Punctuated Equilibrium

I find this a little bit amusing. Not the whole thing, just one part of it. The whole thing is a discussion of Eve Garrard’s second piece on Amnesty International at Normblog. That’s not particularly amusing, turning as it does on the murder, torture and general pushing-around of millions upon millions of people around the world. No, not an amusing subject. What amused me was just one item at the end of Chris’ post.

Finally — and I’m picking nits now — Eve writes that “the idea that the force of an argument should be materially altered by an (allegedly) misplaced comma is … delightful and charming.” It may be, but my complaint focused not on the force of the argument but on its meaning , and it is pretty commonplace that commas can and do alter the meaning of sentences: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Well there you are, you see. It’s not only tiny words (she not he, here not there, on not in) that can alter the meaning of sentences, it’s little marks that don’t even represent a vocalization, that represent at most a pause or a tone of voice (? sounds one way, ! sounds another), but can separate an adjective from a noun or change a noun to a verb or otherwise change the meaning of a sentence.

I’m all the more aware of this because it comes up in proofreading, at least it does when I’m the proofreader. The editors of TPM like to make fun of me for adding a comma at the end of a list. Well, ha ha, very droll, but I have my reasons – because commas do make a difference. The one at the end of a list is optional, it’s true, but I often like to exercise the option and insert it, especially when the list in question is a list of phrases rather than single words. A list like ‘this, this, this, this and this’ is not too bad, but a list like ‘this does that, that does this, those did these and these did those’ can be confusing – it can be unclear whether the last clause is actually two clauses separated by ‘and’ or all one clause with an ‘and’ in the middle. Unless you add a comma before the ‘and’ – which is why I often do just that. So mock mock mock all you like, but it does make a difference. As, of course, Eats, Shoots & Leaves has reminded everyone lately.

But then other times – for instance when I’m writing as opposed to proofreading – I leave commas out with wild abandon. I perpetrate chaotic unpuncutated headlong sentences of a kind that one is taught not to perpetrate when one is twelve or so. Not invariably, but it’s something I have a tendency to do. Some sentences just seem to need to be uttered all in one breath, without punctuation (i.e. without pauses), so I write them that way. Then on reading them I sometimes realize – they will work if readers hear them exactly the way I heard them in my head – but what is the likelihood of that? So sometimes I decide to punctuate them in a more conventional manner. But not always. Yes, that’s nice; and your point is? Nothing – just that even commas, even those little tiny silent marks, are something one can lavish thought on, and that can alter the meaning of sentences. Odd, isn’t it.

I wonder if commas have Theory of Mind.

9 Responses to “Punctuated Equilibrium”