When punctuation makes the difference between a second date and a restraining order

frustratedBecause I co-authored a book about punctuation, Comma Sense: A FUN-damental Guide to Punctuation,  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 punctuation,” 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?”

So here’s my answer to him:

Dear Young Friend:

The problem with “Why sweat punctuation; as long as the meaning of the words comes across, isn’t that all that matters?” 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.

John

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:

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,”

John

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?

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • nisperos

    John, John!

    OMG, it's like "Yesterday" again!

    Hat tip to Huey Lewis…

    We must be getting old — NOT

    When we catch ourselves razzing

    The "young" men and "young" women…

    "You crack me up, you really really do

    With your sunglasses on, acting so young

    Only I know what you're really up to

    You crack me up…"

    And, from Bruce Hornsby…

    Camp in line, marking time –

    Waiting for an iPhone of mine,

    'cause I don't have a job.

    The man in the business suit hurries by,

    As he catches the college student's eyes,

    Just for fun, he asks, "got no job"?

    They say, "Hey punk kid, you've slipped low", But who'll reap what they sow,

    'cause they can't do what you do?

    Said, "Hey old man how can you stand

    To talk that way,

    'cause you'll have to pay

    To get what I have…

    I wish…

    BTW, not to name drop my town again or anything, but Bruce Hornsby is going to headline New West Fest, our end of summer street party, here in Fort Collins on August 18th, followed by Los Lobos on August 19th!

    http://www.coloradoan.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?A

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Oh. So, we won't be moving there, then.

    HA! Insulting famous musician jokes! ALWAYS FUNNY!

    Fort Collins is still TOTALLY at the top of our list. It had been, perhaps, eclipsed by Austin–until we found out Austin is, like, the most allergen-ladened city in America. Not good for us.

    So far, Fort Collins is the place to beat. Portland also good. And I think we have a couple of other Definite Contenders. All the information we collected here has been amazingly valuable…

  • http://thoughtpresslife.com Andy

    John! I absolutely loved that post. And thanks for the comment on my blog. You will love my friend's new blog called the Grammar Vandal (http://www.thegrammarvandal.com.) I've been posting about some of her best posts and some terrible grammatical errors I have encountered, like restroom signs that say 'Mens' and 'Women'.

  • Teacup

    That P.S. One of the best I’ve ever heard.

    The difference between a second date and a restraining order. Simply classic!

    Thanks for a good morning laugh.

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  • arlywn

    ouch… that second one was not a good one at all.

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  • http://helly.tripod.com Helly

    Now there’s a book I need to get! It will go right on my shelf next to Thomas Parrish’s “The Grouchy Grammarian” :-)

    As for the “love note”: sounds like an extended take on the “woman without her man is nothing” joke ;-)

  • Christine

    Actually…..can’t…..breathe……laughing too hard!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://hadesnew.ru/ dobriybot

    И правда креатив…супер!

    • n.

      “Truly creative. Super!”

      How’s my Russian phonetic reading?

  • PJ

    This is so fantastic, thankyou!

    I hope you don’t mind I linked this in a blog I wrote for uni about why punctuation is important! :)

    Keep up the brilliant work.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thank you! It’s fun to think of anyone looking at this old post and digging it. Sweet!

  • Sue

    Thanks for this! My favorite: “In addition to his wife,with whom he shared 35 years of marriage and his mother, he leaves……” Lawrence Eagle Tribune


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