I am the delighted owner of a shirt which reads as follows:
‘Let’s eat grandpa.
Let’s eat, grandpa.
correct punctuation can save a person’s life.’
Ironically, the C in ‘correct’ isn’t capitalised, probably because I bought it in a Malaysian bazaar. (And the G in ‘grandpa’ should probably be capitalised as well, but that’s a nitpick for another day.)
Also, once, I wore the shirt to a family working bee and one of my relatives said, ‘Actually… let’s eat grandpa.’ Upon which she bit my grandfather’s shoulder like a zombie. Picking olives all day can do strange things to people, I suppose.
Anyway, this is just one of the many amusing sentences that illustrate the nuances of English, and how meaning can change according to how we use our punctuation. In the example on my shirt, the comma changes the verb, ‘eat’, from a transitive to an intransitive verb by separating it from the term of address ‘grandpa’ (eating the person named, as opposed to eating in general plus the term of address).
I started paying attention to this quirk of English after I read Lynne Truss’ ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. And while I was amused by the titular panda joke (in which an errant comma in a wildlife guide allows the panda to murder his fellow bar patrons before running for it), the example that fascinated me was the love letter. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat:
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?
Say it with me now: awwwwww.
And now behold, as punctuation transforms our love letter into a vicious cease-and-desist!
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?
Those are the same words in both letters. The exact same! In the same order! Yet, simply by changing the punctuation, the meaning is completely inverted.
A while ago, I decided to try this myself.
And it actually worked.
I was thinking of using it as a kind of prologue to Anomalies. However, I cut it for a couple of reasons. Some of the phrasing is slightly unnatural, because there are actually only a few things you can do with punctuation to reverse the meaning of the paragraph (mainly sliding a full stop to the other side of a dependent clause). As a literary friend of mine kindly pointed out, the first sentence is less gripping than the beginning I already had. And it doesn’t really tell the reader anything about what they’re in for, which a good beginning does (usually by revealing something about the characters or the plot).
As a word game for me, though, it was an interesting little puzzle, so I thought I’d share it today.
Our nation is a grand machine. We are its parts, and each must have a purpose.
The High Commander says that we are made to work. For her, for this country, we must find the strength to toil. Until we die, there are no excuses for idling. We are worthless if we are not industrious. We are punished only if we break the law.
Our people can endure endlessly.
We strive and sweat, and we are rewarded with nothing but the best of what our land yields. We must give up sloth and wastefulness; these are vices.
Our enemies accuse us of cruelty.
Is their philosophy better? To never consider the things we could achieve if we worked together?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what we suffer, what trials we face, what misfortunes life has given us. If you are unhappy, it is your own fault. The soldiers tell us this is the greatest and most prosperous country in the world. Productivity rules our glorious nation. There is no end of possibilities for the future. We do not let ourselves think we are tired, downtrodden, unimportant.
We must be thankful for the Wardens, which guard us always; abhor laziness and scheming; and follow the law to the letter.
(Aaaaand… PUNCTUATION POWER!)
‘Our nation is a grand machine. We are its parts, and each must have a purpose.’
The High Commander says that.
We are made to work for her. For this country, we must find the strength to toil until we die. There are no excuses for idling.
We are worthless. If we are not industrious, we are punished. Only if we break the law, our people can endure. Endlessly, we strive and sweat. And we are rewarded with nothing – but the best of what our land yields, we must give up.
Sloth and wastefulness: these are vices our enemies accuse us of. Cruelty is their philosophy.
Better to never consider the things we could achieve if we worked together. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what we suffer.
What trials we face. What misfortunes life has given us.
‘If you are unhappy, it is your own fault,’ the soldiers tell us. ‘This is the greatest and most prosperous country in the world.
Productivity, rules, our ‘glorious nation’… there is no end.
Of possibilities for the future, we do not let ourselves think. We are tired, downtrodden, unimportant.
We must be thankful. For the Wardens – which guard us always – abhor ‘laziness’ and ‘scheming’, and follow the law to the letter.