Monday, August 07, 2006

Who says puncuation isn't important?

As a writer and an editor who often struggles to convince others that puncuation is important, I had to smile at the story on the front page of the Report on Business this morning.

"The $2-million comma" describes how Rogers Communications screwed up the punctuation in a deal they did with Aliant. They thought one thing, but a team of experts saw the misplaced comma as changing the whole meaning of the sentence. It's a good story, and instructive for those of us who are prone to skipping over punctuation from time to time.

While there are those who think that proper punctuation is an out-dated notion, I think that grammar is making a comeback. Punctuation isn't that important when you're speaking to someone on the phone, for example. But with the increasing use of email, which ends up serving as the written record, it's more important to be sure your written words mean what you want them to mean.

I've got a book sitting by my bed that is a must-read if you find this sort of thing interesting. It's called "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," by Lynne Truss.

The book is full of all kinds of great stories about punctuation. But just to whet your appetite, here are a few excerpts, taken from her website:

To be fair, many people who couldn’t punctuate their way out of a paper bag are still interested in the way punctuation can alter the sense of a string of words. It is the basis of all “I’m sorry, I’ll read that again” jokes. Instead of “What would you with the king?” you can have someone say in Marlowe’s Edward II, “What? Would you? With the king?” The consequences of mispunctuation (and re-punctuation) have appealed to both great and little minds, and in the age of the fancy-that email a popular example is the comparison of two sentences:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Which, I don’t know, really makes you think, doesn’t it? Here is a popular “Dear Jack” letter that works in much the same fundamentally pointless way:

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless 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?


Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless 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?



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