Does punctuation matter?

In 2003, the world was taken by storm by a little book called ‘Eats Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss.  Although teachers have been banging on about the importance of punctuation for time immemorial, there was suddenly a full-blown pedants’ revolt, with guerrilla sign-painters adding apostrophes to shop signs across the UK.

In it, she tells the story of how a panda, when asked to pay for its meal in a restaurant, fires a gun and runs from the establishment – after pointing to a wildlife book which states it ‘eats, shoots and leaves’.

Unfortunately in this day and age, though, a significant proportion of people still think that punctuation doesn’t matter – and even some prominent language companies insist on a house style which sometimes leaves a lot to be desired in terms of syntactic ambiguity, with draconian rules on the Oxford comma or semi-colon.

A lot of emphasis is put on the words used in localisation, with stories of unfortunate mistakes abounding, but much less attention is paid to punctuation, although even misplacing a lowly comma can sometimes lead to very costly consequences.

For example, in 2014, an Oregon dairy was forced to pay $5 million in compensation to disgruntled drivers, after it refused to pay overtime for ‘marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution’.  In a huge 29-page ruling, the judge found that this meant ‘packing for shipment’ or ‘packing for distribution’, and therefore that overtime would be paid for distribution itself.

We’re not sure whether this is more or less harrowing than the time a celebrity found ‘inspiration in cooking her family and her dog’.  On the surface, it seems obvious that extra care needs to be taken with punctuation where there is clear ambiguity, but these examples demonstrate that ambiguity isn’t always clear.  A skilled writer or translator will take care all the time, making sure their work is easy and pleasurable to read.

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