Noted in a recent magazine article* was the following side blurb: “Four officials were suspended from their posts for allegedly mismanaging flood in China’s northern province of Hebei …”

In reading the phrase Four officials were suspended from their posts, one might (correctly, in this case) interpret it to mean “Four officials were halted from returning to the jobs to which they were assigned” or some variation thereof, but might one—particularly one for whom English is not a native language—also understand it to mean “Four officials were dangled from their stanchions”?

The culpability for such potential confusion cannot be placed solely at the feet of our poor friends the homonyms. Given the intricacies, subtleties, and complexities of language, it is little wonder that what a person often attempts to communicate to others is not necessarily interpreted as he or she intends by those on the receiving end. Such is a situation that occurs in all forms of communication—with sometimes hilarious or even tragic results—and it is certainly rampant in written communication, particularly with the still additional layer of complexities introduced by the vast universe of punctuation.

Consider, if you will, this second example, taken from The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition, section 6.29, concerning commas with compound predicates:

“She recognized the man who entered the room, and gasped.”

Do you see why the comma is necessary here?

If read without the comma, the reader may incorrectly infer that the person who gasped in this situation was the man who entered the room rather than the woman who recognized him.

Such a tiny piece of punctuation … so profound its impact on the intended message.

(Speaking of tiny pieces of punctuation with profound impacts on the intended message, we invite you to check out our November 2015 article “CMS Says …” for a brief, happy little chat about the hyphen versus the en dash versus the em dash. All distinct, all with a purpose.)

Tread carefully, friends.

In our work, we assiduously focus on an author’s intent and try to assist him or her in selecting the most appropriate words to convey his or her message, as we discussed in our June 2016 article “What We Mean and What We Say.” And by working with writers to increase their work’s clarity, editors can help writers to present themselves and most accurately impart their message, as we explained in our July 2014 article “Can’t You Just Run a Spell Check?”

Finally, we leave you with this bit of dialogue from a story familiar to many:

Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!’”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like!’”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe!’”

—From Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

* “The World This Week: Politics,” The Economist, July 30, 2016.