Talking About Family: Merry Commamas!

Grammar Cat loves the holidays.

Our favorite part is visiting family. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so good with writing about their family afterward. So let’s do a quick review on how to talk about people, both individually and in groups.

Setting Off Nonessential Information

When information in a sentence doesn’t need to be there for the meaning of the sentence to stay the same, it’s called “nonessential.” This sort of information is set off by commas on either side (unless it ends a sentence, in which case it’s preceded by a comma and followed by your terminal punctuation of choice).  For example:

The cat rolled onto its back, like it always does, and tried to scratch my arm.

Can you spot the nonessential information? I’ll give you a hint: it’s set off by commas. The sentence describes the exact same thing if the nonessential information is removed:

The cat rolled onto its back and tried to scratch my arm.

Now let’s consider nonessential information in respect to your family, because goodness knows holidays spent with the family can easily become a verbal onslaught of nonessential information.

When talking about or introducing people, there is usually the component of nonessential information. Say you come from a large Italian family and you have a handful of Aunt Marias. How do you successfully relate to your mother which one of them has had too much eggnog and is hitting on the neighbor? Well, you could say, “Mom, Aunt Maria who has the drinking problem is hitting on the neighbor again,” assuming that there is only one Aunt Maria with a drinking problem. Because the “who has a drinking problem” is essential information to identify the exact Aunt Maria who is going to be a hot topic at the next HOA meeting, it doesn’t need to be set off by commas.

But the situation can change in a way where a comma after “Maria” does become necessary. “Mom, Aunt Maria, who I already told you was a bad idea to invite, is passed out on the lawn.” This example assumes that Mom knows exactly which Maria is pulling the shenanigans, and the “who” clause is just a bit of rubbing in her face that you totally called Aunt Maria’s behavior. While gloating is nice, it’s nonessential information in that situation.

So what about introductions? There’s essential and nonessential information in those, too. Please consider:

“This is my brother, Will, and his wife, who came all the way from New Jersey.” 

This first example asserts that the speaker has only one brother, making the name of Will nonessential to identifying who this is (in this case, it’s also an appositive). It also allows for the cultural norm of Will only having one wife, and that wife is from New Jersey.

Now consider:

“This is my brother Will and his wife who came all the way from New Jersey.”

This introduction implies a slightly different thing. First, it says that the name Will is essential to identifying which brother of the speaker’s is being referenced, meaning the speaker has more than one brother. Secondly, and most importantly, it implies that, while this wife of Will’s has made the journey from NJ, his other wives weren’t able to make it for the holidays.

“You think the other wives know?”

Now say you bring your unsuspecting significant other into a room full of your relatives and it’s time for rapid-fire introductions. First let’s establish a few things about your family, giving insight to what the heck is about to happen:

You have two cousin Freds, but one is in Iraq.

Uncle Jerry spent three years in prison.

You only have one sister and her name is Sally.

You have a nephew whose name you can never remember.

You only have one living grandma and she made your significant other the hideous sweater he or she is currently wearing.

Ready? Here goes the awkward introduction:

“This is my uncle Fred who isn’t in Iraq. This is Uncle Jerry, who spent three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” You wink at Uncle Jerry and hope it’s enough to guarantee your safety for another year. “And this is my sister, Sally, and her son”—is it Jayden? Braydon? Caedon?—”and this is my grandma, who sent you that lovely sweater you’re wearing right now.”

Capitalizing Family Titles

Let’s talk about capitalization for a minute. We all know that proper nouns are capitalized: Sally, Jerry, Fred, etc. When it comes to titles like uncle, aunt, cousin, niece, and nephew, things get a little trickier. A few things to know:

If the familial title is used in place of the person’s actual name, then it is capitalized.

Why won’t Grandma stop petting her cat for one second?

If Dad would just stop pestering Mom, we might have a pleasant meal for once.

When the familial title appears before the name, it is capitalized.

You see what Uncle Jim is doing over there? What a weirdo.

I wish Grandpa Smith would stop spouting off racist things.

When the familial title follows a possessive pronoun, do not capitalize.

