Quick fix reduces pain and saves lives

Quickly, off the top of your head: What’s the most powerful punctuation mark in the English language?

If you chose the exclamation mark, you have a bright future in (bad)vertising. I learned this from my creative director: “If you’ve written something well enough, you don’t need exclamation points.” And also, “They’re the equivalent of shouting.”

Especially when you combine them with all-caps. OVER 200 DOORBUSTERS!! AT 8 PM!!!! LOWEST PRICES *EVER*!!!! AAAUGHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Or perhaps you chose the period The period is useful because it tell us when we’ve reached the end of a sentence, of course And I must admit the English language would be very difficult to read indeed if there were no periods (a sort of “literary menopause,” I suppose) Pardon my terrible pun It’s late and I’m punchy

But although periods certainly make it easier to navigate a block of text, with a bit of effort you can still suss out the meaning.

That’s why I would submit to you that the most important bit of punctuation in the English language is … drum roll, please … the lowly comma.

I came to that conclusion last night, after this headline caught my attention:

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 10.43.14 PM

First, let me clarify that I don’t mean to mock the blog (which I greatly enjoy) nor Ronnie Custer (who I’m sure is a lovely person and not at all a pain). A “running byline” is a stylistic choice for many superb publications, including — until recently — my former publisher’s start-up, MinnPost.

Minnpost funny

Nevertheless, it beautifully illustrates my point: Commas. Change. Everything.


Still not convinced? Consider this example:

Let’s eat grandma.

Let’s eat, grandma.

The first sentence suggests an especially disturbing brush with cannibalism, whereas the second is merely a friendly invitation to dine. See? Commas really do save lives.

Ditto in this example:


OK, so the one on the left turned out to be a hoax. But still … you see my point.

Alright. Now that we’ve learned to identify missing commas, let’s test our skills, shall we?


Toilet for disabled elderly

And THANK YOU for reading!!!


  1. Oh, I do love the mighty comma and cringe when it is not appropriately used. I trust you have seen the great little tome, Eats,Shoots and Leaves. (There’s a picture of a panda on the cover.) I wrote about it once. Thanks for the great examples and reminders!

    • I adore “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” In fact I thought of quoting from it a bit, but ran short on time. I’m glad (but not at all surprised) to know you’re a fellow fan. 😀

  2. I have great affection for the semi-colon because it suits the way I think (and write); in sentences that roll in like waves on the shore; endlessly. But the humble comma can be a delight if injudiciously omitted. For example, my favourite headline from a newspaper during the Second World War: BRITISH PUSH BOTTLES UP THE GERMANS. Ouch!

    • Thank you, Mariano! It’s nice to know there are others out there, like me, who find grammar hilarious. 😀

  3. Great post. I bought Eats, Shoots & Leaves from Shakespeare & Co in Paris a long time ago. Having bought it I walked round the corner for lunch and began reading the book. I laughed out loud so much I almost got thrown out of the restaurant. I loved the greengrocer’s apostrophe – Apple’s – Pear’s etc.

    ExpatScot mentioned a favourite newspaper headline. Mine comes from the Korean War: PATTON FLYS BACK TO FRONT!

    • How wonderful to imagine you laughing so loud that you risked eviction from a restaurant, Des. (I had quite the same reaction to Eats, Shoots and Leaves too. It remains among my favorite books on the English language.)

      And don’t get me started on ambiguous headlines! I’ve been collecting them for years — though I hadn’t run across that beaut about Patton’s fly before. Hahaa!

Leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s