Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Comma Obsession

Yesterday I took a one-day cooking class to learn how to make a birthday cake. As part of the class, we learned how to wish someone a happy birthday in chocolate drizzle on top of a layer of buttercream frosting. Our teacher advised us to start with "Birthday" across the center of the cake, then to add "Happy" above that, and finally the person's name underneath.

In other words:


The one thing she didn't tell us to do was to insert a comma between "Birthday" and the person's name. I admit, it would certainly seem odd to come across a birthday cake that read:


But the rules of grammar require a comma there, and not simply for the sake of fussiness. Consider the following two lines of dialogue:

1. "Leave Mom!"
2. "Leave, Mom!"

Without the rule about inserting a comma when a person is addressed by name in speech, how would we ever know if Mom was being asked to leave, or if someone else was being asked to leave his mother. Or try these two:

1. "Kill ducks!"
2. "Kill, ducks!"

Here the comma is a matter of life and death. In the first example, the ducks are about to become dead meat. In the second, the ducks become the killers.

I first learned about this comma (sometimes known as the comma of address) in an undergraduate fiction workshop I took at the University of Michigan with the writer Tish Ezekiel. Since then, I've become fairly religious about using it. I've also become unusually sensitive to its ever-increasing absence in other people's work, especially with work that's been published. An omitted comma of address strikes me as a sign that the writer doesn't care enough about her craft to learn the rules of grammar, doesn't care enough about the comfort of her readers to make the cadences of her dialogue absolutely clear.

True, these little commas are probably not the most egregious error a writer could make. Many times, we can guess pretty easily what the writer had in mind. "Hi Mom" instead of "Hi, Mom," doesn't seem like a huge mental leap. So why do I get so bothered when I see "Hi Mom"?

Because the comma is probably the most difficult of all punctuation marks to deploy correctly. In fact, there are some rules of comma usage that seem pretty much a matter of taste, without hard and fast rules to follow. So when there is a perfectly good hard and fast rule for using a comma, like the rule about commas of address, why not stick to it?


Hot Toddy said...

Great Post!
Love Todd.

And I mean that literally.

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Anonymous said...

In your examples, you use commanding verbs (kill, leave), which make sense as a sentence. But neither happy nor birthday is a verb ....Happy birthday is a phrase, which does not require the comma and cannot stand alone as a sentence. If it was a sentence ( have a happy birthday, Dude.) you would need it, as well as a period at the end. But since it is not a sentence but a string of words it is not necessary.

Anonymous said...

Great explanation, I found that very helpful!