h1

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: https://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.

29 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 […]


  15. What gets me most of the time is misspelled words; like “travellers” in your example 1.


  16. Hi Edwin

    It’s spelled correctly in UK, Canadian, and Australian English (at least). Only in US English is one ‘L’ the norm. I’m an Australian, so I spell it with two Ls, just like I spell ‘modelling’ with two Ls. My work colleagues are also Australian, and I was writing for them.

    See here for these variations:
    * http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/british-and-american-spelling
    * http://www.dailywritingtips.com/one-l-or-two/
    * http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/BritishCanadianAmerican.htm

    –Rhonda


  17. That was Great, learning how commas can change meaning of sentences.unable to eat diarrhoea


  18. […] A light-hearted look at how punctuation can change meaning […]


  19. I have from my Pardake sir,yavatmal…. In a court..the typewriter did a mistake…he wrote the words of chor: mi chori karnar. nahi kelyas phasi denyat yaavi.. He should have written:mi chori karnar nahi . kelyas phasi denyat yaavi..


  20. Another is on a public place it is written: येथे थुँकू नये . Some mishivous wrote:येथे थुँकून ये .


  21. Here’s another example:
    “I had diarrhea vomiting and a runny nose.” (GROSS!)
    “I had diarrhea, vomiting, and a runny nose.” (not as bad)


  22. This is so good. Loved the Dear john letter, helped to teach my son.


  23. Woman without her man, is a beast. OR. woman, without her, man is a beast.


  24. […] Third, proper punctuation. Commas matter. […]


  25. […] Commas are probably the most overused and abused punctuation mark. How many comma bloopers have you seen on your Facebook and Twitter feeds? As you can see, commas are very useful. Despite the […]


  26. I needed a few quick examples for a student I tutor; thanks for these. Even if the Rachel Ray mag cover is a hoax, it still serves as an excellent example!


  27. […] important part of writing. A misplaced comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Visit Cybertext for some examples of how important commas can be. How to Use English Punctuation Correctly is a […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 417 other followers

%d bloggers like this: