Pence, interrupted: How a comma undercut the then-VP's message to Trump

“You know, I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome.” That single line from former Vice President Mike Pence’s book “So Help Me God” contains what Pence reportedly told investigators is a serious punctuation error: the comma.

Pence was talking with Donald Trump on Christmas Day 2020 when he told the then-president either “You know, I don’t think I have the authority” or “You know I don’t think I have the authority.” According to ABC News, Pence told investigators looking into the Jan. 6 insurrection that what he really said was the no-comma version: that Trump knew that Pence didn’t believe he had the authority to change the outcome of the presidential election. But either Pence or one of his editors stuck a comma in there, changing the meaning of the sentence and offering a perfect example of just how important commas can be.

Commas have a number of jobs. They can separate coordinate nouns, like “We have a cat, a dog and a hamster.” They can separate coordinate adjectives, like “Our cat is cute, cuddly and playful.” They can separate whole clauses that are connected with a conjunction, like “Our cat is cute, but our dog is cuter.” They can set off a direct address, meaning when you call someone by a name, which is why “Let’s eat, Grandma” means something quite different from “Let’s eat Grandma.” They can separate nonrestrictive information, which means clauses that don’t influence the meaning of the noun: “The man, who was driving, was drunk” means there was just one man, but “The man who was driving was drunk” means you’re singling out the guy behind the wheel from some other guys.

In Pence’s book, the comma is doing yet another job: setting off an introductory clause. Here’s my recent column examining how that works.

Tags: , , , , ,