Punctuate It Right: 3 Ways How Punctuation Affects Meaning

Although punctuation is one of the most significant aspects of written English, it is taken ever so lightly. In fact, some people believe that punctuation marks just make things even more complicated. Little do they realize that punctuation matters: that the lack—or overuse—of punctuation marks can alter the meaning of texts and/or result in ambiguity. Ambiguous phrases or sentences are difficult to understand and can be misinterpreted. A single missing dot or a tiny misplaced squiggle can cost millions of dollars, break someone’s heart, or even kill a life. So if you are one of those folks who just take punctuation marks for granted, then you might want to continue reading this article as the following three examples show how punctuation affects meaning.

EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES

In her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss boldly defends proper punctuation. The writer turned journalist illustrates how an incorrect punctuation mark can make a big difference by sharing the following joke:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda walks towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

From the joke, we can see how a comma can change the function that words play and, thus, the overall meaning of a phrase or a sentence. Without the comma, we get ‘Eats shoots and leaves,’ where ‘eats’ acts as a verb, and ‘shoots’ and ‘leaves’ act as nouns. It simply tells us about what comprises a panda’s diet, that is, shoots and leaves. On the other hand, with the comma, we get ‘Eats, shoots and leaves,’ where ‘eats,’ ‘shoots,’ and ‘leaves’ all act as verbs. It means that the panda eats, shoots (with a gun), and leaves to go somewhere else.

DEAR JOHN

The ‘Dear John’ story, which tells about a man who received a letter from his girlfriend, is a common example that shows that it is not just the omission or addition of punctuation marks that can alter the meaning of texts—even their placement! Imagine how ecstatic John must have been when he received this note from Jane:

Dear John:
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?
Jane

Unfortunately, John was far from ecstatic; in fact, he was heartbroken. As he was familiar with Jane’s peculiar ways of misusing punctuation marks, he reread her letter with the punctuation marks placed in an entirely different fashion:

Dear John,
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,
Jane

From the story, we can see the importance of the proper placement of punctuation marks: it has the ability to turn something warm and affectionate into something cold and heartless. It was exactly the same letter; however, by changing a comma here and moving a period there, Jane’s message was completely altered.

WOMAN WITHOUT HER MAN

The classic story ‘Woman Without Her Man’ illustrates the power of punctuation in conveying a message. Here, men and women used punctuation marks differently to emphasize their importance:

An English professor wrote the sentence “Woman without her man is nothing” on the board and instructed his class to punctuate it. Most of the males punctuated the sentence as follows: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” Most of the females, however, responded with the following answer: “Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

From the story, we can see how the two sexes used punctuation marks based on how they perceive things. In a societal sense, men have traditionally been more prominent—they run the country, fight the wars, and provide for their families. As such, they are inclined to think that without them, women are nothing. On the other hand, females believe that housework and child rearing should not be considered as inferior to what men do. As such, they are inclined to think that without them, men are nothing.

There you go—three examples that show how punctuation affects meaning. Indeed, if you get the punctuation right, your message will be clear. That is why availing English proofreading services before publishing your work is highly recommended. Lexcode Inc. has a pool of skilled editors who ensures that your documents are written in accordance with the standard rules of the English language. If you have a thesis or dissertation, promotional material, personal letter, or any other document that you are planning to get published, you would not want missed periods and unwanted commas, as well as other grammar errors, right? Contact Lexcode Inc. and let them do the necessary tweaking for you.