Fun with punctuation

Some believe that punctuation is there to complicate matters. In fact, when talking aloud, we are able to convey meaning using intonation, voice patterns and body language also – along with answering any questions which might come from listeners, to explain anything which is unclear.

When reading, we do not have these handy tools – and rely completely on a set of established marks (punctuation) to help us to know what was meant, so that texts can be interpreted only in the way which was intended by the writer.

Missing punctuation leads to much ambiguity, meaning that we have to ask the writer what was meant, rather than it being crystal clear in the first place. Get the punctuation right and the message will be clear.

Here is a classic illustration of altering punctuation to change meaning:

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

Many people do not know the rules which help with punctuation; they simply use ‘feelings’ about what ‘sounds right’. Unfortunately, when using ‘feelings’, it is tricky to remember what ‘felt right’ on page 5, when you get to page 35! So, ‘feelings’ should not form the basis for grammar or punctuation, though they might help a little. To maintain consistency and ease of understanding, writing must show that it follows some established codes of conduct.

Many times, I have heard people say: “There are too many commas in that paragraph.” This is more usually from those who are perhaps unsure where to place commas. It is ironic that many were taught at school that ‘the comma goes where you take a breath’; in fact, the truth is that we take the pause because the comma is there in grammar and in the building-blocks of the language – not the other way around.

Here are some more illustrations of altering punctuation or spelling hyphens to change meaning:

  • In conducting annual self-assessment training, providers should seek help.
  • In conducting annual self-assessment, training providers should seek help.
  • The man dropped the bullet in his mouth.
  • The man dropped, the bullet in his mouth.
  • Watch out – man eating apes!
  • Watch out – man-eating apes!
  • We order merchandise and sell the products.
  • We order, merchandise and sell the products.
  • When I sing well, ladies feel sick.
  • When I sing, well ladies feel sick.
  • You will be required to work twenty four-hour shifts.
  • You will be required to work twenty-four hour shifts.
  • You will be required to work twenty-four-hour shifts.

If you look at this page from the BBC Web site, you can see where readers were challenged to write a thankyou letter with two meanings. They had to use the same words – or words which sound the same – but change the punctuation, to alter the meaning. Some are most impressive.