Hamilton (the musical) taught all of us about history. It also teaches English grammar.

Anyone else out there a Hamilton fan? I’m obsessed. Not only is the music appealing, emotional, and interesting, but it’s also so incredibly smart.

For example, the rhyming shows up in odd places. Patterns are unusual and unexpected.

Watch this one—

“She courted me
Escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner
That’s when Reynolds extorted me
For a sordid fee
I paid him quarterly
I may have mortally wounded my prospects
But my papers are orderly.

And Lin-Manuel doesn’t give a pfft about echoes—

“I never spent a cent that wasn’t mine
You sent the dogs after my scent, that’s fine.”

Brilliant. Simply genius. I could listen to this musical every day for the rest of my life and not grow tired of it.

But when I first listened to the music, one part confused me.

I received a Hamilton CD for Christmas in 2019, just as I started my writing journey. I hadn’t joined a critique group yet, hadn’t started relearning all my grammar rules, so I didn’t get what Lin-Manuel Miranda was saying. Read this verse Angelica writes to Alexander:

“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.
You’ve written,
‘My dearest, Angelica.’”

This puzzled me. What’s the big deal with a comma? I’m so glad you asked.

To explain this, we must use fancy English-class words we learned 40 years ago. (Okay, maybe that’s just me. You may actually remember this word.) We have to talk about appositives.

I heard you sigh from here. Keep reading. I’ll show you how I simplified this rule so I can remember it, thus saving myself from looking it up each and every time I come across it in my writing.

First, the definition. An appositive is a noun that describes another noun.

My friend Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped by.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, a famous writer, created Hamilton.

When an appositive is essential to the meaning of the noun it belongs to (restrictive), don’t use commas. When the noun preceding the appositive provides sufficient identification on its own, use commas around the appositive.

Let’s look at my first example again.

My friend Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped by.

I have more than one friend. If I leave out the appositive, my sentence says, “My friend dropped by.” Saying “my friend” is not enough information for you to know who dropped by. I don’t put commas around the appositive because we need that information.

However, in our second example, it’s different. Read it again.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, a famous writer, created Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda IS a famous writer—we all know that—so we don’t need that information. We use the commas to set aside the extraneous information (non-restrictive).

Let’s do another one.

Our vice president, Kamala Harris, is the first woman elected to the position.

Our vice president is a relatively precise identifier, so Kamala Harris is not considered essential.

We can live without the information supplied by the appositive. Use commas.

Famous composer Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Grammy Award for the Best Musical Theater Album in 2016 for Hamilton.

The way I constructed this sentence, I must include Lin-Manuel’s name in order to know which famous composer we’re talking about. Since we need his name, no commas are necessary.

Clear as mud?

Now, back to Angelica. What got her so hot and bothered?

“My dearest, Angelica …”

Alexander added the comma, showing he didn’t think it necessary to explain who his dearest was. He could live without that information. In other words, no other person in the world could be his dearest, so including her name was unnecessary. She was his dearest.

Scandalous! My mnemonic to remember?

Need it? No commas. (Both words start with N.)

Can live without it? Commas.

My mother, Sandy, just traveled to Alaska.

I know who my mother is. I can live without the extra information. Use commas.

My friend Tammy Spradley is an even bigger fan of Hamilton than I am.

I have lots of friends. We need the information. No commas.

I’m bookmarking this page because I know I’m going to have to check myself again at some point. Feel free to do the same.

6 Replies to “Hamilton (the musical) taught all of us about history. It also teaches English grammar.”

  1. I taught my middle school kids if the “extra stuff” could be taken out, use commas, like a crane that could pick up the words and take tham out.

  2. I had a chance to see the last performance this weekend, and let it go. The Bass website’s description of the music sounded like something we wouldn’t care for. Wish I could make that decision over.

    1. Noooooo! Oh, no. Try listening to it on YouTube. You can play the entire soundtrack. Choose one that includes the lyrics because you’ll miss half of it the first time you try it. But it’s fantastic!!!

  3. Excellent post friend, I enjoyed the comparisons of our grammatical structure to the brilliant penning of Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda. What a fresh and fun take! Now pardon me while I go listen to the Schuyler Sisters song for the thousandth time. : )

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