I was recently discussing grammar rules with a friend, and noting how so many colloquialisms and/or “variants” in spelling and punctuation continue to creep into our writing, when I came across this article posted on the BBC website. You will see where readers were challenged to write a thank you letter with two meanings. They had to use the same words–or words that sound the same–but change the punctuation to alter the meaning. Very interesting, and a great illustration of how the wrong (or, right, for that matter) punctuation can challenge comprehension.
It reminds me of the illustration of how changing which word gets emphasis in a sentence can also change the meaning:
“I never said he stole the money” can be understood to mean several things…
I never said he stole the money. (meaning, someone else said it)
I never said he stole the money. (meaning, I implied, or wrote, etc that he did it, but didn’t “say” it)
I never said he stole the money. (meaning I said someone else did it)
I never said he stole the money. (meaning I didn’t say he actually stole the money, even though he had the money)
I never said he stole the money. (meaning, I said he stole something else)
So, when polishing those manuscripts, be sure you have crossed all your Ts and put the commas where you intend. And when in doubt: look it up. Strunk & White is always good, as is CMOS, and a number of worthy sites on the WWW.