Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

The Hamilton Comma

The phenomenal musical Hamilton, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has excited an interest in American history. It also contains an important lesson on commas.

In the song Take a Break, Angelica Schuyler refers to a letter from Alexander Hamilton that says "My dearest, Angelica." The comma changes the meaning, so she sings, "One stroke and you've consumed my waking days."

Should one (key)stroke consume your waking days? What difference does that comma make? Let's look at the two options for this phrase:

  • My dearest Angelica
  • My dearest, Angelica

Without the comma, "dearest" is restricted by the name that follows. In essence, the version without the comma says that, of all the Angelicas in the world, Alexander is writing to the one Angelica who is dearest to him. Nothing in that should make Angelica feel "consumed."

However, with the comma, the salutation means Alexander is writing to his absolute "dearest." The information after the comma merely reiterates who his dearest is. Linguistically, deleting the comma and Angelica's name wouldn't change the meaning of the phrase.

Thus, if that "one stroke" were intentional, it would mean Angelica is more dear to Alexander than Eliza is. Eliza is Alexander's wife and Angelica's sister. And, because Angelica has previously declared her attraction to Alexander, such a declaration would most certainly consume her waking days.

In grammar texts, the explanation for this would be under "restrictive and non-restrictive phrases." I've written more about those in The Clear Which Project.

Still, "non-restrictive comma" sounds so boring. From now on, I'm going to refer to this usage as "the Hamilton comma."

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