Why Punctuation is Everything

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by S.A.M., Aug 6, 2007.

  1. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

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    An English professor wrote these words

    "A woman without her man is nothing"

    on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.


    All of the males in the class wrote:

    "A woman, without her man, is nothing."


    All the females in the class wrote:

    "A woman: without her, man is nothing."
     
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  3. ashpwner Registered Senior Member

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    i don't get it
     
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  5. Read-Only Valued Senior Member

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    Perhaps you haven't learned to read correctly? The punctuation makes a TREMENDOUS difference in those statements.

    The first one is saying that a woman is worth nothing if she doesn't have her man.

    The second one is saying that a man is worth nothing if he doesn't have a woman.

    And it's examples like those sentences AND your reaction to them that explains a whole lot of the confusion that exists here on these forums AND out there in the real world. Simply put, many people aren't educated enough to properly understand the written word. (Or are simply too lazy to notice the difference.)
     
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  7. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

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  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    * * * MODERATORS COMMENT * * *

    Please avoid personal insults in the Linguistics subforum. We attract an extremely cross-cultural membership and misunderstandings can easily be triggered by inflammatory remarks. Not everyone is as thick-skinned as us Americans. Our goal is to encourage people to study the nuances of language, not to ridicule them for missing one. You could have answered this question in a more professorial way.
     
  9. Read-Only Valued Senior Member

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    Sorry, Fraggle, it was NOT meant as a personal insult at all. Nor was it intended as ridicule. The meanings and differences of the sentences was quite clear to anyone with an average reading ability and I believe that's why Sam posted them in the first place. I thought, therefore, that what I said was an obvious conclusion to reach.

    Perhaps you are correct about one thing, though - that I could have acted with more professionalism. Many times in different threads I've stressed the consequences of miscommunication and I suppose my method of directness also came through after having repeated those assertions so many times already.

    As you so eloquently pointed out in one of your threads, many people do not punctuate properly either through a lack of knowledge, failure to pay attention to detail or just plain laziness. But those same exact problems apply to the reader as well. And THAT was the point I was trying to make in this case - nothing more.
     
  10. Challenger78 Valued Senior Member

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    Whoa, dude, That is so true... perhaps i should pay more attention in english class, my first reaction was the the second answer was right... is this a sign of a sexual bias or is it just inbred in all males ?
     
  11. Ripley Valued Senior Member

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    Read-only hit on me on more than one occasion. Not meant as an insult, my foot.
     
  12. Read-Only Valued Senior Member

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    Please show me some of those 'occasions.' I've never, ever intentionally insulted anyone personally. Some very stupid ideas, yes. Some utter nonsense, yes. Some woo-wooisms, yes. Some rambling diarrhea of the mouth, yes. But personalities, no.
     
  13. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

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    Why punctuation is important in certain very specific situations i

    I've got a number of problems with the above. 1) I think the sentence is fine without anything more than a period. That sentence would probably mean what the poster is claiming all the males in the class intended/interpreted.
    2) A woman: without her, man is nothing." does not strike me as a very good sentence. 'Her' when not the possessive is generally used to refer to a woman, but 'man' in general would be without many individuals. Without 'one' perhaps. Or 'Woman: without her, Man is nothing.' Note the capital letter additions. Those sentences work better, I think. In fact the women's example seems clunky and, without its context, confusing, if we are going to be fussy and perfectionistic. 3) The vast majority of sentences do not end up have these potential cross meanings and those that do are generally clarified by context. And a great many sentences that are perfectly punctuated STILL require that context for their meanings to be clear. The fussiness around punctuation critics is that they view sentences are monads that must be perfect, when in fact this is rarely necessary and not linguistically true as a theory. 4)

    To me this English professor while building a general case from an exceptional example. And an example that is vastly less relevent on online discussion forums than in college let's make perfect documents and put people through hoops settings.

