Saturday, 9 July 2011

Punctuation: why does it matter?

I am often asked why punctuation is so important and why we need all the dots, dashes and other markings in our written communications.

It seems many people today hold the opinion that punctuation is somehow archaic and irrelevant to modern language, but I disagree.

Before I am accused of being a grammar bully, let me say that I don't believe in over-punctuating or punctuation for punctuation's sake. I also agree that many sentences read perfectly clearly without punctuation – though maybe, sometimes, to the detriment of emphasis and impact. However, there are also many sentences when punctuation is vital to the meaning and clarity of what is written.

Did you read the one about the panda that walked into a café?

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to shoot it.

'Why did you do that?' asks a confused waiter, as the panda walks back towards the exit.

The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
'Well, I'm a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, finds his explanation. 'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'

It's an old one, but a perfect illustration of how an entire joke can hinge on the wrong placement of one little comma (,).

The comma shouldn't really be there. If we take it out, the reader expects to read about what the panda eats:

Eats <bamboo> shoots and <plant> leaves.

With the comma, however, the readers expects to read about something else the panda does:

Eats, shoots <a gun> and leaves <the cafe>.

The joke works because shoots and leaves can be nouns or verbs, depending on the context, and the wrongly placed comma determines the context - wrongly. 

Here is another example, I found recently, where punctuation adds emphasis to a sentence to change its meaning.

An English professor wrote the words:

A woman without her man is nothing

on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate the sentence correctly.

All of the male students wrote:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

All of the female students wrote:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

See how the punctuation adds emphasis and meaning to the words?

So you see that a statement without punctuation can be flat, ineffective and open to misinterpretation. But a statement, with punctuation, is clear, emphatic and powerful.

Now which would you choose to sell your company most effectively?

If you would like to see how punctuation can add power to your business copy, why not email it to me for some free advice and a no obligation quote.

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