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Words & Punctuation – How Important are They?

I often get criticized for my use of commas – why did you use a comma there and why do you use so many commas? The simple answer is that the use of words is important. A fact we all should know, although it is sometimes painfully obvious that some folks don’t understand how important. Like the use of words, the structure of a sentence is equally critical, and can totally change the intended meaning, just by the use of a comma, period, exclamation point, or any form of punctuation.

Now, before you think this is going to turn into an English class, I ask you to bear with me.

The proper, or at least intended, use of words and punctuation is essential to meaningful and clearly understood writing. There are numerous scenarios where a word takes on a completely different meaning just by the way it is used, and the meaning of a sentence is significantly changed just by the proper use of punctuation. Let me show you what I mean.

Here are some words which are spelled the same but have different meaning depending on how they are used…our English teachers would call these Homonyms:

· Bat – is this an animal or a piece of wood used to hit a ball?

· Refuse – a denial or garbage

· Compact – a make-up device or a small compressed item

· Desert – a baron dry place or someone leaving or abandoning another

· Fair – a carnival, someone of light appearance or complexion, or someone who treats others openly and honestly

· Lie – someone resting comfortably or someone not telling the truth

· Lead – the writing portion of a pencil, a metal or mineral, or someone who is directing others

An example would be, I refuse to listen to the propaganda you are stating as I feel it is purely refuse. Better yet, how about this: I was writing you a note, when the lead in my pencil broke, because I wanted to lead you to the store where you can buy some lead.

When it comes to punctuation, the use is even more critical. With today’s social media posts and our very common text messages, the use of punctuation is frowned upon as wasting time or unnecessary clicks or steps. Yet the proper use of punctuation is essential to truly understand the intended meaning of complex statements or conversations. Not to be too dramatic, but missing or misused punctuation marks does change meaning and/or confuse readers. In extreme cases, ambiguous sentences that are hard to decipher can be misinterpreted, putting lives at risk. For example, unclear instructions on the use of mechanical equipment, or on medication packaging, could lead to fatal errors.

Is it any wonder, we have so much misunderstanding, and mistakes today, more than ever before?!?!

Fortunately, most of the time, poor use of punctuation creates amusement rather than life-threatening danger. Here are a few well-known humorous examples found on the Internet:

“We’re going to learn to cut and paste kids!” versus “We’re going to learn to cut and paste, kids!” Commas certainly do make a difference.

“Let’s eat, grandpa” versus “Let’s eat grandpa”. Punctuation can potentially save lives!

The rogue use of a full stop after the second sentence in the following example (from a sign on a building) has changed the meaning of the message, and instead of conveying a kind thank you has concluded it with a rather rude directive: “Thank you! Your donation just helped someone. Get a job.” I am sure that causing offense was not the intention of the writer!

For many modern employers, poor spelling and punctuation received on job applications is a source of constant frustration. Here is a contemporary example from someone’s résumé: “Interests include: Cooking dogs, shopping, dancing, reading, watching movies …” The missing comma after “cooking” makes this person look rather sinister (or at least quite silly), don’t you think?

Following is another popular demonstration of the way that punctuation can change meaning. This example has gone viral on the Internet: “An English professor wrote the words: ‘A woman without her man is nothing’ on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.” All of the males in the class wrote: ‘A woman, without her man, is nothing.’ All the females in the class wrote: ‘A woman: without her, man is nothing.’ Punctuation is powerful.”

My co-workers and I were recently discussing one of the most academically debated punctuation marks, which is perhaps the ‘Oxford comma’. The Oxford comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

Please bring me a cup, saucer, and spoon.

The origins of the Oxford comma are difficult to determine, however it has traditionally been used by printers, readers, and editors at the Oxford University Press. Although not standard protocol for all writers and publishers, it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These scarves are available in black and white, pink and purple, and blue and green.

Omitting the Oxford comma can sometimes result in odd misunderstandings:

I love my parents, Kylie Minogue and Kermit the Frog.

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are Kylie Minogue and Kermit the Frog!

Here is the same sentence with the Oxford comma:

I love my parents, Kylie Minogue, and Kermit the Frog.

As these examples show, mastering the use of punctuation is as relevant today as it was many centuries ago!

Have you been misunderstood before – who hasn’t? Have you been the part of some major debate or argument, that when the dust cleared, was really far less serious than it started out to be? Have you angered friends, confused co-workers, or even created anger or angst with a loved one? Far more often than we would like to admit, many of these issues have come from the use of words or punctuation.

So, the next time you are writing someone, be it a short text, a small e-mail, or even a more involved note or letter, take that extra moment to proof read what you have written. Make sure it actually conveys the exact message you wish. When you make proof reading what you say, a common every event habit, you will understand exactly how important words and punctuation are!!!

I leave you with this: Yesterday at Kroger, I found a product that was: “Packed with taste less sugar.” I think they forgot a comma. Then I saw a magazine with the headline, “Lose Weight, Fast.” I think they added a comma they should not have added. Finally, I said something stupid last night so I left my wife a note when I went to bed. I wrote: “I’m Sorry I Love You!!!” As I went to lie down, I thought of the note and realized my mistake…I hurried out to correct the note, hoping no damage had been done. I added the critical semi-colon to my note, which now said: ”I’m Sorry; I Love You!!!”

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