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I spent a couple of class hours today on the topic of punctuation. If you're suppressing a yawn, I'm sorry, but I thought I might share my take on the subject anyway — "schoolstyle," as I like to say. If you are tired, by all means sleep, but please try not to snore. I don't mind subjunctively underjoined students in the classroom, just log-sawyers who doze, alas, 'too noisily.'

The lesson was historical, beginning so:


It was like the Fall of Man when some "woman" naturally got the point about spacing, I said.

That's when we got flows like this:

woman without her man is in paradise

You can image the bloody battle that followed — sharp swords of punctuation drawn — with half my class going at the other half's jugular, so to speak.

"Woman, without her man, is in paradise," some said.

"Woman! Without her, man is in paradise," replied others.

The noise was awful, and the blood worse (I hate to see young people sacrificing themselves so).

But judging from some Dear-John letters I then shared, you'd hardly know who won at last. You can see why for yourselves:

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?


Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?


As you can see, punctuation is problematic.


Syntax, prosody, and semantics — punctuation affects each of these. A single choice in punctuation can change the meaning, structure, tone, and rhythm of a sentence. A mark of punctuation can convey a special kind of meaning that cannot be achieved any other way. Punctuation is no small matter. In fact, billions of dollars may be at stake as is the case in this classic punctuation puzzler.

The Will

Directions: This multibillionaire failed to punctuate his will. Pretend that you are one of the interested parties (Mort, Sam, George, Louise, or the Judge), and punctuate the will so that you will get everything.

I Aristotle Rockefeller Hughes being of sound mind do hereby declare this my last will and testament as delivered this day October 8 2002 to my lawyer Mort Mert who will get every cent of all my billions I will leave everything to one individual to my brother-in-law Sam who has lived for years off my refrigerator and out of my wallet nothing to my partner George who boggled everything he did nothing nothing to my sister Louise who turned him in to the Judge all I own is hereby thus bequeathed upon my death

Posted by Darby C. Cavin on October 10, 2002 03:27 PM

Wonderful. I've passing acquaintance with Aristotle (the Philosopher, not the shipper), sent a kid to Rockefeller's pricey U. of C., and worked in the early '60's at Hughes's stingy Aircraft Company. I'm of course enchanted by your puzzler, but since I'm not named in the will, I'm going to let Mort, Sam, George, Louise, or the Judge collect. But someone, share the dough, please. By my calculation just a "fraction" of anyone's possible take would be, well . . . I'm spending too freely in my imagination already.

Posted by
Styles on October 11, 2002 12:40 PM

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