Wednesday, March 28, 2012

WNW: Why Punctuation Matters

People joke that I'm the Grammar Nazi.
My critique group says that I know exactly how to use commas (and then they go comatose, and tweet about it, if I try to explain why a semicolon is correct on page 5).
For that matter, rumor has it that when they speak about our group and mention members' strengths, they bring up punctuation as my strength.
While I do know my fair share of punctuation rules, I do like to hope that in the 12 years I've been there I've been worth more than fixing comma splices. :)
But yes, I do care about punctuation more than the average reader or writer. Why? Because it adds nuance and meaning that nothing else can. The same words can have a totally different meaning with a few different punctuation marks.
This is true with big issues like pacing, tone, and mood.
But to make my point, I'll go a bit over the top for today's Word Nerd Wednesday.
First off, read Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (the title of which is a punctuation joke). If you think punctuation is stale and boring, read that book. I read it on the treadmill and nearly fell off, I was laughing so hard.
Truss has several other titles, including picture books. I own one of them, and my kids love it. My third grader took it to school for show-and-tell. (And probably had to explain it to the class . . .)

To make my point about how punctuation can change meaning, here are three fun examples:
1) I've seen this one go around Facebook under the guise of, "Punctuation saves lives!"
Let’s eat Grandpa.
(I doubt he's very tasty)
Let’s eat, Grandpa.
(Yo, Grandpa, dinner's ready! I'll race ya to the table!)

2) I saw this one in college during my nerd training (read: English major studies). The professor, a woman, wrote the following sentence on the board:
Woman, without her man, is nothing.
I was rather incensed. Until she changed the punctuation.
Woman: without her, man is nothing.

And then I laughed.
3) One of Lynne Truss's books, Twenty-odd Ducks, includes a punctuation joke right on the cover with the title. With the hyphen, the title means, "roughly twenty ducks." If you take the hyphen out, it means, "twenty weird ducks." So the cover has twenty funky ducks: some that are striped, one ready to go snorkeling, and so on.
Even the subtitle has a play on punctuation: Why, Punctuation Matters
On each page spread, the book has the same sentence but with different punctuation (and therefore different meanings), plus illustrations to match.
You need to get your hands on a copy. Really. As proof, I present my kids' favorite 2-page spread from the book. It's gruesome, which may be why they love it.
The first page shows a king strolling near a group of girls bowing and throwing flowers at him as he says, "Ah, life is grand." The caption reads as follows:
The king walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was cut off.
The second page makes the whole thing read as one sentence, which changes the meaning drastically:
The king walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.
Above the caption: three illustrations showing the king decapitated and his head talking ("Why can't I feel my lips?") as his body walks around.
Hysterical, if you ask me. At the end of the book, Truss manages (quite brilliantly) to write an entire letter to a school teacher on one page and then changes the meaning entirely using nothing but punctuation on the other.
Convinced that punctuation matters? I hope so. At the very least, remember point number one: punctuation saves lives.


T.J. said...

Punctuation always matters.

Sadly, I can't make up anything as humorous as "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" or "Let's eat Grandpa."

Pat Coffey said...

Writers often forget that anything written down is permanent.

An Ordinary Mom said...

LOVE this post ... even put the books you mentioned on hold at the library to read and show my kids :) !!

Angela Baarz said...

As a teenager, I remember trying to figure out the meaning of the short story title "The short happy life of Francis Macomber." Was his life short, but happy? Or was the happy part of his life short lived? We had a great discussion about that in my English class.

Sue said...

These are really fun examples.

Punctuation is a great tool, and I use it for my own purposes...for good or ill.


Phil Reschke said...


If you are the grammar Nazi, you'll appreciate this joke my opa
used to tell:

During World War II a German officer and his driver were
cruising down a country road and accidentally ran over a
farmer's dog. The officer ordered the driver to stop and
go in and inform the farmer about the accident. A few
minutes later the driver comes out of the farmhouse with
his arms loaded with fresh bread, fruit, hams, cakes, etc.

Confused at what he saw the officer asked the driver what
he told the farmer. The driver replied with a smile "I just
said 'Heil, Hitler the dog is dead!'"

Nick and Dani said...

I, unfortunately, have lost my ability to use punctuation correctly all the time. However, in high school I was given Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. I remember really liking it.

Sherry Akmar said...

In the punctuation of:

The king walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.

Why was the word 'after' changed to 'later' in the correct sentence since it's a punctuation exercise?

Annette Lyon said...

That's an error on my part. Both sentences should use AFTER.

Annette Lyon said...

(The post is now updated to reflect the correction.)