Because of a book about punctuation called Comma Sense: A FUN-damental Guide to Punctuation (get it? get it? wonder why book publishing is in a crisis?) that I co-authored with extremely famous grammarian guy Richard Lederer (author of the hilarious and bestselling Anguished English series), I sometimes get e-mails from people pondering perplexing punctuational problems. A few days ago I received one such note from a young man in high school, who wrote to ask why in the world anyone should have to learn punctuation at all.
“It seems like such a waste to worry too much about stuff like that,” he wrote. “Who really cares where commas or periods go? As long as the meaning of the words comes across, isn’t that all that matters?”
Oh, but to chuckle! Perhaps even to scoff! Which would be rude. So let’s not. Instead, let me, right here on my blog (which I know he reads), answer our young friend’s question.
Dear Young Friend:
Thanks for the letter! I appreciate you giving me the chance to address your question.
I totally get what you’re saying about punctuation seeming superfluous. Sadly, though, it’s anything but. I wish punctuation was a useless convention! I wish I could just write and write and write and write without worrying at all about things like punctuation grammar or syntax if it came to that as it necessarily would because to get back to the point that would be a lot of fun even though actually having to read words written no matter how artfully without those things would probably and probably sooner than later get as I’m sure has become obvious right here pretty frustrating and quickly thereafter downright boring.
See? Not so much with the good.
The problem with “As long as the meaning of the words comes across, isn’t that all that matters?”—which is to say, the problem with trying to divorce the meaning of words from the way they’re punctuated—is that punctuation is how written words get their meaning. Trying to write or read words that haven’t been punctuated is like trying to drive a car that’s missing tires or a steering wheel. At best you’re bound to weave all over the place; mostly, you very quickly find yourself going nowhere at all.
Here, check this out. I wrote the below for Comma Sense. It’s the exact same personal letter, punctuated in two different ways. After reading them both, I think you’ll agree that proper punctuation can spell the difference between … well, in this case, a second date and a restraining order.
My Dear Pat,
The dinner we shared the other night–it was absolutely lovely! Not in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine anyone as perfect as you are. Could you–if only for a moment–think of our being together forever? What a cruel joke to have you come into my life only to leave again; it would be heaven denied. The possibility of seeing you again makes me giddy with joy. I face the time we are apart with great sadness.
P.S.: I would like to tell you that I love you. I can’t stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
Isn’t that sweet? And now here’s the same letter, punctuated differently:
Pat the dinner we shared the other night. It was absolutely lovely–not! In my wildest dreams, could I ever imagine anyone? As perfect as you are, could you–if only for a moment–think? Of our being together forever: what a cruel joke! To have you come into my life only to leave again: it would be heaven! Denied the possibility of seeing you again makes me giddy. With joy I face the time we are apart.
With great “sadness,”
P.S.: I would like to tell you that I love you. I can’t. Stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
Isn’t that scary?
And doesn’t that settle the question about the relative importance of punctuation?