When Punctuation Goes Really, Really Wrong
Because of a book about punctuation called "Comma Sense" that I co-authored with extremely famous Grammarian Guy Richard Lederer (author of the unbelievably hilarious Anguished English series), I sometimes get e-mails from people pondering punctuational problems. A few days ago, I received one such note from a young man in high school, who wrote to ask why in the world anyone should really have to learn punctuation. "It seems like such a waste," he said. "Who really cares where commas or periods go? As long as the meaning comes across, that's all that matters."
Let me answer that young man (and you know who you are, Kyle!) here, since I know he reads this blog. Young man (I love saying that, for some obnoxious reason or the other): The problem is that meaning is inextricably bound to punctuation. You goof up the punctuation of a sentence, and you've goofed up the meaning of that sentence. Doubt it? Oh, yeah? Really?
Well, FEAR ME--if you dare!
Below is an example (taken from "Comma Sense") of the same letter, punctuated in two different ways. After reading them both, I think you'll agree that proper punctuation can spell the difference between ... well, in this case, between a second date, and a restraining order.
Here's the first letter:
My Dear Pat,
The dinner we shared the other night — it was absolutely lovely! Not in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine anyone as perfect as you are. Could you — if only for a moment – think of our being together forever? What a cruel joke to have you come into my life only to leave again; it would be heaven denied. The possibility of seeing you again makes me giddy with joy. I face the time we are apart with great sadness.
P.S.: I would like to tell you that I love you. I can’t stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
And now here's the same letter, punctuated differently:
Pat the dinner we shared the other night. It was absolutely lovely — not! In my wildest dreams, could I ever imagine anyone? As perfect as you are, could you — if only for a moment — think? Of our being together forever: what a cruel joke! To have you come into my life only to leave again: it would be heaven! Denied the possibility of seeing you again makes me giddy. With joy I face the time we are apart.
With great “sadness,”
P.S.: I would like to tell you that I love you. I can’t. Stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
And I think that settles that.
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