Monday, 10 May 2010

Punctuation Has Power: Or Why Commas Can Save Lives

I have been teaching written proficiency in English this semester and I have tried to get through to my students the simple fact that language is power. Being able to use language gives one power; being unable to use it places one in a position at the mercy of those who are able. The equation is fairly simple.

So what does this have to do with punctuation, you ask? Well, clearly punctuation is an important part of written language. Far from merely providing pauses in lengthy sentences, punctuation can alter the meaning of a sentence dramatically. We need only consider the image below:
The difference between "Let's eat grandpa!" and "Let's eat, grandpa!" might seem superficial to an uninitiated eye, but the difference in meaning is rather severe. On the one hand, hand we have a call for cannibalism (literally having grandpa for dinner, as it were); on the other, we have a call to grandpa that it is time to eat. Whether food is on the table or grandpa is supposed to help out getting something edible is another story though, but at least grandpa does not have to offer up the meat off his bones.

Another example (that I actually used in class) was comparing the following two sentences: "The children who came early got candy;" and "The children, who came early, got candy." The only difference is the inclusion of two commas in the second one. So, how do those two tiny little punctuation markers make any significant difference then? Well, ask the following question: How many children "got candy"?

In the first version (without commas), the relative clause (i.e. "who came early") is restrictive, which means that the information it contains is necessary to define the noun it describes. This means that we are talking about "the children who came early" and in answer to our question it is that particular group which "got candy". Or, put differently, "some children got candy, the ones who came early."

In the second version (with the commas), the relative clause is non-restrictive. This means that the information is additional or parenthetic, if you will. If we remove the clause from the sentence, nothing significant changes (cf. "The children, who came early, got candy" and "The children got candy"). Sure, some additional information is lost (the fact that all the children came early), but unlike with the restrictive clause, this information is not necessary to define the noun. Thus, in answer to our question, in the second version, "all the children got candy." The non-restrictive clause furthermore gives us a second, unrelated, bit of information; that is, that "all the children came early."

As you can see, punctuation can clearly alter the meaning of a sentence significantly. Still, you might wonder how such a thing can constitute any real power. However, consider the following anecdote:
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." (source unknown)

If there are still any doubts about the inherent power of punctuation, I am guessing that poor grandpa is still on the menu.

1 comment:

  1. I can see the point but I still forget to put them in, as I do even whith letters. It is so easy to exclude (if that is the way to spel that word) and not notis ;)