Slipping into a comma

Pam
Pam Frampton
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“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone. …” — Confucius

The roadside sign in front of the pizza place in St. John’s proudly proclaimed: Big Lice $2.99.

Not exactly enticing.

As it turned out, the culprit was the missing “s” in “slice.”

It was likely a case of sign sabotage rather than a typographical error or a spelling mistake, but it serves to illustrate the point that if you don’t say it right, your message gets misunderstood or, in this case, becomes horribly unappetizing.

To all those who say punctuation and spelling don’t matter, I say “you’re wrong.” (Not “your wrong.”)

The website write101.com uses this sentence to illustrate what a difference a comma can make:

Don’t stop.

Don’t, stop.

The first sentence encourages action, the other says cease and desist.

Now, typos happen to the best of us. I’ve missed my share of “pubic receptions” and “diary farms” and “jury trails” in proofreading. We’re not perfect, after all, and sometimes we click our way through spellcheck just too darned fast. (In the newsroom, our spellchecker suggests we change “Brian Tobin” to “Brain Toxin.” Tempting. ...)

And sometimes it’s just a matter of not proofing what we write carefully enough.

Once, I was about to hit “send” on an e-mail to my husband at the end of the work day when I realized the subject line said “I’m leaving you” instead of “I’m leaving now.”

I’m really glad I caught that one.

But there’s a difference in missing an error and not knowing one has been made, and therein lies the danger.

If you don’t know you’ve misspelled a word, you don’t realize your message has gone awry.

Driving home on Columbus Drive the other night, road construction meant that some lanes abruptly disappeared and then reappeared. As a result, cars were weaving in and out of traffic. That’s fine as long as everyone signals their intent, but when they don’t, chaos — and accidents — can ensue.

Language is like that, too.

I’m not suggesting that all of our writing has to be formal and by-the-book; the English language offers plenty of room for expression and evolution and informality.

What I am saying is that expressing ourselves accurately is important.

The comma in the example given above signals the writer’s intent.

Here’s another famous phrase where punctuation makes all the difference:

Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Try getting that one wrong in a love letter, guys.

Free-for-all

As an editor, and an avid reader of road signs and product manuals, I see more and more examples of punctuation being ill-used or not used at all and homonyms being used interchangeably.

Grinning and bearing it is OK.

Grinning and baring it? That could get you arrested.

Are you interested in sects? (Yes). Are you interested in sex? (That’s none of your business).

Or how about: Physician, heel thyself! (Maybe a podiatrist).

And more and more in my daily life I see words misspelled or made so vague that they are virtually meaningless.

Police news releases speak of people “breeching” probation or being injured in the “head area.”

This sentence from a 2009 news release conveys the importance of capitalization:

“Suspect was later located by the taxation centre.” (Did the Taxation Centre find the guy? Wow! Who knew buildings could be so helpful.)

And from the same news release:

“(He was) detained to prevent continuation.”

Huh?

Now, police officers have many important skills and not everyone who issues a news release has been trained as a communicator, but if information is being distributed to the media, it should aim to be clear, because if we’re confused, we’re likely to confuse a whole lot of other folks.

As two guys on a mission in the United States have found out, apathy about language precision abounds.

In “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time,” Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson recount their adventures on the road.

Dubbing their campaign the Typo Advancement Eradication League, they travelled in the U.S. and Canada, pointing out typos and misspellings on signs and trying to get them fixed.

While some of the people they approached were pleased to have the errors pointed out and quick to fix them, others were downright hostile.

“Does it really matter?” one woman huffed when they told her the marquee outside her restaurant — “Greek food at it’s best.” — contained an unnecessary apostrophe.

As Deck and Herson note, yes, it does matter.

They cite an example from 2002, when a black spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, named Niger Innis, appeared on MSNBC.

“Picture the worst way you could misspell his name onscreen” they write. “Yeah, that actually happened.”

And in 2008, they say, a “Lunch and Learn” event being held at a Des Moines, Iowa, community college to mark Black History Month was mistakenly billed as “Linch and Learn.”

This is far from funny in a country where racial tensions are still very real.

“Both of those errors were, I’m sure, completely unintentional,” they write, “but they — and the outrage that followed each incident — speak to the dangers of carelessness. …”

So true.

And if you still don’t believe the damage misspellings can cause, check out the blog www.resumark.com, which lists some of the humorous mistakes made in job résumés.

It’s just a hunch, but I suspect the person whose job application cover letter began “Dear Sir or Madman” is probably still unemployed.

Language matters. Choose your words carefully.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. But don’t call her Madman!

Organizations: Taxation Centre, Typo Advancement Eradication League, Congress of Racial Equality MSNBC

Geographic location: United States, Canada, Des Moines, Iowa

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  • Beverley Smith
    August 15, 2010 - 08:31

    You have made an article grate. You have made an article great.