The Importance of Punctuation

by David

Last night I was in a class where we learned about the importance of punctuation in Spanish. Consider this sentence:

Un señor tenía un perro y la madre del señor era también el padre del perro.

Here’s a literal translation:

A man had a dog and the mother of the man was also the father of the dog.

The exercise was for us to try and place a single semi-colon in the sentence to make it make sense. And we can’t have the mother of the man being the father of the dog at the same time.

So where would you put the semi-colon?

Take a second to go back and try to place the semi-colon before reading on.

I wasn’t able to come up with the answer right away, although perhaps for native Spanish speakers it’s more obvious. Here’s the answer:

Un señor tenía un perro y la madre; del señor era también el padre del perro.
A man had a dog and the mother (of the dog); of the man was also (the man also owned) the father of the dog.

The sentence doesn’t work so well in English, but works perfectly in Spanish.

Woman and her man

This exercise reminded me of a joke I heard where an English professor walks into the classroom and writes the following sentence on the board, and instructs the students to insert the proper punctuation.

Woman without her man is nothing.

The male students wrote:

“Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

and the female students responded with:

“Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Eats, shoots and leaves

Which leads us right to the famous panda story.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and starts shooting at the other patrons.

“Why did you do that?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it at the waiter.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, walking out the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda– Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Which, of course, should have read “Eats shoots and leaves”.

Julia, Irene and Soledad

Then there was the poor guy who was in arrears because he had three lady friends– Julia, Irene and Soledad– and all three of them thought they were the love of his life. He penned a poem to let them know what he really thought.

Si obedecer es razón
digo que amo a Soledad
no a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene
no aspira mi amor a Irene
que no es poca su beldad

Of course each one of these three ladies interpreted the poem as she wished.

Julia thought he meant:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que ¿amo a Soledad?
no, ¡a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene!
no aspira mi amor a Irene,
¿qué? no, es poca su beldad.

Irene took it to mean:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que ¿amo a Soledad?
no, ¿a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene?
no, ¡aspira mi amor a Irene
que no es poca su beldad!

And of course Soledad read it as:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que amo a Soledad;
no a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene.
No aspira mi amor a Irene,
¿qué? no, es poca su beldad.

In reality, it was all a misunderstanding, since what he really meant was:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que ¿amo a Soledad?
no, ¿a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene?
no, ¿aspira mi amor a Irene?
¿qué? no, ¡es poca su beldad!

An ambiguous will?

And if that wasn’t sad enough, let me finish with the will (testamento) that un señor dejó al morir:

“Dejo mis bienes a mi sobrino Juan no a mi hermano Luis tampoco jamás pagaráse la cuenta al sastre nunca de ningún modo para los jesuitas todo lo dicho es mi deseo.”

Now pretend you’re Juan, then Luis, then the tailor, then one of the jesuitas and try to punctuate this will. I’ll post the answers after a few days.

6 Comments  leave one »


06.May.2008 - 5:10 pm

This post made me laugh. It’s amazing how the placement of a comma or some other little piece of punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

 
#1
07.May.2008 - 2:31 pm

>> It’s amazing how the placement of a comma or some other little piece of punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

You’re absolutely right. We have to be careful how we write, or someone might misinterpret us.

 
#2
21.Jun.2008 - 9:02 am

A Duke is facing a firing squad the next day, but his sister is friends with the princess. The Siberian prison gets a telegaph from the Tsar reading “Execution Impossible Reprieve” and the messenger boy says the operator forgot to transcribe a comma.

Is it: “Execution Impossible, Reprieve”
or
“Execution, Impossible Reprieve”

Punctuation can be a matter of life and death

 
martin
#3
29.Jun.2008 - 3:58 am

I love your blog, gracias por la inspiración!.
This post in particular was very interesting even for a native speaker and teacher like me.

 
#4
30.Jun.2008 - 11:06 am

@Martin, That’s another great example of the importance of punctuation!

@Dariana, You’re very welcome. Es un placer ser de servicio para otros. :)

 
#5
05.Mar.2009 - 12:58 pm

Un señor tenía un perro y la madre; del señor era también el padre del perro.
A man had a dog and the mother (of the dog); of the man was also (the man also owned) the father of the dog.

The sentence doesn’t work so well in English, but works perfectly in Spanish.

……
Sorry, that text above doesnt work in Spanish either

 
#6

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