Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Punctuation is a funny business. Put a different mark at the end of a word or sentence and you can completely change its perceived meaning. Whereas “hello?” has an inherent questioning tone, “hello!” is much more forceful and “hello…” is more tentative. I’ve written before about the power of the comma. Yesterday, I inadvertently came across another shining example of how the addition (or omission) of a comma can really alter what you’re trying to say.

A Little, Grocery Shopping

A little, grocery shopping

A photo posted by Michael Kwan (@beyondtherhetoric) on

That’s my daughter “helping” us out at the local supermarket yesterday morning. She’s actually gotten really good at pulling that wheeled shopping basket around. She’ll even navigate through the aisles in an almost systematic fashion, though it’s still unclear exactly what she’s looking for. I think she was just happy to exercise her toddler-fueled independence.

I also posted basically the same picture to Adalynn’s Facebook page, but with a slightly different caption. The difference is subtle, but it does affect how you might interpret the meaning.

“Doing a little grocery shopping.”

The Facebook caption is much more straightforward and decidedly less poetic in its approach. It literally proclaims that Adalynn is doing a little grocery shopping. She is doing a small amount of shopping for groceries. That’s clear enough.

The caption for the post on Instagram — “A little, grocery shopping” — can be interpreted in an entirely different way due to the addition of a comma in the middle. It’s almost like the name of a work of art. The “little” in this case no longer acts as an adjective to describe the amount of grocery shopping being completed. Instead, it refers to Adalynn directly. She is the “little,” as in a “little person.”

If you wanted to be more complete, the caption could be further expanded thusly:

A little [person in the act of] grocery shopping.

Spot the difference?

A Little Means a Lot

Some people might argue that the fundamental understanding remains unchanged between the version with the comma and the version without. I disagree. Consider what would happen if we were to remove the photo as a point of reference. The comma-free caption gives no indication as to who is doing the shopping. The accompanying picture could be of a grocery store aisle rather than the person doing the shopping.

The caption with the comma, on the other hand, places the “little” as the subject directly. The focus shifts from the act of grocery shopping to the person doing the shopping, which in this case is a small child.

There is a lot more to writing than simply choosing the right words and putting them in the right order. Careful consideration of punctuation can dramatically impact how those words are interpreted. It’s not just about the Oxford comma either, because all commas matter.