Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Bah, punctuation. It’s a subject that most people cast aside, because they don’t feel that it is particularly important. These same people will tell you that, so long as the right meaning gets across, you don’t need perfect punctuation. However, it is precisely through the right word order and punctuation that you are able to provide the right meaning.

Rather than tackle every punctuation mark in the book, I thought I’d focus today’s Grammar 101 post on just one of them: the comma. It’s such a simple little mark, but it can make a dramatic difference in the meaning of any given sentence. (Check out my post on colons and semicolons too, should you feel so inclined.) Let’s have a look at a few prime examples.

1. Let’s eat, Tweety!
2. Let’s eat Tweety!

These two sentences have drastically different meanings. The first implies that you are having a meal with Tweety, while the second implies that the cute little bird is the meal. Sylvester might be more inclined to use the latter.

1. Celebration Pavilion, Queen Elizabeth Park
2. Celebration Pavilion Queen Elizabeth Park

Even if you are not writing a complete sentence, a comma can be very important in purveying the right meaning. The first example shows you that Celebration Pavilion is in Queen Elizabeth Park. There is a clear separation between the two names. The second example isn’t quite so clear; it could just as easily be Celebration Pavilion Queen, Elizabeth Park. That’s not the same at all.

1. Woman, without her man, is nothing.
2 .Woman, without her, man is nothing.

Once again, we see the importance of placing the commas in the right places. The first example is saying that a woman is nothing without her man, while the second is saying that mankind is nothing without women. These are two entirely different meanings and it’s the comma placement that determines which is which.

1. Jim needs a camera, battery and case.
2. Jim needs a camera battery and case.

Even in something as simple as a list, a comma can change the meaning. The first example says that Jim needs three items, whereas the second says that Jim only needs two items (a camera battery and a camera case). It’s up to you whether or not you want to have a comma before the “and” in the list. Both ways are correct and acceptable.

Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of the power of the comma comes from the book by Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. “Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry, and sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Words are powerful things. Change just one letter and you could have the completely opposite meaning. The exact same idea applies to punctuation. Be careful with those commas, periods, and apostrophes. You might not be saying what you think you’re saying at all!