Why Punctuation Matters: 'A Man Eating Shark' or 'A Man-Eating Shark'?

'A sentence may be deprived of half its force . . . by improper punctuations'

commas matter

As the examples in this article demonstrate, punctuation affects meaning—sometimes dramatically.

Here's Edgar Allan Poe reflecting on the point of punctuation:

That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood--this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils, arising from heedlessness or ignorance. It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force--its spirit--its point--by improper punctuations. For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid. . . .

There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality, and cannot be brought within the limits of intelligible and consistent rule. And yet, if fairly looked in the face, the whole matter is so plain that its rationale may be read as we run.

(Edgar Allan Poe, "Marginalia." Graham's American Monthly Magazine, February 1848)

With Poe's observation in mind, consider the difference in meaning or force in each of these sentence pairs.

Periods​​​​​​

I'm sorry you can't come with us.

I'm sorry. You can't come with us.

Commas with Interrupting Phrases

The Democrats say the Republicans will lose the election.

The Democrats, say the Republicans, will lose the election.

Commas with Direct Address

Call me fool if you wish.

Call me, fool, if you wish.

Commas with Nonrestrictive Clauses

The three passengers who were seriously injured were taken to the hospital.

The three passengers, who were seriously injured, were taken to the hospital.

Commas with Compound Clauses

Do not break your bread or roll in your soup.

Do not break your bread, or roll in your soup.

Serial Commas

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Oprah Winfrey, and God.

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Oprah Winfrey and God.

Colons and Commas

A woman without her man is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Quotation Marks and Commas

"The criminal," says the judge, "should be hanged."

The criminal says, "The judge should be hanged."

Hyphens with Compound Words

I saw a man eating shark.

I saw a man-eating shark.

Apostrophes with Contractions

A clever dog knows its master.

A clever dog knows it's master.

Apostrophes with Possessive Nouns

The butler stood by the door and called the guests names.

The butler stood by the door and called the guests' names.

Basic Rules of Punctuation

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
 

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