Behold, the Power of a Comma
Last night, after Liz and I finished our Chinese take-out dinner, we cracked open our fortune cookies. Like most people, we immediately swapped fortunes to see what the other person received. When I looked over hers, I noticed something interesting in how the sentence was printed out.
In her fortune, there was an odd line break. I’m sure this was due to the space available, and was the result of some program or printer automatically wrapping the sentence to two lines. But because I’m a fan of poetry, I pay special attention to line breaks (which usually signal a pause) and enjambment (where a sentence or phrase is broken by a line).
I realized that, depending on how you read the fortune, it would yield two very different messages: one message implores you to be cautious; the other message implores you to throw caution to the wind.
To highlight how powerful the line break can be, I decided to scan the fortune and add in a bit of punctuation. Here’s the before and after:
Behold, the power of a comma!
I love how these two very different meanings exist, side by side, separated by something as small as a comma. I love what it says about the malleability of the English language. And most importantly, I love what it says about the human condition – how each of us chooses to interpret the world, in such different and divergent ways.
I’m reminded of a really old, random comedy bit by the comedian Richard Jeni. At the time, he was hosting a show on the A&E Network and talked about the importance of pauses, and how they could drastically alter a sentence’s meaning.
During his show, the tagline for the network was: A&E: It’s time well spent.
To highlight his point, Jeni pronounced the tagline with a lot of pauses in between. His version was: A&E. It’s time, well… spent.