Punctuation – helping make sense of the written world
Happy Punctuation Day!
I love punctuation. It helps make sense of the written world around us. Let’s face it, English is not one of the easiest languages to wrap your head around – there are 1000s of rules, and for each rule there’s an exception (or 12). And without punctuation the task of accurately communicating meaning becomes even harder.
We’ve all seen the variations around:
“Woman: without her, man is nothing” or ‘Woman, without her man, is nothing.”
The “dear John” letter using the same words but with different punctuation – one dumps poor John, the other tells John he is the love of her life and she could not live without him.
Not to mention the memes that threaten to eat a member of the family, quite often Grandma.
Yet Grandma is not the only one threatened by punctuation, or lack thereof. When it comes to medical transcription the well-placed comma or hyphen could save a life. When you hear the words six monthly injections, are we talking about monthly injections of a specific medication but only a total of six injections, or are we talking about one injection every six months for an undefined length of time? One could save you, the other might kill you. And it is the placement of the simple hyphen that will tell you the difference. Now, hopefully the person receiving the letter at the other end knows what you mean and understands that you may have “just forgotten” to put in that little mark…but there’s no guarantees.
In 2017 a US Dairy company was forced to pay $13 million in damages because of a “missing” comma in the local employment law. The company interpreted the clause one way, the employees another. Was this comma deemed not needed or simply forgotten?
Even if money or life is not at stake, punctuation provides us with the rhythm, the cadence, the music of the written word. Just as with musical composers, it takes skill to use punctuation correctly. Similarly, it takes a different skill to be able to hear the music and write it down in such a way that people, generations into the future, will hear that same melody.
Whatever your reason for using it, punctuation matters. And today we commemorate National Punctuation Day. I’m going to make a cake and celebrate the wonderful world that punctuation reveals to us.