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February 23rd, 2005

Commas and too / what's with the Rev.? / she is the cat's mother

by Barbara Wallraff

Cathy Cikra, of Hartville, Ohio, writes: “A punctuation question recently arose during the proofreading of our school’s newspaper. The sentence was this: ‘Remember it’s your paper too.’ The newspaper adviser and a journalism professor disagreed on whether to put a comma before the ‘too.’ Your thoughts?”

Dear Cathy: There is no well-established rule about this, so no wonder the adviser and the professor disagreed. Three possible ways of being consistent are to decide never to use a comma with “too,” always to use one, or to be fancy and do as I do.

Sometimes “too” appears right next to the word it modifies -- as, for instance, in “The paper is mine and theirs -- and it’s yours, too.” But at other times a word or a few words separate “too” from what it modifies. That’s the case with your example sentence, unless it means that something in addition to the paper is yours -- as in, “This is your breakfast and your paper, too.” Try saying some of these example sentences aloud and see if you agree with me that it seems natural to pause before the “too” when the word is next to the one it modifies, and not to pause otherwise. I use commas to reflect the pauses. But that’s just my rule -- and of course, it’s your language too.

Richard S. Russell, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I understand that The Associated Press, The New York Times and other authorities say the proper form for referring to a minister is ‘the Rev. So-and-So’ -- but I’ve never been able to find out why. We don’t, for example, refer to ‘the Sen. Ted Kennedy’ or ‘the Dr. Marcus Welby.’ Why this odd locution for ministers?”

Dear Richard: In traditional usage, “reverend” is not a noun, like “senator” or “doctor” (or “minister”). It’s an adjective, like “honorable.” In fact, “honorable” is sometimes used in a similar way when referring to judges. “The Honorable (or the Hon.) Judy Sheindlin” is good English -- except that Judge Judy is no longer a real judge, and TV personalities don’t usually receive this honorific. “The Reverend (or the Rev.) Jesse Jackson” is good English. Note that people who are especially well-versed in the niceties always use a first name as well as a last name with “the Rev.” or “the Hon.,” again because these words are adjectives.

Few people still know all this, though, and many people use “reverend” as if it were a noun (as in, “The reverend joined us at the party”). So dictionaries assign the word both parts of speech. But the noun use tends to be considered informal, rather than standard English.

Deborah Beardsley, of Canton, Mich., writes: “Whenever, as a youngster, I referred to someone present as ‘she,’ my mother and my grandmother would admonish me with ‘“She” is the cat’s mother.’ I took that to mean that I should call the person by her name. Have you ever heard that saying?”

Dear Deborah: Yes, I have. Just as you thought, it’s a sweet, sly, old-fashioned way to discourage children from talking about people who are in the room as if they weren’t there.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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