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A light-hearted look at how punctuation can change meaning

November 22, 2012

Based on a recent ‘Writing Tip’ I wrote for my work colleagues.

****************

Bottom Line:

  • Lack—or overuse—of punctuation (especially commas) can alter meaning and/or result in ambiguity.
  • Ambiguous sentences are hard to understand and can be misinterpreted, thus potentially putting lives at risk.

I’ve written before about commas before (see the information on serial/Oxford commas in lists: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/the-serial-or-oxford-comma/), so this time I’ll use some light-hearted examples found on the internet about how commas and other punctuation can change meaning.

Example 1:

“Most of the time, travellers worry about their luggage.”

Now delete the comma after the fourth word to totally change the meaning of this sentence:

“Most of the time travellers worry about their luggage”

Example 2:

“Stop clubbing baby seals”

And with a comma added you get this:

Example 3:

Here’s how the magazine printed the headline:

She cooks her family and her dog (yes, the dog looks worried!)??? I think they meant “…finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”

Example 4:

Importance of a comma

Example 5:

It’s not just the addition or lack of commas that can change meaning. This example shows how the placement of punctuation, such as full stops/periods, commas, and question marks, can turn something that seems loving and innocent into something more sinister:

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?

Gloria

Now let’s see how those same words read with the punctuation in different places:

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,

Gloria

Example 6

punct_period

That first period (full stop) changes everything.

Example 7

commas

Commas. Use them. No need to say any more… though the ‘Forgetfulness headache’ might be a cause for concern.

On a more serious note…

While these examples are humorous, they also apply to the words that you write. For example:

No commas:

This initial workshop identified the work scopes and phasing generated several different sourcing strategies for those work scopes and proposed selection criteria to compare the sourcing strategies to best benefit the [project].

Commas added (option 1 – single comma after ‘work scopes’):

This initial workshop identified the work scopes, and phasing generated several different sourcing strategies for those work scopes and proposed selection criteria to compare the sourcing strategies to best benefit the [project].

Commas added (option 2 – multiple commas to separate phrases related to the workshop’s outcomes):

This initial workshop identified the work scopes and phasing, generated several different sourcing strategies for those work scopes, and proposed selection criteria to compare the sourcing strategies to best benefit the [project].

It’s likely that the final example was what the author meant, but a reader who wasn’t at the workshop can only guess as to what happened there. If the author had added commas, the meaning would be clear and unambiguous to any reader who didn’t attend the workshop.

15 comments

  1. Fantastic post. I laughed the entire time I was reading. The baby seals in the club…classic. And I really hope Rachel sticks with more traditional ingredients in her recipes.


  2. Awesome. I am horrible with punctuation, but I love reading the blunders others go through. I knew the Rachel Ray one, I assume the person that wrote that cover was fired. The clubbing seals still has me rolling. What a fun blog post :)


  3. I might be a bit thick, but I can’t see the difference the comma makes in example 1. I would appreciate your explaining it, if you wouldn’t mind.


  4. Hi Lee

    The first one in Example 1 says that travellers worry about their luggage most of the time. The second one says that ‘most of the time travellers’ (i.e. people who move through time, as in science fiction) worry about their luggage.

    –Rhonda


  5. Hi Rhonda

    All clear now. Thanks.

    Lee


  6. Nice post. The Rachel Ray example is a hoax, though it does illustrate your point!.


  7. Reminds me of a classic book all about how punctuation can change the context of a sentence — “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by author Lynne Truss. BN link to that book is in my signature (no aff links either, just for you to look)!


  8. Hallo Rhonda

    Nice post, and a great resource for training! Those examples are excellent for helping people understand and remember what is otherwise a dry subject.

    Cheers,
    Sarah


  9. Can you reverse the meaning of the following sentence without changing the positions of the words, deleting or adding and word or letter:
    “A woman without her man, is nothing.”


  10. A woman: without her man is nothing


  11. Very informative and erudite! Thank you SO MUCH!!!


  12. A woman, without her, man is nothing


  13. This was a great post!


  14. […] comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence. There’s a site here which shows a few amusing examples. Many of the changes that I made when I first lost weight using […]



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