Learning Grammar through Reading: What Harry Potter Can Teach Us about English Grammar Rules (Week 2)

Commas and the Chamber of Secrets

Tom Riddle Last week in our “Learning Grammar through Reading” series, we covered the first Harry Potter book with our discussion of common English homophones. Today we’re going to pick up our grammar lesson by taking a look at comma usage in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It’s all Tom Riddle, Moaning Myrtle, and Basilisk fangs from here on out. And, you know, grammar stuff, too.

As I did before, I must warn you that this post contains spoilers, and I must ask that, if you have not read the Harry Potter series, you do so immediately. Run, do not walk, to the closest library or bookstore. I won’t even be mad that you haven’t read this post yet, as long as you promise to come back when you’re done reading. (If you’ve already gone and come back, I already know what you’re here to say. You’re welcome.)

Introduction to Commas

Commas are tricky little pieces of punctuation. Even the most experienced writers and editors sometimes struggle with correct comma usage. I could write an entire article on comma usage alone, but instead I am going to focus on three of the most common uses of commas.

Comma Use 1: Offsetting Non-Restrictive Clauses

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

A non-restrictive clause adds extra information to a sentence. This information is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. In the above quote, Dumbledore is speaking to Harry. Harry knows that Dumbledore is speaking to him, and the reader does as well. Still, Dumbledore feels the need to say Harry’s name, because he’s old, he’s wise, and he’s Dumbledore—he can get away with stuff like that. Harry is offset by two commas because it is a non-restrictive clause.

Comma Use 2: Separating Items in a Series

“Voldemort,” said Riddle softly, “is my past, present and future, Harry Potter. . .”

Spoiler alert: Tom Riddle is Voldemort. Or rather, Tom Riddle will become Voldemort. If you’ve read the book—which, I believe, we’ve already established that you have—you know what I’m talking about. In the above quote, commas are being used to separate items in a series. Tom Riddle messes with all our minds by referring to himself in the third person and warping our sense of time, something he definitely couldn’t have done without his artful use of commas.

Some of you may be wondering why there is no comma following present in this quotation. This type of comma, known as a serial comma, is typically not used in British publications, so you won’t find it in the Bloomsbury editions of the Harry Potter series. If you’re reading the U.S. versions, published by Scholastic, the above sentence will read like this:

“Voldemort,” said Riddle softly, “is my past, present, and future, Harry Potter . . .”

Don’t ask me why Americans and Brits can’t seem to agree on the use of the serial comma. I don’t have the answer. If I did, I would probably also know how Gilderoy Lockhart was ever hired as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher despite his raging incompetence. I don’t have all the answers, people.

Comma Use 3: Joining Independent Clauses with a Conjunction

There had been no more attacks since those on Justin and Nearly Headless Nick, and Madam Pomfrey was pleased to report that the Mandrakes were becoming moody and secretive, meaning that they were fast leaving childhood.

Mandrakes.An independent clause does not need additional information to make sense; that is, it can stand on its own as a logical sentence. Madam Pomfrey’s clause, like Madam Pomfrey herself, can totally stand on its own. (Shout out to independent witches everywhere!) Even though independent clauses can act as their own sentences, it’s sometimes nice to put related clauses together in one sentence. It adds variety to sentence structure, making writing sound better and more natural. There are a few ways to combine independent clauses. One of these ways is to use a comma with a conjunction (words like and, for, but, so, and yet). The information about Justin and Nearly Headless Nick is related to the information about the Mandrakes, which is why these clauses have been joined rather than made into two separate sentences.

Conclusion

Thanks for reading this week’s Harry Potter grammar lesson. If you missed last week’s article on homophones in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, please consider checking it out. If you have something super important to tell me about Harry Potter, commas, or magic in general, please feel free to comment on this post on Facebook or Twitter! Don’t miss next week’s article, which is going to look at interrogative sentences in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It should be intense. Not quite as intense as Severus Snape interrogating Ron Weasley about Polyjuice Potion, but pretty darn close.

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