Fun with Language

Punctuation Matters

These examples come from Eats, shoots and leaves which is itself an example of how punctuation can change the meaning of a written text. The title of the book is the punch line of a joke about a panda in a bar. Work out the difference in meaning between:

  • eats, shoots and leaves

and

  • eats shoots and leaves

and

  • eats shoots, and leaves

Adding the comma can not only change the meaning but clarifies which meaning is intended by the writer.

Similarly consider the following:

  • Woman, without her man, is nothing.

and

  • Woman, without her, man is nothing.

Punctuate the following letter in two ways such that there are two completely opposed meanings: one says that Jack is the love of Jill’s life; the other says that Jack is the last person that Jill would ever want to meet again.

dear jack I want a man who knows what love is you are kind generous 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 jill

Then:

  1. work out how many sentences there are in this text — this will lead you to think about what a sentence is.
  2. work out how you decided where to put the punctuation in the text — which in turn will have informed your decision on where to put the sentence breaks — which in turn will help you work out what is a sentence.
  3. on what grounds have you decided that each sentence is a sentence?
  4. work out how many words there are in this text.

Then see if you can write another sequence of words that can similarly be changed in meaning, simply by changing the punctuation.

Before you leave this page, consider the title ‘Punctuation Matters’, which is syntactically ambiguous. Identify the two syntactic structures, either of which (or both) could be understood by the reader and either (or both) of which could have been intended by the writer.

Reference

Truss, L. (2003) Eats, shoots & leaves, London: Profile Books.

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