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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Commas and Christmas Carols by Andy Scheer


I've seen the title of that Christmas carol for more than fifty years. But this season I realized that all these years, I've been reading it wrong.

Until now I've misunderstood the title—because I've put the comma in the wrong place.

The revelation came as I was running a stack of LPs (remember those) through a “USB turntable” so I could play those tunes on my MP3 player. The process involves splitting the tracks from each side of an LP into individual sound files. So to find the running time for each, I was paying close attention to the liner notes.

That's when I saw it—and the significance of the comma I've misplaced all these years.

In my mind, the name of this traditional English carol was “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” (Which implied the song wished peace to a jovial throng.)

Wrong. The correct punctuation is this: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

And how does “God rest us merry”? The rest of the lyrics give us ample reasons for optimism. Here is just the start of those ways:

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas-day,
To save us all from Satan's pow'r
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

6 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

That makes two of us. I too had not noticed where the comma was placed. I suppose that is partly because we don't typically use "rest" in that way. But the comma placement completely changes the meaning from what most people think the song is saying.

May God rest you merry.

Diana said...

Wow, what a significant difference that makes. I read a potion of Eats Shoots and Leaves while visiting a loved one in the hospital and need to get myself a copy. A comma provides a huge service to authors and readers. I, for one, admit I do not understand all of the rules for it's use. Have I used it correctly here? I hope so.

Rick Barry said...

Little things can certainly make a big difference. From time to time, the placement of a comma can seem optional, but in other contexts, the humble comma can significantly redirect the meaning of a sentence. Your post today underscores that, Andy. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Eddie Jones said...

All this business with commas leaves me tired and in need of rest, fer sure.
EJ

Sadie and Sophie said...

Well, huh! I always thought it was "God rest, ye merry gentlemen..." After all these years - must read more closely from now on!

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Amen Andy...and that should give us writers pause for punctuation!

Merry CHRISTmas!