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Lesson 3: Punctuation clarifies – or doesn’t


The primary purpose of punctuation is to clarify, to help the reader understand the text. There are some common examples of how punctuation can disambiguate phrases and sentences that would otherwise be ambiguous.


            Let’s eat Zelda.


With no comma this example, of course, means that we will eat Zelda. Simply add a comma and we are now addressing Zelda.


            Let’s eat, Zelda.


The comma in the example above helps the reader to read the text in the way that is intended. Although the previous lesson discusses the fact that punctuation does not typically correlate with speech pauses, it often does correlate with intonation – the pitch across the string of words. And in examples like those above, the intonation distinctions in the spoken versions of these sentences would allow the listener to understand the words just as they were intended.


You can find plenty of other examples of changes in punctuation leading to changes of meaning – often unintended. A few of the most prevalent examples are the one above (usually with Grandma instead of Zelda, the “dear John” example, and the panda joke, now also the title of a book by Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots and Leaves.


A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter dead. As the panda stands up to go, the bartender shouts, “Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!” The panda yells back at the bartender, “Hey, I’m a PANDA! Look it up!” The bartender opens his dictionary and sees the following definition for panda: “A tree dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.


So the punctuation in these examples certainly is useful, marking various kinds of phrases and clauses, resulting in different interpretations. (Though the panda one is really an artificial example since writers don’t typically leave out that first comma between eats and shoots. Now, the so-called Oxford comma is a different story, which is in Lesson 9.)



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