Sunday, April 22, 2007

Comma chameleon

Did you know that the correct punctuation differs between the phrases “my cousin Rachel” and “my wife Kara”? An astute reader recently pointed out that the phrase “my wife Kara,” which readers of this column (including, and sometimes limited to, my mom) might recognize as appearing in this space with the same frequency that severed limbs appear in Quentin Tarantino movies, really requires a comma between the words “wife” and “Kara.”

After several salvos in a grammatical battle that could only be described as epic (by me) or unbelievably dorky (by Kara), my defeat became impossible to ignore, though I intend to do so anyway. Defeat only matters if you pay attention to it, much like door dings.

The difference between cousins and wives, while largely ignored in some remote mountain areas, is that a person can have multiple cousins but not multiple wives. This difference makes “my wife, Kara” a non-restrictive appositive phrase, which requires a comma, while “my cousin Rachel” is a restrictive appositive phrase, which does not require a comma. If you’d like further explanation, which of course you don’t, consult Google. Or I could refer you to Janelle, who started this whole kerfuffle, but if you argue with her, you will lose. She’s like a sixth-degree Kerfuffle Master.

Still, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, I’m feeling a little too set in my ways to change. I love my wife Kara. I’m not so sure how I feel about my wife, Kara, though. That comma reminds me of the speed bumps they put down in the park that make you go so slow that you couldn’t even run over a little kid if you wanted to. Plus, it’s only wrong to write poorly if you do it by accident. If you do it on purpose, that makes you literary.

While we’re on the subject of grammar, if there’s ever a game show called “Celebrity Spelling Bee,” I’d bet a lot of money that Fergie would win the whole thing. She’s like a musical Speak & Spell. By the way, if you’re thinking of the Duchess of York Fergie right now, you might want to double check that you put the cap back on your Geritol this morning. I’m talking about Black Eyed Peas Fergie, a pioneer in the field of Fergaliciousness, who capitalizes heavily on the fact that the letters of the alphabet often rhyme with one another.

“Fergie, spell Euonym,” the mean British judge would say. If your show doesn’t have a mean British judge, it’ll get cancelled faster than “Deal or No Deal” should have been, but for some reason hasn’t.

Then Fergie would lean toward the microphone nervously and say, “Euonym. E to the U to the O to the N to the Y to the M. Euonym.”

“That’s correct. Woopty doo. Now bugger off.”

This is the kind of thing you think about in your spare time, when you’re not worrying that your bald spot might soon be large enough to pick up DIRECTV.

Whatever your thoughts about grammar may be, though, the important thing is that you can discuss the finer points of grammar all day long without mentioning Don “’t have a job” Imus once. This is a very important quality for a conversation topic to have, and one that has been altogether lacking over the past couple of weeks. So even while Janelle is quietly sneaking up like a ninja, ready to pounce on you with the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive appositives, which you, at first glance, thought were different kinds of safety harnesses, you can relax with the knowledge that your views on Imus needn’t be aired, much like his show. And that works out well, because even my wife Kara is sick of hearing about that.

You can pelt Mike Todd with your APA handbook online at


  1. Not only are my Sunday nights made more pleasant by your columns, but tonight I get to pretend I actually know something. Tomorrow I will be a unicorn.

    Kidding aside, you do a great job and were quite gracious to deal with my air of grammatical divinity. Thanks for puttin' up with me.

  2. I love it! Have you ever read Strunk and White's Elements of Style? Grammar Nerd must have (even if they would roll over in their graves at the shit I write on-line).

  3. Just like TBS: a post and some grammar. Semi-colons in the future?

    Vonnegut once said, "never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You’re reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you’ve been to college."

    He also said, "When Hemingway killed himself, he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon".

    Well, use them or not? I do.

    Imus? That's one person who should never talk about someone else's hair. The less said the better.

  4. So, if you are a Mormon, you wouldn't have to use the comma after My wife Kara, right? See, that's one thing already that proves "Being a Mormon is Cool".

    Also, what if the mean British judge asked Fergie to spell Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?Why, they'd have to take a commercial break in the middle of her word!!

  5. Janelle -- Glad you caught this one, dude! You're the smartest person on the internet (except for you, person reading this right now). Thanks for the column fodder and the memories. I owe you one.

    Cammy -- I rescued a copy out of the trash can at work when we were moving offices. I haven't actually opened it yet, but I think it makes me look smart just to have it around.

    Buster -- It's rare that your comments don't make we want to plagiarize something out of them. You the man. And doesn't use semi-colons because they're pretentious. I dunno. I kinda like 'em. But what's up the pole up the "greater than" sign's ass?

    Scott -- Lost your comment, but thanks, man. Bros before blogs.

    Melodyann -- Thanks to Joseph Smith for validating my poor grammar. And I totally cut/pasted into Google to check, and you actually spelled "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" correctly. The internet thanks you for going the extra mile.

    Also, dudes, I had to turn word verification back on 'cause Alex the Imaginary Blogger kept trying to sell drugs through comments that I constantly had to delete. And they weren't even good drugs, either.

  6. I couldn't get much past Kerfuffle. I think that might be a new favorite word of mine. hehehehe

  7. You are a word writer. don't stop.

  8. Anonymous is so right.

  9. Burf -- Did you know that there's no L in kerfuffle, except for that last one? I always thought it was kerfluffle. Good thing Clippy's in town to keep me on my toes.

    Anon -- You're a word comment-leaver. Word. And thanks.

    R to the O to the B -- Dude! You're a word picture-taker. I'm callin' you right now. Dang... voice mail.

  10. Mike, I'm totally not bragging, cause my middle name is "Don't brag", but I typed that word in BEFORE I googled it, and I got it right!! Go me! Anyways, about that extra L in Kerfuffle? I thought you had spelled it wrong. I'm not sure I like this new spelling. KerfLuffle just rolled off the tongue better, somehow...

  11. Dude! Is it really "Don't brag"? I would have guessed Danger. Or Ann. I think kerfluffle is better, too. Don't people say it like that? Maybe not, 'cause if you're the kind of person who says kerfluffle regularly, you're probably also the kind of person who gets beat up a lot.

  12. Faaaarrrghgpph, I can't seem to post timely comments anymore.

    However, as a proud owner of "Elements of Style" AND "CP Caps and Spelling" I feel it is my right -- nay, my privilege -- to totally out-nerd you here.

    Because, frankly, I've had EPIC battles over way more obscure points of grammar. Restrictive appositive? Pish posh. Try on a dangling participle one of these days and just SEE how quickly your editor's head explodes.

    Also; coloUr, favoUrite, honoUr. and B.Sc. (Ok, now. Do you seriously abbreviate a bachelor of sciences as B.S. in the States? That's just a punchline waiting to happen.)

    Metre, cheque, centre!