Thursday, November 21, 2013

The absence of a comma

Yesterday, while passing through the picturesque lakeside town of Center Harbor, New Hampshire, I stopped to read an historical marker (pictured). The marker commemorates Belknap College, a local institution.

Because of limited space, many historical markers raise questions that they don’t answer. For example, the Belknap College marker’s headline is
which raises the awkward question of why the college lasted only 11 years. The text doesn’t answer it. Indeed, the text raises and fails to answer an additional question: How did the students and the locals get along?
While Degrees were earned, all who attended gained lifelong skills, enduring friendships and a fondness for Center Harbor and its residents who welcomed them.
Don’t you feel that a comma is missing after the word “residents”? You’re right. A comma in that place would mean the residents in general welcomed the students and the students in turn gained a fondness for the residents in general. The absence of that comma, if interpreted literally, means few residents welcomed the students, and the students in turn gained a fondness for those few residents only.

We may never learn the truth about who was fond of whom. But we can probably safely assume that the committee that composed the text did not consciously omit that comma; they omitted it unconsciously. For, if the committee had openly discussed that comma, they would have recognized that to omit it would be uncharitable. Everyone understands that the solemnity of a historical marker requires especially tactful and gracious language.

So when the literate visitor to Center Harbor stops to read that marker, he considers the committee members careless but not uncharitable.

The Takeaway: Be careful with your punctuation. A single mistake can embarrass you. And if you are ever responsible for text that will remain in the public eye for centuries, be especially alert – and ask a careful editor for help.

See disclaimer.

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