The truth is that there’s no truth

This forced my own journey to figure out what the rules were and where to find them. AI offered no help – offering the cautionary tale of the algorithm that learns from humans who themselves have little idea what to do. No sophisticated scientific literature is available to offer solutions – at least not publicly. A social media community created for the very purpose of bringing clarity to such uncertainties quickly morphed into a collective bullying enterprise. Falling prey to its most devoted members can make any author rethink their career and start having nagging existentialist thoughts. The only viable solution is to follow the best practices: check out books and journals from top publishers and look into the texts approved by the best editors.

And here comes a somewhat predictable result: even among the best writers and editors, there is no single, unanimous rule about how to use commas in such tricky situations. This is perfectly fine: writers can make some of the punctuation “their own” and use it more flexibly to define their own voice and rhythm.

Unless, of course, you live in a country that has just crawled out of a dark period of lawlessness and has developed an obsessive desire for rules, seeing them, craving them, even where they don’t exist.

Sometimes, it feels like we expect our ancestors, who accomplished the bare minimum of saving the language from colonialist extinction, to have taken the time to define every little rule to solve every possible linguistic dilemma of the future. But did they bury those sacred manuals somewhere where no one could find them, just in case someone got so smart that they’d eventually challenge their authority? (something any Georgian “expert” does these days anyway?)

See it burn

You’ve guessed it. This story is not just about commas. The illusion of knowledge and the illusion of rules have infected every social field – from grammar to culture to education to science to politics. The illusion makes these fields inaccessible to newcomers who neither seek this strict order nor have any idea what these rules are or where they come from. So young people, new ideas, enter at your own risk and at the peril of instant- yet eternal – damnation!

Or, alternatively, youngsters can do some research and discover that others also have little idea of where those standards they imagine come from. The realization can be strangely liberating, giving a surprising sense of agency and motivation to take matters into one’s own hands.

There is, of course, the third way: we can just wait for things to collapse on their own volition, like any system with weak foundations does.

Take the frenzy the country is in now: for the past couple of weeks, half of Georgia has been thrown into existential convulsions just because some young person on TV asked why anyone needs to study national history or the lives of saints in a secondary school. It looks like we will be deconstructing more rules as more such innocent questions are asked out of the mouths of (relative) babes and infants…

Let’s just make sure not to stay in this self-induced com(m)a for too long.


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