First Things First: December, 2020

“A Christmas Comma”

By Brad Mercer

“Let’s eat Grandma.” “We’re learning to cut and paste kids!” “Caution pedestrians slippery when wet.” In response to similar very public linguist boo-boos, one writer declares, “Punctuation saves lives!” A comma or two can make all the difference.

Consider the popular Christmas carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (Trinity Hymnal). The comma after “Merry” looks odd, but it’s actually in the right place.

Hymnologists are not sure who wrote this carol, but they tell us that it is based on an English melody written in the 18th century. For many of us, the words and music conjure up images of Victorian gentlemen and ladies appropriately enjoying the yuletide, or a large (somewhat tipsy) Englishman, tankard in hand, singing his lungs out. After all, the carol is about happiness and joy, right? Yes and no.