Don’t miss the ‘comma sexting’ in Hamilton | Angry Grammarian
Plus other writing advice hidden in the Tony Award-winning musical currently playing at the Forrest Theatre.
Hamilton may be billed as the story of a forgotten Founding Father. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s opus — which has finally landed in Philadelphia at the Forrest Theatre — is foremost a musical about writing. Different forms of the verb write appear more than 60 times in the show. Hamilton gets down and dirty with grammar, which means, of course, the Angry Grammarian is here for it.
Act II’s “Take a Break” provides the most direct punctuation plot point, as it dramatizes the years-long flirtation between Alexander Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler, his sister-in-law. As Angelica in the Philly cast, the radiant Stephanie Umoh sings of a letter Hamilton wrote to her: “In a letter I received from you two weeks ago/ I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase./ It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?/ One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days./ It says: ‘My dearest, Angelica.’/ With a comma after ‘dearest.’ ”
It’s a brilliant use of grammatical flirtation, what Miranda calls “comma sexting.” He’s said it took him weeks to distill the punctuation concept into a few brief lyrics. (Writing about grammar is hard; making it rhyme is harder.) Without the comma, dearest would be a simple adjective of endearment. But with the comma, dearest suddenly becomes a noun in apposition: Angelica is the dearest one to Hamilton — not her sister, who’s also his wife. Intrigue!
Even more intriguing is that in Hamilton’s and Angelica’s historical letters, it was actually Angelica, not Hamilton, who first employed the comma sext, when she wrote, “Indeed my dear, Sir …” Hamilton, clearly worked up (and a bit unnecessarily sexist), replied: “You ladies despise the pedantry of punctuation. There was a most critical comma in your last letter. It is my interest that it should have been designed; but I presume it was accidental. Unriddle this if you can. The proof that you do it rightly may be given by the omission or repetition of the same mistake in your next.” In other words: If you’re saying you like like like me, say it again. And he signed off his letter by repeating the comma sext, only this time in French, making it even more romantic: “Adieu ma chere, soeur” (“Goodbye my dear, sister”).
The flirting was shameless, sophisticated, and adorable. No emojis necessary.
It’s not the only time Miranda uses punctuation to land a point. In the first-act barnburner “My Shot” Hamilton exclaims, “Enter me!” His entourage of Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens adds, “(He says in parentheses.)” It’s a clever stage direction joke; in play scripts, entrances and exits appear in parentheticals. But Hamilton is bursting onto the scene with such force, he’s broken out of the parentheses. As “My Shot” is stuffed to the gills with internal rhymes, the word parentheses also comes in the middle of a whopping 19 long-E rhymes in a row, squeezed into just 12 bars. Anyone who name-checks a punctuation mark for both a joke and a rhyme is supremely dedicated to both.
But while everyone asks Hamilton throughout the show, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” it’s his nemesis Aaron Burr who provides the soundest writing advice: “Talk less; smile more.” Burr advocates for concision, warning (spoiler alert) that “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”
He’s not wrong. But while Burr talks about writing, Hamilton does it. More than two centuries later, Hamilton is our “Ten-Dollar Founding Father.” Burr is just the second-to-last sitting vice president to shoot a guy.
Hamilton runs through Nov. 17 at the Forrest Theatre. The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and polymathic puns to email@example.com.