in Punctuation

“Word, Dude”

Why does punctuation matter? A lot of people seem to have a problem with the idea of punctuation that they’ve never been taught to use and that ‘looks funny’ to them.

Fair enough. So why do we use it? Because it prevents ambiguity – so we can reliably look at a sentence and say it says one thing rather than another.

Most people, I’ve found, if you tell them to look at how dialogue is punctuated in a story will be a bit surprised when you point out the weird way that there are commas separating names from what’s being said to someone. For example:

  • ‘Use the Force, Luke.’
  • ‘Hi, Max.’
  • ‘Look, honey, we could do that this year.’

This mysterious anachronism is the comma for direct address. Except, it isn’t – an anachronism, I mean. It serves a useful function. It helps stop us misreading a sentence and having to go back and work it out – and really knocking us out of the story, dude …

Except, when it comes to thinking up examples out of the blue, you can never seem to think of one that demonstrates it until much later, when someone’s already walked off thinking you’re just being fussy and it doesn’t make any difference how you punctuate a text message or an email …

On a text … ah, people get what you’re saying … probably. A business email … well, I’ve dealt with some pretty senior people over the years who don’t bother with it.

Actually, while I’m at it, indulge me – go back and look at the end of that last sentence:

‘[…] I’ve dealt with some pretty senior people over the years […]’

What happens if I add a comma and change it to:

‘[…] I’ve dealt with some pretty, senior people […]’

Then it becomes senior people who are pretty, rather than people who are pretty senior. (Arguably, you could even start messing around further with the punctuation of that particular phrase – not helped by the ambiguity surrounding the word ‘pretty’ – but maybe it’s best to stay out of the long grass for now.)

It may seem a bit of a niggling concern, but it demonstrates the basic principle. Small changes in punctuation, big changes in meaning.

Well, that’s probably enough for now, but hey, even if you knew all this already, hopefully it’s helped refresh your memory – and maybe even entertain you a little along the way. Peace out, dude …

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