For the last two weeks we’ve been musing over the fate of the punctuation mark known as the apostrophe, whose abolition from the English language some are calling for. However you feel about the apostrophe, punctuation is something no wielder of words can do without.
One of the more delightful stories about the misuse of punctuation comes from the popular grammarian Lynne Truss:
“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
That comma carelessly placed after the word “Eats” completely altered the meaning of the sentence — and the behaviour of this fictional panda. Instead of “eats shoots and leaves” (pandas consume bamboo shoots and foliage) a single comma made this panda consume food, discharge a revolver and depart!
The story is wickedly instructive, but it’s not the only example of how punctuation marks can completely alter the meaning of a phrase or sentence. A simple comma could have transformed the unfortunate magazine headline that informed us “Rachael Ray finds pleasure in cooking her family and her dog”.
A similar story has a computer class teacher announcing “let’s learn to cut and paste kids!” Panicky parents had to be calmed down by the Headmaster inserting the missing comma after “paste”.
Worse is this true story: a man unfortunately sought to publicise his wife’s recipe blog by announcing “All those who like to cook and eat my wife just made a new blog at [URL provided]. Tell everyone.” I have no idea what “everyone” was told, but I am sure he never heard the end of it from his wife. A colon [ : ] after “eat” could have saved him (and her) endless amounts of grief from trolls.
One of the earliest (and arguably sexist) jokes I remember hearing in English class at school related to punctuation. The teacher told us of a mixed group of schoolchildren at a co-educational institution who were asked to punctuate the sentence: “Woman without her man is nothing.” The boys in the class duly punctuated it as “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” The girls, on the other hand, punctuated it this way: “Woman! without her, man is nothing.”
A similar story concerns an unpunctuated letter which goes like this: “Dear John I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous, kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless kind and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours Maria.”
The question is, was it a love-letter or a note of dismissal? All depends on how you punctuate it, without changing a single word. Here is the loving version first: “Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind and thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless, kind and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours? Maria.”
Now here is the same, identical text, but punctuated in a way that gives the totally opposite meaning to its contents:
“Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind and thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless, kind and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy — will you let me be? Yours, Maria.”
If that hasn’t convinced you that punctuation is king, then consider the simple sentence “let’s eat grandma”. Unpunctuated, it suggests a cannibal family deciding to consume the grandmother for dinner; with a simple comma — “let’s eat, grandma” — it’s a friendly invitation! As the poster on which I saw this example says: “Punctuation can save a person’s life!”
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
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