Today is National Punctuation Day, founded twelve years ago by Jeff Rubin. The intent of this holiday is to encourage the appreciation of correct punctuation. I know, that does not sound very thrilling. In fact, many people think that those of us who actually enjoy correct punctuation are rather odd—and perhaps even annoying if we point out errors wherever we happen to see them. Yes, I said “us.” As an English teacher, I have always been one to celebrate all punctuation, used correctly of course!
My favorite piece of punctuation is the lowly comma. It is used more than other punctuation marks. Unfortunately, that means commas are often misused, dropped in where they are not needed. I also cringe when I see exclamation points overused or semicolons put on the page only as part of emoticons. Apostrophes are probably the most misused, so maybe should be abolished. However, until they are as part of the natural evolution of language, there are still rules to follow.
Correct punctuation, however, is more about clarity of meaning than about following rules. In fact, punctuation marks were developed over hundreds of years to avoid confusion in printed documents. Lynne Truss’s delightful little book Eats, Shoots & Leaves presents some great examples about the necessity of correct punctuation, the need for sticklers to protect our use of language, and how incorrect punctuation can distort meaning. (For a fuller review of her fun little tome, see my earlier post.)
Listed below is my favorite example of how punctuation dictates meaning. Truss shared it in her book, but it has been shared in many other places. Even though you may have seen this example before, it is worth repeating. Which man would you want in your life or in the life of someone you know?
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, 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? Gloria
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, 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, Gloria
How are you celebrating this wondrous holiday?
Memorizing punctuation rules? Proofreading a document? Looking for examples of outrageous errors in commercials and store windows? I might suggest mastering Victor Borge’s “Phonetic Punctuation.” It can be quite fun as the video clip with Borge and Dean Martin demonstrates. Of course, you could figure out some sort of drinking game as well—take a swig any time your conversation requires a comma or maybe an apostrophe. Two drinks if used correctly? Whatever your plans, have fun!