Don’t underestimate the power of that punctuation mark

In a previous column, the important role that punctuation marks, notably the comma, full stop and semicolon play in giving meaning, direction and flow to writing was discussed. A missing or carelessly placed punctuation mark can significantly alter the message one intends to put across.

Commas, as we understand, are used to introduce a new part of a sentence. Sometimes the commas enclose a parenthesis.

The semicolon is used to join two sentences and sometimes, in the place of a conjunction. The full colon is used to introduce a clause that explains the preceding one. For instance, ‘He took his family with him: Wife, daughters and sons.’

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Going through writing, particularly in the print media, online editions of the print media and the ubiquitous social media, one cannot fail to note the omission or misplacement of punctuation marks.

Thus, one has to strive to make sense of some comments. I have come across the argument: ‘If you understand what I am talking about, why bother with punctuation marks?’  In a way, such an attitude is defeatist.

Not communicating

Many years back when I was in Form Two, my school secured the services of a biology teacher of Indian descent; fresh out of India, complete with the sing-song Indian accent.

At first, it was difficult to tell whether she was ‘rapping’ or talking. Added to which, even as our minds and ears struggled to adjust to her style, it was never apparent where the punctuation marks in her sentences lay.

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We were frustrated, but she was even more frustrated because she was not communicating. During her lessons, we spent most of the time exchanging glances, giggling and laughing at her.

Two months down the line, she quit the job and flew back home. The culprit, as I have already said, was lack of proper communication.

Properly placed commas help those reading your work to determine which words go together in a sentence and on which parts of the sentences the emphasis is.

At times they mark the beginning of an interjection, for instance; “Hey, did you just call me an imbecile?”

What meaning would you derive from the same sentence without the comma?  “Hey did you just call me an imbecile?” 

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In this case, is ‘Hey’ an interjection or somebody’s name? The bottom line is that what makes you to be clearly understood is the placement of that comma.

Let us consider a few examples to emphasise the importance and power of the comma. It is common to hear men and women in love refer to each other as ‘honey’, ‘sugar’, ‘baby’ and other such endearments. Consider the following sentences: “Let us eat, honey” and “Let us eat honey”.

Urging others

Both sentences have the same words in the same order but mean different things. Because of the comma, in the first statement, one person is urging another one (his or her lover) to eat.

The same is not true of the second sentence. It could have been made by an individual in a group urging others to eat honey, or it could be two people about to eat honey.

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In “I need a camera pack and case” and “I need a camera, pack and case”, the same words mean different things.

In the first sentence, the person to whom the request is made understands that only two items are needed – a pack and a case. The pack is specifically for cameras.

In the second sentence, reference is made to three distinct things; a camera, a pack and a case. The pack, in this case, has no direct relationship with the camera. That distinction is made by the comma.

Finally, let’s look at the complementary nature of man and woman. “Woman, without her man, is nothing” and “Woman, without her, man is nothing”.

The first example clearly means that a woman is nothing without her man, while in the second example, it is the man who amounts to nothing without the woman.

Before rubbishing the importance of that punctuation mark, particularly the comma, think again.

A lot of people have lost court cases they should have won because of a misplaced or missing punctuation mark.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard. [email protected]

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