My dad says to take off the dress and stop your crying.

Your aunt Maria sure does love eggnog.

To celebrate the holidays, Grammar Cat will leave you with a slew of holiday cat pictures.

Sorry there aren’t more Kwanzaa cats. Blame the internet.

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Exclamation Point Etiquette: Please Stop Yelling at Me

Have you ever been at a party and there’s that one girl who is constantly yelling things like, “Oh my god! Shut up!” and “She is such a slut!”? If you despise that girl as much as we at Grammar Cat do, then this is a post you’re going to want to pay attention to, because the written world has “that girl,” too. Only, when it comes to print, it’s not the harpy’s piercing voice that does the damage; it’s the exclamation point.

Don’t be this cat.

The whole “indoor voices” thing we’re taught in elementary school never actually stops being relevant. People who yell all the time will inevitably find themselves alone at some point. In a similar vein, people who use exclamation points all the time will eventually stop being read.

Obviously there’s a reason this punctuation mark was created, but like any good tool, it can be used against its handler fairly easily.

Let’s start off with why it’s useful. The exclamation point is a way for a writer to tell a reader that something is being said emphatically or in a high volume.

Here are some examples of things worth shouting about:

“Either the cat goes or I want a divorce!”

“That kitten is driving a car!”

“Everyone watch out! That cat has a gun!”

These are all things where you would probably be pretty understanding about all the yelling (if not yelling yourself, in the case of the third example). Notice this is all dialogue. Also notice that if this list went on for too much longer, you would probably tire of all the yelling, regardless of if it seemed warranted or not.

Let’s talk about exclamation points in narration. Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t freaking use them.

BUT WHAT IF THE NARRATOR IS YELLING?!

The narrator shouldn’t be yelling. That’s not the narrator’s job. The narrative voice isn’t some sort of warm-up act for the conflict and characters. It doesn’t need to point out things like, The characters’ actions were so zany, guys! If your narrator is doing that, your characters aren’t doing their jobs.

But what if it’s first-cat narration?

If you’re writing first-person narration, you’re probably facing a litter-box load of other challenges, so it may be best to avoid making your narrator “that girl” by having her yell all the time. It doesn’t matter if your narrator is a little unstable, either. Take, for example, the infamous unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield. His narration doesn’t use exclamation points, proving that even a horny sixteen-year-old boy has sense enough to take it easy with the stabbiest of punctuation.

But it isn’t an exclamation point free-for-all when it comes to dialogue. Just like listening to a shouting match in real life is tiring, reading a shouting match in print—and all the !!! that goes along with it—can become stressful and irritating. If you find that your characters are shouting at each other a lot, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Could these characters possibly mix sarcasm or passive aggression into the interaction to avoid all the shouting?
  2. Why do these characters hate each other so much?
  3. Would there have been a wiser place to set the story besides an airplane runway?
  4. Do I, as the author, need too seek help for unresolved conflicts in my life?

But sometimes I get so ANGRY that one exclamation point ISN’T ENOUGH!!!!

If one exclamation point isn’t enough, then it’s time to reword; it’s not time to start tacking on more and more exclamation points. The person who benefits most from this suggestion isn’t the readers but the writer. Once the possibility of more exclamation points is presented, where does an author stop?

“Well, before, the character was angry, so I put one exclamation point, but then he got really angry, so I used two. But now he’s, like, super pissed, so I’m not sure if that’s four exclamation points or five.”

Before you know it, the readers have caught on, too, and are trying to keep track.

“This doesn’t make sense. When his stubbed his toe, he had three exclamation points, but when he told his cheating wife to go to hell, there was only one, even though he was clearly more pissed about his wife than his toe. Only one explanation: TYPO!”

Readers love finding typos.

The exclamation point should be treated like a knife. If you pull it out and start waving it around, people are going to take notice, which can be useful. But don’t pull it out too often or you’ll start to seem reckless and your friends will start avoiding you and having “other plans” every time you want to hit the town. And for god’s sake, don’t give a knife to “that girl.” She’s already had way too much to drink.

I’m so drunk!!!!!!!!!!

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