Sunday, September 3, 2006

Punctuations are important

The importance* of punctuation is often underestimated. A wrong comma, for example, can change the meaning entirely. Punctuations are so inherent to the communication process; nevertheless, not all language or communication professionals place these little marks thoughtfully.

In 2003, Lynne Truss, a British writer, wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves on the subject. The title originates from a joke. A panda goes to a bar and orders a ham sandwich. After eating, he takes his pistol, shoots in the air. On being asked why he did so, he shows a badly punctuated wildlife manual. The entry for Panda in it read: “PANDA. Large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” Obviously, the unnecessary comma after "eats" has distorted the meaning.

The Guardian and The New Yorker have reviews of the book, the latter quite critical. There is also a website, where you can play the punctuation game. There was recently a news item on the most costly punctuation in Canada.

Commas essentially signify pause. It’s not an essential device though, since even without it we can logically deduce a pause.

Harold Ross, the founder of New Yorker, was obsessed with the use of commas. During his time James Thurber, American writer and cartoonist, who served with the magazine, was asked why Ross put a comma in the following sentence: “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” Thurber replied, “That’s Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

Some of my favourite sentences on the use of comma are:

  • Don’t stop. (Keep going.)

    Don’t, stop. (Stop what you are doing.)

  • You don't really like it; you're only pretending to please me. (You are pretending to please me.)

    You don't really like it; you're only pretending, to please me. (You are pretending to like it.)

  • He was kicked by a mule which annoyed him. (The mule annoyed him.)

    He was kicked by a mule, which annoyed him. (The kick annoyed him.)

  • Her brother, who lives in Mumbai, will come tomorrow. (She has only one brother)

    Her brother who lives in Mumbai will come tomorrow. (She has more than one brother.)

The best is perhaps this:

  • An English teacher wrote these words on the whiteboard: "woman without her man is nothing". The teacher then asked the students to punctuate the words correctly.

    The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is nothing."

    The women wrote: "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."
(* See Easwaran's comment below, on 08 Sept, and my reply to it.)


  1. Informative. Guys with Eng Lit degrees can be seen making mistakes with commas. One is there in my college only. Liked the last one.

  2. The Panda example is a famous one.Good post. Especially i like the last one about Woman ;)

  3. Neeraj
    O even I had in college a teacher who taught English, but her language was so bad... Degrees are just degrees.. is it not?

  4. well written, esp on the usage of comma,the last one is a gem :)

  5. T'is a good one!
    Usage of commas is one thing I always check before publishing my posts!

  6. Praveen,
    Thanks a lot.

    Good to know that...

  7. Pradeep, simple and clear piece. Only one suggestion, and I wouldn't have made it if it weren't the very first sentence..I think the first sentence should read "The importance of punctuation is often underestimated...." The missing "the", well, to be frank, it bugs me. I'm sorry, but I thought I should point it out.

    Do you know that the New Yorker's obsession for clear sentences, with commas falling into place now and again, precisely, finically and so forth was put into a teasing sentence exactly following the NY style? Let me see if I can locate it for you.

    Another grammar topic I never fail to stress on while putting subs through their paces is the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers, which is actually what the last two sentences in your piece exemplify.

    Keep going, and wish I had the energy to be doing it too.

  8. Easwaran,

    You are very right. It should have started with "The". Just shows how important it is to have written pieces edited. That doesn't happen in a blog posting. An editor -- meaning, a second pair of knowledgeable eyes -- can detect oversights in spellings, grammar etc.

    I am correcting my original piece.

  9. Hey liked this one.
    I was thinking of writing a post on the (ab)use of the ! these days.

  10. Usha,
    Looking forward to that one on the !s

  11. I will share with you some story that happened to me some years ago to prove the author's point of view, follow the link