(The following blog post includes a spoiler for the musical Hamilton)
Bill Cosby once had a popular family comedy show in which he showed off his acting skills by playing a man who was not a serial rapist. In one particular episode of this show, this non-rapist character (Cliff Huxtable) is telling his daughter a story about wanting to learn to play the drums when he was a kid. He’d listened to some records, been blown away by the drumwork, and had eagerly rushed out to find a music teacher so that he could learn how to play the drums just as well as the professional musicians that he’d fallen in love with.
Here’s a 32 second clip of that story, which as far as I can tell will not provide Bill Cosby with any income if you watch it:
Young Cliff Huxtable tells the teacher that he wants to (insert un-writable Bill Cosby impression of somebody playing the drums really, really well), and the teacher responds by telling him to take his drum sticks and practice hitting a wood block slowly, like this: Whack…Whack…
The point is that if you want to be great at something, you have to start out small, mastering the fundamentals and the most basic elements of that something. It’s only when you’ve gotten that stuff down that you can learn to put them all together into something great. This applies not only to playing the drums, but to most things, writing included.
This is why grammar and punctuation is important: they’re the fundamentals of writing. If you don’t learn to master those, then you won’t become great. This is because great things can often hinge on a mastery of basic elements.
Most writers want to skip ahead, just like young Cliff Huxtable did. They want to jump right to the fancy stuff, without putting in the years of practice on the fundamentals. I don’t blame them one bit, but learning the fundamentals is important not only because it allows you to avoid embarrassment, but also because it allows you to do amazing, incredible things, to communicate worlds of information with something as seemingly inconsequential as the placement of a single comma.
This is where we get to the Hamilton spoiler(s).
In the musical, Alexander Hamilton marries Eliza Schuyler. One of Eliza’s sisters, Angelica, moves overseas, and she and Alexander maintain regular correspondence by writing letters back and forth. Alexander always begins these letters “My dearest Angelica,” with the comma in the proper position, after “Angelica.”
Until one day he doesn’t.
In the song “Take A Break,” Angelica sings about the importance of that comma, because it changes position:
In a letter I received from you two weeks ago
I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase
It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?
One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days
“My dearest Angelica”
With a comma after “dearest.” You’ve written
“My dearest, Angelica.”
Here we have two characters who are in love, and who cannot be together. They cannot directly express their feelings for one another, due to sense of propriety as well as perhaps the pain of putting their feelings to words, when they cannot act on their feelings. Hamilton instead lets Angelica know indirectly how he feels about her, and he does it simply by moving a comma.
Angelica asks, “Did you intend this?”, but my impression from the musical overall is that she knows he did. She’s just experiencing the “I can’t believe he feels this way back” sort of disbelief that can happen when love is requited.
In her heart, she knows. She knows that he loves her, that he holds her in his heart in some ways higher even than his wife: “My dearest, Angelica.”
That one comma placement switches the meaning from a simple and polite expression, from technically expressing that of all the Angelicas that exist, that she is the most dear to him, to a declaration that of all the people in the world–presumably his wife included–Angelica is the most dear to him, the most loved, the most cherished. That slight movement of a comma is the difference between a prefatory acknowledgment that could be skipped over, to something that consumes a woman’s waking days.
It’s the kind of thing that a writer can only pull off if they know what they’re doing, if they have the right level of authority with their reader(s). If Alexander was always sloppy with his commas, sticking them routinely in strange places, Angelica wouldn’t have noticed the comma’s movement at all. Any deliberate message would have been lost in the general mess of Alexander’s writing.
Instead, because Alexander knew what he was doing–had mastered the fundamentals–and because he had demonstrated his knowledge of the fundamentals often and well enough for Angelica to know that he knew what he was doing, he was able to convey to her an entire world of emotion–not in a single word, but in a single goddamned comma.
That’s why you have to Whack Whack, before you can dit-dit-ditta-dit while you ding-ding-dinga-ding.