Sunday, January 24, 2010

American Libel

Commas are to punctuation what Ryan Seacrest is to entertainment: used for everything.

The other punctuation marks have two to three gigs, but the comma has landed a ton- probably because, like Seacrest, it’s small and cute.

But, as we know, popularity and success inspire rumors: gay rumors, gerbil rumors, cryogenically frozen rumors, insured body part rumors. Well, the comma has not escaped scandal. The biggest rumor spread about the comma (probably cooked up by some lazy grammar teacher who didn’t want to teach all the rules) is that we insert a comma whenever we pause. And, like all the rumors we want to believe (I’m still waiting for Tupac’s big comeback), everyone embraced it. But, unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

I wish it were that simple; it would make my job a hell of a lot easier. But, although we do pause when we see a comma, we shouldn’t use a comma every time we pause.

I’m going to use an excerpt from when Larry King interviewed Ryan Seacrest back in 2004 to show you how we incorrectly use a comma for pausing purposes. For this to work, we have to pretend that Ryan and Larry were writing notes back and forth to each other instead of speaking, and we also have to pretend that Ryan used the wrong punctuation (although, in what kind of sick world would a person achieve multi-millionaire status without a mastery of punctuation?).

So, anyway, someone called into the Larry King Show and asked Ryan (in writing…wink wink), “ In light of these gay rumors, are you dating anybody?”

And, Ryan responded

I am, I do have a girlfriend.

Now, Ryan was wrong to use a comma because it’s incorrect to use a comma between two complete sentences, and he wrote these two complete sentences:

1. I am. (It’s a short sentence, but it’s still complete: it has a subject, verb and completes a thought).

2. I do have a girlfriend.

Most of the time we insert a period after one complete sentence and then start the next one, and Ryan could have done that, but I can see why he didn’t want to. A period is so strong, so final. It cuts the sentences off from one another, and Ryan didn’t want to do that. He wanted to connect the fact that he was dating someone with the fact that that somebody was a female- immediately. Therefore, he used a comma, which doesn’t create quite as strong of a pause as a period.

But, he could have dispelled the rumors without resorting to grammatical incorrectness.

He could have used the semi-colon. Most of us have seen the ; but don’t really know when to use it.

Well, it comes in handy during times like these when we have written two sentences that we want to keep together, like these:

I am; I do have a girlfriend.

My partner’s name is Willy; it’s short for Willimina.

Of course I'm gay; gay means happy.


sobres5 said...

Where would the comma go and why in this sentence?

It is a bummer to go to Target Ralphs or Trader Joes on a sunday.

ninergrl6 said...

As an English teacher and a Ryan Seacrest fan, I think this is pretty damn brilliant. Thanks for the laughs!

PINNER said...

I now pronounce sentence one and sentence two have been married by the semi-colon. I am so glad that I could be a witness to this union of the two. Now knowing what I know about the semi-colon; I realize that I could have used it a lot more in my last paper.

Michale Moore

Zuly Landin said...

O.k. so now I know to use a semi-colon when I want my two complete sentences to stay together so they feel comfortable with one another. Makes sense, like my honey and me.

joselopezyoo said...

"Even though we have elected officials in congress, which are Hispanic, it should not matter because deep inside they are all the same."
Are the commas in this sentence used correctly why or why not?

Missed Periods said...


You should take out the comma between congress and which. I think you put it there because you thought "which are Hispanic" was extra information, but it's not. It's essential because you are not talking about all officials in congress, only the Hispanic ones. The sentence should read:

"Even though we have elected officials in congress whoe are Hispanic, it should not matter because deep inside they are all the same."

joselopezyoo said...

Thank you

Sydney87 said...

I agree with the period theory you have, how it feels so definite and strong. I don't really like to use it when I have a short sentence but i never really knew when to use a semi-colon so I would just stick one in my essays every once in a while. This really cleared things up.

Stacey Marie said...

I'm still a little confused on when to use a semi-colon in a sentence.

Also what's the difference between a semi-colon and a comma?

bscatty15 said...

We talked about comma splices in class last week. Thanks; this was very helpful!

Alfred said...

Thank you so much for making things easy to understand. My paper looks and sounds so much better after reading this and correcting my miss use of semi-colon. (:

Missed Periods said...


The main difference between the semi-colon and the commas is that you cannot use a comma to join two complete sentences, but you can use a semi-colon. That is primarily what the semi-colon is used for.

julie.cuadros said...

How do you correctly use a semi-colon?

Josiah said...

thank you for all the grammar tips; writing is becoming more clear every time I read your explanations.

mel0o_16 said...

I loveee Ricee milkkk!!! lol

MelissaGaytan said...

i have a question....

Okay so does this sentence seem right to you ?
According to Kenneth Cauthen in his article he starts out by saying: “A central principle of a just society is that every person has an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Point...Did I do it correctly?

Missed Periods said...

Hi Melissa,

Three things:

1. You wouldn't use the : after the word "saying"; you would use a comma. We only use a colon if it is following a complete sentence. For example,

Kenneth Cauthen said something very interesting in his article: "A central principle..."

2. If you are using a quote within a quote, you use single quotations. For example,

He says, "A central principle of a just society is that every person has an equal right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'"

3. You could make the introduction to the quote more concise. For example,

Kenneth Cauthen begins his article by saying," ..."


According to Kenneth Cauthen,"..."


Kenneth Cauthen says,"..."

Good luck.