Punctuation saves lives

Barney Zwartz ponders his own grammar obsession, how language changes over time, and the precious gift of words.

My new T-shirt arrived yesterday, from a design-your-own slogan outlet in the US. It reads: “Let’s eat kids./ Let’s eat, kids./ Punctuation saves lives.”

My grammar obsession dates back decades – in previous lives I lectured theological students on grammar so they could learn Greek, and newspaper sub-editors so they could edit more confidently.

I am not puritanical: grammatical guidelines enhance communication, but they are not set in stone – they do evolve (go on, split that infinitive!). My T-shirt highlights that a tiny piece of punctuation can change meaning in profoundly important ways.

Face to face communication may rely on body language, but we can’t do much without words. We can’t convey theoretical information, we can’t analyse, we can’t even think without words. The richer your vocabulary, the richer the possibilities of your thought life.

Words change too. I regret some – the use of disinterested to mean apathetic rather than impartial, or the use of “hurting” to convey suffering rather than inflicting pain (it used to be a transitive verb, as in “she’s hurting him”), or the loss of contrast between imply and infer, which people now often use interchangeably. They narrow the options.

But many changes enrich our lives, for example much of the vocabulary that has flowed from the pandemic – think “covidiot” (someone who breaks lockdown), “doomscrolling” (constant indulging in bad news), or “quarantini” (a lockdown drink). All are excellent examples of how language unites us.

God thinks the word so important he creates by it – “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … Through him all things were made.”

Words are a precious gift. Treasure them and use them wisely – even if this is a classic case of do what I say, not what I do.