Hi, everyone! It’s Comedy Grammar time!
But first: here’s some exciting news:
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And now, on to the post…
Why Henry the Eighth Didn’t Need Commas but You Do
When I was in second grade my teacher, Mrs. McFall, wrote three words on the board:
Garlic Salt and Pepper
Then she asked us how many spices she had written.
What do you think?
I loved Mrs. McFall. She was one of my favorite teachers in elementary school. She was creative and fun, and she respected the students. She once used an idea of mine for a grade-wide project, and she didn’t even get mad when I told her that I didn’t like her at the beginning of the school year.
In any case, the “garlic salt and pepper” lesson is how Mrs. McFall introduced the importance of correct comma placement. It stayed with me throughout the rest of my education, and I have both used it and taught it manifold times during my career.
We all told Mrs. McFall that there were three spices written on the board…until she added a comma after “salt.” Then we got confused, not least because no one had ever heard of garlic salt. She showed us that this small but mighty piece of punctuation can – literally – add “spice” to your writing, tell us how many parents you have, insult people…the list is endless.
Let’s say you wrote the following:
- My father Achilles is a real heel.
- My father, Achilles, is a real heel.
In the first example you have more than one father. You don’t like the one named Achilles. But even though your father Madison is a real square, at least your father Midas has that golden touch.
In the second example you have only one father, and his name is Achilles.
King Henry the Eighth never used commas: My wife Catherine A., my wife Anne B., my wife Jane, my wife Anne C., my wife Catherine H., and my wife Catherine P.
I think he had a thing for Catherines.
Fun fact: there are two ways to remember what happened to all those wives – not that anyone cares. Here’s one: “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” The other is a poem:
- King Henry the Eighth,
- To six wives he was wedded.
- one died, one survived,
- Two divorced, two beheaded.
You Need only One Comma to Insult People
There are two things a mad scientist can do:
- drink, poison, and die.
- drink poison, and die.
In the first example the mad scientist will be arrested for murder; in the second, he’ll join the ranks of dead creatives such as Robin Williams, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath.
You can also use the second example as a command, which will enable you to hurt people’s feelings with impunity.
The Oxford Comma Is really a Harvard Comma
This is a pet peeve of mine.
The Oxford comma, also called the series comma, is the one you use immediately before the word “and” in a list. It is considered correct in the United States, and Elizabeth Taylor no doubt used it throughout her life: Conrad Hilton, Jr., Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, John Warner, and Larry Fortensky.
In the United Kingdom they don’t use the Oxford comma, which I think is really dumb. If they don’t want to use it, fine, but who gave them the right to call it after a British University? Call it the Harvard comma, the UCLA comma, the South Puget Sound Community College comma; whatever. But don’t call it the Oxford comma, for crying out loud.
In any case, this is how King Henry would have listed his wives: Catherine A., Anne B., Jane, Anne C., Catherine H. and Catherine P.
This is more than enough to digest in one digest. For the next installment of Comedy Grammar, I will go deeper into the comma mystique, and how it can help you write clearer prose.
Until next time,
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