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August 27, 2011

Do We Really Need Punctuation?

Do we really need all those commas, colons, apostrophes and all those other strange punctuation marks? That's what a student asked me....

...several years ago.

My teaching style is that I like my students to come up with their own answers.

I remind my students that punctuation marks are like traffic signs on the road - these marks tell the reader when to slow down, stop or pay extra attention.

Here's one example I show my students. Notice that the words are identical; the punctuation and meaning, however, are entirely different.

Dear John:
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?
Jane

Dear John:
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,
Jane

There is also the famous story of the early telegraph days, before punctuation, of a business inquiry. The subordinate, based in a distant country, asks if he should make a major purchase. The boss sends a short telegram "No price too high".

Did he mean "No. Price too high" or did he mean "Yes, no price is too high"

I love the fine tuning that diligent punctuation allows.

But what about spelling?

As much as I value correct spelling, I always like little puzzles like this;

TH15 M3554G3 53RV35 TO PR0V3 H0W 0UR M1ND5 C4N D0 4M4Z1NG TH1NG5! 1MPR3551V3 TH1NG5! 1N TH3 B3G1NN1NG 1T WA5 H4RD BUT NOW, ON TH15 LIN3 YOUR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 1T 4UT0M4T1C4LLY W1TH OUT 3V3N TH1NK1NG 4B0UT 1T, B3 PROUD! 0NLY C34RT41N P30PL3 C4N R3AD TH15.

So maybe, just maybe, punctuation is even more important than spelling!

I confess to being a word nerd, and I love the many possibilities and contradictions in a language as flexible and fluid as English.

Send us any words or phrases that make you crazy and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.

Morf

About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf is currently a radio host (http://www.tacoma.fm/) and a newspaper columnist http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/columnists/morf_morford/ and would love to do either one of those somewhere else in the world.


Posted by mmorf at August 27, 2011 11:18 PM

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