Thursday, January 10, 2008

Punctuation is Meaning

My wife is reading an interesting punctuation book (which up till now I would have considered an oxymoron): Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss.

The title comes from the following joke: A panda walks into a cafĂ©. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. “Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

A most interesting tidbit from the book is that ancient Hebrew (as well as all ancient languages) did not have punctuation. This is yet another reason why “following the Bible literally” doesn’t save you from interpretation. Language is a tricky thing.

Luke 23:43

Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
(Salvation is immediate, Protestant)
Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
(Allows room for purgatory, Catholic)

Isiah 40:3
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the
.” (The person in the wilderness points to the Lord)
The voice of him that crieth: In the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the
.” (The Lord comes from the wilderness)

Comfort ye my people” (go out and comfort my people)

Comfort ye, my people” (just cheer up, people)

Less controversial are these simple jokes:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Dear Jack,

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 not feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?

Dear Jack,
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?


I am always under the false impression that writing is the best way to communicate, because you can take the time to think through what you want to say, and say it exactly how you meant to. And yet, it is so easy to get it wrong when translating thought to paper, and misrepresent what you are trying to say. So much of communication is not actually the words, but the inflection and the expressions. Writing allows for more precision, but it takes a lot of extra work to get the tone just right. Often, a raised eyebrow or a soft murmur would have communicated the same thing with much less effort.

It will all be better once we learn to read minds, and can do away with this primitive language business. After all, people's thoughts are much less incendiary than their words.

1 comment:

Fingtree said...

I'm not sure about the thoughts being less incendiary than words.
Words historically have been put to paper. Paper burns much easier than thoughts.