Q: Is there a correct way to punctuate droning expressions like “blah blah blah” and “yada yada yada”? Commas? Hyphens? Nothing at all?
A: There’s no real answer here. You can use commas, hyphens, or nothing at all—unless you’re writing for a publication with rules about such things.
We’d use commas with “blah, blah, blah” if we wanted to convey a meandering, hesitant kind of blather. But we’d dispense with the commas to imitate an uninterrupted droning sound.
As for “yada yada yada,” we’d skip the commas, since it strikes us as steady machine-gun fire. But feel free to use hyphens or commas if they seem right to you.
Expressions like these are the kind of thing that authors take great liberties with—and they’re entitled to. Let’s look at how they’ve been used over the years.
The use of “blah” as a noun for nonsensical or empty talk dates back to 1918, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s “imitative” in origin, the dictionary says, indicating how this sort of talk sounds to the unlucky listener.
In Oxford’s earliest example, a writer refers to the “old blah about ‘service,’ ‘doing one’s bit,’ etc.” It’s from an entry dated July 3, 1918, in the diary of Howard Vincent O’Brien, a Chicago newspaperman and novelist. The diary was published anonymously in 1926 under the title Wine, Women and War.
The dictionary describes “blah” in this sense as a colloquial usage originating in the US, and defines it as “meaningless, insincere, or pretentious talk or writing; nonsense, bunkum.” (We think it’s interesting that this use of “blah” preceded its use as an adjective for “dull” by almost 20 years.)
The word is frequently repeated (as “blah blah” or “blah blah blah”), the dictionary says, and gives these later citations:
“Then a special announcer began a long debate with himself which was mostly blah blah” (Colliers, Jan. 15, 1921).
“So you heard about it from that femme fatale, did you? Damn that man! Bla, bla, bla!” (from Michael Arlen’s 1924 novel The Green Hat).
Even today, the repetitive use sometimes has commas and sometimes doesn’t. So take your pick.
The OED’s entry for “yada yada” (also spelled “yadda yadda”) has no commas, and most of its examples are comma-free. This usage is another American colloquialism, though of a later vintage.
Oxford defines it as an interjection, “imitative of the sound of human speech,” and “probably influenced by (or perhaps an alteration of)” the 19th-century noun “yatter.” The word is used, the dictionary says, in “indicating (usually dismissively) that further details are predictable or evident from what has preceded: ‘and so on,’ ‘blah blah blah.’ ”
Early forms of the expression go back at least to the 1940s. The OED points to a song, “Yatata Yatata Yatata” (Oscar Hammerstein, 1947), whose title and lyrics mimic empty cocktail chatter.
But the dictionary’s earliest example of the expression spelled with “d” instead of “t” is from The Essential Lenny Bruce (1967). Note the comedian’s creative spelling: “They’re no good, the lot of them—‘Yaddeyahdah’—They’re animals!”
The dictionary notes that Bruce’s usage predates the posthumous publication of his book. Some fans have said he used a version of “yada yada” in stand-up routines in the 1950s.
Subsequent OED examples have the more familiar spellings, like these (note the arbitrary use of commas):
“I’m talking country codes, asbestos firewalls, yada yada yada” (Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1981).
“Moody is forcing a heap of very tired metaphors down your throat—as the nuclear family fissions, so does the nuclear reactor, yadda yadda yadda” (a book review in the Village Voice, April 8, 1997).
“Best actor of his generation, blah blah blah. … Brilliant architect of the ‘method’ performance, yada, yada” (the British magazine Arena, May 2005).
As we mentioned, the OED classifies “yada yada” as an interjection. But in the 1990s people began using it as a noun. We’ll conclude with this example:
“The EULA, or ‘End-User License Agreement,’ is the yadda yadda yadda that you agree to when you install software on your computer. It’s usually pages and pages of stuff that no one reads” (from the Hoosier Times, Bloomington, Ind., March 20, 2005).