Does Punctuation Really Matter?

In 2014, I was laboring over the galley stages of my book on sovereignty and free will, called hand in Hand. (The small h in the title is deliberate, as is the capital—our little hand, God’s infinitely big Hand. And while capitalization isn’t exactly punctuation, it can be very significant.) Even at the final stages of the book, after looking at it dozens of times, and other people finding things I hadn’t, I was still finding errors, some of them very small, such as commas that misled or a lack of a comma—a reminder that punctuation really does matter.

For instance, sometimes we have exactly the same words, but the punctuation makes a radical difference in meaning. For instance, consider the sentence “Let's eat, Grandma!” The same words with a single change in punctuation are, “Let's eat Grandma!” (Which may be an actual line in a Stephen King book.)

Here’s another example from online:

An English professor wrote the 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."

Punctuation is powerful!

I saw this somewhere, but after looking online I’m still not sure who to attribute it to. Here are two identical letters written by a woman named Gloria to a man named John. The words in each are identical. Only the punctuation differs.

Letter one:

Dear John,

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? 


Letter two, identical except for punctuation:

Dear John,

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?


Still, punctuation isn’t exactly life-changing stuff, is it? There’s a story, presumably apocryphal, that demonstrates how it could be.

A prisoner was about to be executed. He stood with a noose around his neck, on a platform that would soon be dropped. Suddenly the telegraph operator ran across the yard yelling, “Wait! I just received a telegram from the governor!” Breathlessly, he read it: “Pardon. Impossible to be executed immediately.’”

They removed the noose and walked the man away. Then the telegraph operator came running out again. “Wait!” he cried, “I got the punctuation wrong. It says ‘Pardon impossible. To be executed immediately.’”

Well, punctuation usually doesn’t matter that much, but it does matter.

photo credit: Damian Zeleski via Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries