Because 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:
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?