A Government Shutdown?

Today’s post is going to be sort of a roller-coaster ride. I’m going to be talking about a comma, but that’s not my real purpose. I hope you’ll hang in!

Compare these sentences. (It will probably help to read them aloud.)

We’re looking forward to seeing our cousins who live in California.

We’re looking forward to seeing our cousins, who live in California.

In the first version, we have many cousins, but only some of them live in California.

In the second version, all our cousins live in California. A tiny comma changes the meaning of the sentence!

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A topic in the news right now is a possible government shutdown. Some politicians are using the shutdown idea to push Congress into funding a massive wall along our southern border.

While the politicians are arguing, we’re going to look at a sentence in a recent Associated Press article about the proposed shutdown: 

Ryan likely lacks sufficient votes from Republicans who will lose their majority at the end of the month.

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When I read this sentence in our newspaper last week, I immediately went to my husband with a question. (He’s more savvy about politics than I am.) Which Republicans are losing their majority, and what does that mean?

He gave me a blank look and reminded me that the entire House is turning Democratic next month. Republican Senators and Representatives can lose seats, but they don’t lose “their majority.” Only the entire party can do that.

So I showed him the sentence:

Ryan likely lacks sufficient votes from Republicans who will lose their majority at the end of the month.

We finally realized that a missing comma was causing the confusion. The journalist was trying to say that the whole Republican party will be losing their majority:

Ryan likely lacks sufficient votes from Republicans, who will lose their majority at the end of the month.

The sentence would have been perfectly clear if it had included that comma.

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At this point you’re probably expecting a lecture on commas. Amazing, isn’t it – a tiny punctuation mark can change the whole meaning of a sentence!

True. But that’s not the point I want to make today. Instead I want you to think about why the person who wrote this article made that error. Remember – I was so confused that I stopped reading and went to look for my husband and an explanation. Not a good thing!

Of course I can’t definitively say what went wrong. But I’m going to propose that it was a simple human error. We all make them!

My goal today is to challenge the widespread belief that punctuation (or spelling, or sentence diagramming, or any other language practice you want to name) is the only thing separating us from hopelessly muddled thinking. Yikes! It’s the end of the world!

No, it isn’t. The person who wrote that sentence knew exactly what he was thinking and what he wanted to say. He just didn’t get there.

To put it another way: There was nothing wrong with his thinking. There was something wrong with his sentence.

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I’m rattling on about all of this for a reason. I know many people who want to write but are afraid to try. There’s a widespread feeling that if you don’t have a deep and mystical understanding of language, you shouldn’t even try to be a writer.

You don’t know how to punctuate? Shame, shame, shame! Your thinking is sloppy, you have nothing worthwhile to say, and you’d better find something else to do with your spare time.

To which I say: Nonsense. Yes, you need to know how to use commas. But you can learn (or hire an editor!). The important thing is to trust your brain, your experience, and your yearning to express yourself through words. There’s nothing wrong with you. The problem is mechanics, and it’s fixable, my friend!

Government is Closed

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2 thoughts on “A Government Shutdown?

  1. jas

    Regarding “We finally that a missing comma was causing the confusion.” Would you agree a missing verb could be more critical than a missing comma?

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