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‘Let’s eat Grandma’ and other cases of comma to the rescue

She didn’t mean it. It was an innocent mistake.

Lilly wrote “Let’s Eat Grandma,” then became upset after realizing what it meant.

“I don’t want to eat my abuela!”

A simple change clarified her invitation: Let’s eat, Grandma. This is how Lilly learned to love the comma.

Like Lilly, most people don’t think about punctuation or its connection to writing well. Yet those little dots and squiggles provide important tools for self-expression. After all, we cannot always talk face-to-face, which means we must try to teach, persuade, or entertain others in writing.

A punctuation guide might help. Most guides, however, are not only boring, they teach rules, not tools. This emphasis leads students to ask “What mark goes here?” They seek the one right answer, which rarely exists. In punctuation, as in life, you always have choices. You must pick wisely, whether the task is writing well or making moral judgments.

Notice the subtle difference in these two sentences:

(1) Ailyen granted the usual permission and walked away.

(2) Ailyen granted the usual permission, and walked away.

In (1) the event is normal, of little consequence. In (2), however, inserting the comma changes the meaning in a slight but important way. Is she irritated? You would have to see the sentence embedded in its paragraph to know.

Although both sentences are correct as written, the Grammar Police will teach you not to insert a comma in (2). In their world, rules rule. But perhaps they should not.

By contrast, good writers say: Tools are better than rules. Writers know that punctuation marks are tools for effective writing, not rules to follow reflexively.

The great satirist, Kurt Vonnegut, would seem to disagree with me. He opened one of his last books with a rule some members of the Grammar Police cite often: “Do not use semicolons.” OK, but consider the following examples:

Abe loves to wash and comb his hairy knuckles. Ronald needs to barf.

Abe loves to wash and comb his hairy knuckles, and Ronald needs to barf.

Abe loves to wash and comb his hairy knuckles: Ronald needs to barf.

Abe loves to wash and comb his hairy knuckles; as a result, Ronald needs to barf.

In each example a different mark separates the clauses. Each is correct as written. Notice that the sentence does not determine which choice to make. Rather, what’s going on in the paragraph will suggest the most effective mark to take from your toolbox. Writers make punctuation decisions in this context.

Vonnegut also emphasized the importance of context. He kept his word and used no semicolons in the book: until near the end.

In a passage the Grammar Police rarely cite, he writes that a few people “can look into someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.” He continues: “I’ve just used a semicolon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.”

When you write, as in daily life, don’t ask what you should do; ask what is going on. What is the point you are making? How can you make this point effectively? Write it down using simple words and active verbs. Vary sentence length and compose relatively short paragraphs. Use marks that make your meaning clear.

Just so you know, my grandson, Abe, has learned to love the comma and, indeed, all the dots and squiggles. But he is too young to have hairy knuckles.

Leonard Beeghey is a retired college professor and the author of Let’s Eat Grandma? A Workbook for Learning the Marvels of Punctuation and Improving Your Writing Skills, available on Amazon.com. He and his wife run a tutoring program for Latino children in grades K-college.

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