In the Beginning was the Word. Then Came Punctuation.

Maybe before the fall of humankind, there was not punctuation. Whatever the case, it is here now. As readers we need to learn to notice punctuation. First of all, it can change meaning.

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For most people punctuation is just one of the reasons people don’t like writing. Our worries about commas and such sap the joy out of self-expression, maybe because we had an English teacher who made us feel inadequate, or maybe because we’re just insecure and don’t want to risk making mistakes.

I wrote in the last post about critical reading and punctuation. Reading punctuation along with the words can enhance the reading, can even add meaning. In that post I used an example from fiction, and now I will demonstrate what I mean with a nonfiction piece of text. In the following lines, taken from the book of John, here is Jesus, reassuring his disciples:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.*

I am fond of long, drawn-out sentences. If I read this from a student, I might first think they have a god-complex, but then I would think about some sentence-combining activities I could suggest.

However, this example is a good reminder that sometimes shorter is far and fundamentally better. Consider this revision:

In this world you will have trouble, but take heart because I have overcome the world.

Nothing changed but the punctuation and adding the word because to connect the last two sentences. It still ends on a hopeful note. All the same information is there.

But what has changed?

  1. The comma after trouble lets us skim on through, while the period in the original forced us to stop and linger just a bit. And isn’t that the way with trouble? The greater the trouble, the longer the pause on that stupid little dot.
  2. Let me be clear: I am not a fan of exclamation points! I apologize for raising my voice. However, after stopping a bit on that comma, this exclamation doesn’t feel like shouting; instead, it is exactly the emphasis we need in times of trouble.
  3. Combining the last two sentences with because is the one revision I did see in other versions. It makes sense because there is clear cause and effect and connecting them makes the implicit connection explicit. Here’s though why I like the original. Putting because before “I have overcome the world” makes it a subordinate or dependent clause. In other words, it is no longer a standalone thought: it now depends on the words take heart. I think Jesus meant it as a complete thought, not dependent on anyone’s feelings or worries, which is why it works best as its own sentence, why three separate sentences work best: these aren’t unrelated or disconnected ideas in any way, but they are separate.

Words have power, meaning. We read words. But if we learn to read the punctuation as well, the words can have even more power, more meaning.

*John 16: 33, New International Version. Of the several versions I looked into, only one punctuated the sentences differently.

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3 thoughts on “In the Beginning was the Word. Then Came Punctuation.

  1. I love this. As a teacher of writing, and a writer, I believe in the power of making intentional choices. If you look at my blog, you’ll notice that I break a lot of traditional rules myself. I do this on purpose – to add emphasis or to jolt my reader into stopping and contemplating. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

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