Who’s eating Grandma? The importance of correct punctuation

Commas give meaning to sentences

Commas are important to inject the correct meaning into a sentence, particularly long sentences.

They also have an important role to play in short sentences, and if you don’t get it right there could be awful consequences.

Let’s do a quick exercise to show how dangerous it can be if you get it wrong. 

Quick exercise

Consider the following two statements:

  1. Let’s eat, Grandma
  2. Let’s eat Grandma

Which one of the above would you use if you were inviting Grandma to eat with you?

Why, or when, do you think you would use the second statement? The answer should be never! Clue – take a look at the title of this post.

Separate your elements

Generally, and very loosely speaking, commas are used to connect clauses that might form individual sentences if written in another way.

They are also used when writing a list of things in the same sentence, adding information that could otherwise have been left out without changing the meaning of a sentence, setting off parenthetical elements, and after dialogue, but before the closing quotation marks, when writing speech.

I’ll give you an example of dialogue in a moment, but if you managed to negotiate the previous sentence, well done, you will have noticed that it was a list and contained a parenthetical element.

In written dialogue when addressing a person

In written dialogue a comma always precedes a proper noun, such as Ronald, Charlotte. “How are you today, Ronald?” or “I’d love to, Charlotte.” The same is true of an endearment, such as dear, darling, and for informal nouns, such as grandma, papa, son. And a person’s title is also always preceded by a comma, such as Mr., Mrs., Sir, My Lord.

Punctuation and speech tags

Any punctuation marks in the dialogue are enclosed within the speech tags. It doesn’t matter what the punctuation mark is (. , ? !).

“Oh no!” he said.

“What’s the time?” she asked.

Using commas with dialogue

A comma always goes after He said, She said, Ronald said, … when it comes before the dialogue.

He said, “Oh no!”

Charlotte said, “Can you pass me the fork?”

When a complete sentence that would otherwise require a full stop (period) ends the dialogue and comes before he said, she said, a comma is used within the speech tags instead of a full stop.

“It’s a nice day. I think I’ll go for a walk,” he said.

When a complete sentence ends the dialogue and comes after he said, she said, a full stop is used unless another punctuation mark is required.

She said, “It’s a nice day.”

But we’re here to discuss Grandma, not who said what.

So who’s eating Grandma?

In example 1 at the start of this article, the statement is directed at Grandma, hence the comma before the informal noun. It is a sentence that is inviting Grandma to do something with you. This example is not dangerous to Grandma.

In example 2, without a comma, Grandma becomes part of the statement about eating. It is a sentence that indicates what you are going to do to Grandma. This example is dangerous to Grandma.

Rules about using commas

Unfortunately, the rules regarding commas aren’t as clear or as hard and fast as other punctuation. Just make sure you’re not giving the wrong messages when you use them!

Have you found any hilarious or confusing uses of commas? Does it irritate you when they are missing? What happens to a sentence if you move the commas around?