The Punctuation Police?


Discussions among writers about punctuation sometimes seem like an exercise in extreme nerdiness! All kinds of talk about Oxford commas, em dashes, colons and semicolons. But does it really matter?

The significance of the debate didn’t come to me from a writing group discussion, although it was one we talked about in a recent @rwchat.

I read a New York Times article about the problems court reporters have in understanding African American Vernacular English: link. The lack of comprehension had major consequences for freedom as opposed to incarceration, as well as life or death.

Court reporters are charged with accurately reporting witnesses’ testimony at depositions and trials. They produce transcripts which become the official record of court proceedings. Writers are merely tasked with writing for clarity; diction and punctuation are the means of making sure our words are understood.

I was struck by an observation. The linguists who did the study played audio recordings for the reporters. The researchers then asked the reporters to write what they heard and to paraphrase as well. But they had a difficult time doing each. Yet, the reporters weren’t asked to punctuate.

The article quoted a defendant’s statement: “I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.”

Reading it, I thought about how punctuation might have made the difference in meaning, but that wasn’t even discussed. If I were writing, how would I punctuate a sentence like that in order to convey the character’s meaning?

In oral communication, it is easy to understand pauses and what they mean. In written communication, punctuation matters more because they are markers that help explain the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

So “eats, shoots and leaves” is hilarious, while “eats shoots and leaves” is a mundane observation which doesn’t evoke the same imagery: link.

A misplaced–or even nonexistent–comma can change a whole sentence’s meaning.

An earlier version of this article appeared in my local RWA chapter newsletter.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

December 2, 2021, I’m getting plenty of readers, many of them from overseas, who like this essay. I’m not sure why. I’m guessing you want to learn English pronunciation? Here’s the book I mentioned.