    I also think the story is partially urban legend. I truly doubt the gender lines broke down so perfectly. I say this not because of my opinions about men and women and their gender expectations and biases, but because I doubt their abilities to find the right grammatic structures to express their biases. That every woman decided to use a colon and use it correctly, I just don't buy. (and if the men had needed colons ((feel free to come back with some bad puns)) I doubt they would have thought of it either.)

    The story and the examples seem part of a smug overestimation of the importance of punctuation perfection. A self-congratulatory portion of the professor's myth of his or her own importance. A vastly better approach would be to take actual examples from students' writing where the professor had trouble understanding the meaning. This could be distributed and let the students experience the problems directly.

    Having this made up example is a power move. Using concrete and living examples from the students' own writing is method that would trust their own decision-making around how perfect they want to be, rather than implying that there is a perfection and they must always strive toward it. The theoretically sound solutions found by the men and the women above are not perfect, which is not something I would care about if they were not being used as propaganda. (I am reacting this way to this post because it has shown up in the thread dealing with how correctly we should write here in an online forum. In that context I find it irritating the professor deserving of the fussiness he directs, no doubt, at others.)
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2007
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    As a lifelong English tutor, writing instructor and editor, I agree with the posters who assert that only a small minority of English speakers would interpret this sentence in the second way if it were written without punctuation, or punctuated properly with only a period. The second version uses a rhetorical device that is the mark of a highly-educated person, something of an academic, and would be regarded by many readers as downright stilted if it were encountered in everyday prose.

    Furthermore, we must remember that the basic purpose of punctuation is to compensate for the extra-linguistic cues carried by the bandwidth of oral communication, including pauses, speed, volume and tone. (Tone in Indo-European languages but not in Sino-Tibetan and other families.)

    If we read the unpunctuated sentence aloud casually, the first interpretation is unavoidable. We would recite the words in a steady cadence and it would sound perfectly normal. Those commas in the first punctuated version do not represent pauses that most of us would insert in speech, and I daresay most of us would write the sentence without the commas as a faithful transcription of actual speech. The pauses add dramatic effect to speech and would only be heard in a more formal context such as a lecture or a sermon.

    The colon and the comma are required to force us to reinterpret the sentence in the second way, to interrupt the cadence after only reading two words and not having a clue as to what will follow. They force us to insert the pauses that alter the way we parse the sentence.

    I agree that this "example" is probably apocryphal. Perhaps during the early 1970s at the militant apex of the femininst movement, when stickers proclaiming, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," were sold for actual money and glued onto actual auto bumpers, female university students might have chosen the second interpretation just to make a point. But if they encountered that sentence in writing, even though it would make them shudder, they would have recognized it as the work of an unreconstructed male supremacist and parsed it in the unpunctuated way.

    After all, we read sentences linearly. We don't know how they are going to end.
    But it's easy to do unintentionally. Of all our subforums, this is the one where it's appropriate to stress that point.

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  15. John99 Banned Banned

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    Without punctuation it means both things and both are correct. Show a similar example where one is true and the other false.
     
  16. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

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    Try this

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  17. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

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    John said Oli has missed the point.
    John, said Oli, has missed the point.
     
  18. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

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    Duh, I see what he meant. Now. :bawl:
     
  19. Read-Only Valued Senior Member

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    I really, really like that example! And to undescore the importance of it, we've got several people here - for whatever reason (laziness, sloppiness, etc.) - will write it just as in the first example and think that they've said the second.

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  20. John99 Banned Banned

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    That was good Sam, i loved every word of it.

    Looks like a good example.

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  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    I insist that without punctuation only the first meaning can be logically inferred. We do have orthographic conventions in English, after all. Commas can be omitted in casual writing. Colons: never. No one without an interest in language and a little extra time on her hands is going to even notice the second interpretation of that sentence.
     
  22. mikenostic Stop pretending you're smart! Registered Senior Member

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    Umm, correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't the second sentence have quotation marks around 'John', and 'has missed the point.' in order to be correct? Fraggle?
     
  23. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

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