If your social media newsfeed is anything like mine, you frequently see friends sharing images like the one below:
If you saw this and didn’t immediately laugh, I can explain. Greenpeace and other animal organizations have been campaigning for a long time against people violently killing animals like baby seals. At one point, “Stop clubbing baby seals” was a slogan for these campaigns (with “clubbing” meaning “hitting forcefully”). However, if you put a comma between “clubbing” and “baby seals,” it now sounds like you want the baby seals to stop going to nightclubs and to stop having their fuzzy bodies take up so much space on the dance floor. The absurdity of baby seals in a nightclub makes it especially funny. The overall point is that something as simple as one comma can change the meaning of even a very short sentence.
Another image shows that punctuation can be a matter of life and death:
The version without the comma suggests cannibalizing the elderly, whereas the version with the comma invites the grandmother to join a meal.
If you want to avoid unintended meanings created by comma usage, one strategy is to read your sentences out loud. Be sure to pause wherever you’ve used a comma and see if that pause affects the meaning of your sentence.
I love that internet humor is drawing attention to the usage of punctuation, but it occurs to me that these sentences of 3 and 4 words are not nearly as complex as the sentences that many students compose in their academic writing. Luckily there are some good guides to comma usage available online, such as the following:
And for more punctuation humor, check out the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (available in many bookstores and libraries, including the Durham Tech library).
Written by: Karin Abell