Friday, October 9, 2009

Can a Comma Change a Life? The World?

“That’s ridiculous!” you may say. “It’s just a little punctuation mark.”

Yes, but this little punctuation mark has big implications—and its placement can change the meaning of a sentence in surprising ways. It can also change (or save—or cost) a life. For a novelist whose protagonist finds himself in a life-threatening situation, its use couldn’t be more crucial.

Let’s create a hypothetical scene. We’re writing a Wild West story. Our main character, Jeb Holcomb, has just ridden into Cripple Creek, Colorado, at the end of a long day on the trail. He stops at a saloon for a drink. Sitting alone at a table in the back, he nods a couple of times, downs the last of his second beer, and pushes himself out of his chair. If he doesn’t head over to the hotel right now, he’s going to fall asleep here.

The saloon doors burst open. Two town bums charge into the room on the heels of the sheriff.

One of the derelicts points to Jeb. “Tha’s ’im!”

“Yeah, tha’s ’im!” the other agrees.

“You men sure ’bout this?”

“We seen ’im do it, Sheriff!” The first bum insists. “Shot them folks soon as they stepped foot outta the assayer’s office. Grabbed the bag o’ gol’ an’ ran like a skeered rabbit.”

His companion scratched his head. “Cain’t figure though why he stopped in ’ere fer a drink. If’n it’d been me, I’da hightailed it outta town.”

Jeb looked at the sheriff’s forty-five pointed straight at his heart. “Wh . . . what are ya talkin’ about?”

“You know dang well what we’re talkin’ about,” the sheriff said. “Let’s go.”

Less than an hour later, our hero stands in front of Circuit Judge Rupert Abernathy, whose reputation rivals that of Arkansas’s Hanging Judge Isaac Parker.

The judge drummed his fingers on the bench, listened to the testimony, and scowled at the defendant. “I was about to ride out of town when the sheriff told some idiot thinks the law doesn’t apply to him. Murdered two innocent people and stole their gold. We’re about to show him the law means something in Cripple Creek, at least when I’m here. Seeing as you don’t see fit to hand over those poor folk’s gold, this court finds you guilty of murder. Jeb Holcomb, I’m telling you tonight, you’ll hang for this one.”

Or we could have written it this way: “Jeb Holcomb, I’m telling you, tonight you’ll hang for this one.”

Or we might’ve left the comma out altogether for total ambiguity.

What a difference that comma makes! In its first placement, it offers a glimmer of hope that the protagonist can file an appeal, prove he wasn’t in town when the crime was committed, and get the sentence reversed. The second one, however, dooms our hero to a speedy death. The third option leaves the meaning open for speculation. Our use of that tiny punctuation mark may well have made the difference between life and death.

Could a comma also change the world? Consider the potential of its placement in a treaty that ends a war. Or in a strategic agreement between countries. Or even in the constitution or laws of a nation.

What do you think?

Linda Lane has been writing since childhood and is now an editor, publisher, and author. Two books she edited have won awards, and she is working on a "certification" system to raise the bar on the the quality of independently published and self-published books. Her latest novel, Treacherous Tango, will be available this summer. She owns Pen & Sword Publishers, Ltd., an independent editing and publishing house.

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  1. Ha? Tonight ... or! Oh, the implications...

    Punctuation: (whether a comma, an apostrophe - a colon - or whatever) as well as the other mchanics of English... can make a big difference;

    I love the following example [and Im' very sorry, but I cant' recall where I first read tis example]...

    1. I helped my uncle Jack off a horse.
    2. I helped my uncle jack off a horse.

    Little changes can make a huge difference!

    Cjeers, Jill

  2. It's very early, and my reading skills clearly aren't awake yet... I think I started reading in the middle of the second paragraph about how "it can also change (or save - or cost) a life."

    The whole time I was thinking about the character being in a coma instead of commas! (It's not fault of your own, there are clearly two "m's" in the word everytime you use it.

    Er, onward to the coffee pot!

  3. It is frustrating when I read through my wip, and I realise a comma has altered the whole mood or rhythm of the piece.

    Interesting post, thanks.

  4. I think my favorite example is the Panda who 'Eats, shoots and leaves'.

    The Book title was inspired by a newspaper article, and the book is on ALL those little grammar things (because of course pandas aren't actually homicidal, they just eat shoots and leaves).

    Great reminder!

  5. Love the post and the examples in the comments. Really highlights the importance of knowing how to use punctuation. This series is a great reminder for me.

  6. Enjoyed your article! It was nice to read something about punctuation that wasn't just a list of rules. You made it interesting! thanks.

  7. Very neat example, and a fun read. Thanks.

  8. And a word of warning for anyone who wants to be 'artsy' and take the third, ambiguous option - any actor or director that has to produce your audio book will HATE you (and your book) with a passion ... and will be forced to pick one of the punctuations for you anyway lol!
    (I still can't read Patrick White without remembering the nightmare it was to produce The Aunt's Story!)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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