[Note: This is the prepared text of a speech given to the Portland UCG Spokesman's Club on January 27, 2013. The speech, as delivered (which was a bit shorter) ended up getting the Most Effective Speech award.]
Throughout this world, one cannot help but notice that there are many causes to help people save lives. There are campaigns against drunk driving, for wearing seat belts, for avoiding excess in one’s eating and drinking, and to deal with the illnesses and diseases that befall so many of us. We are used to wearing ribbons for such causes as supporting the health and well-being of soldiers or those who struggle with breast cancer. But have we ever considered the lifesaving role of good punctuation in our communication? Probably not. Today, I would like to examine the importance of good grammar by looking at how commas can save or take lives, how commas can change our view of the Bible, and how punctuation marks can help save us from unnecessary conflict and stress.
It is a fact little understood that the humble comma has a vital role in helping to save lives. Let us consider the contrast between two pandas. The first panda walks into a bar, and eats shoots and leaves. With no commas, this is a peaceful herbivorous panda who eats the shoots and leaves of the bamboo plant and means no harm to anyone. The second panda walks into a bar, eats, shoots, and leaves. Without changing anything but the punctuation, this panda is not a peaceful bamboo-eating friend at the bar, but rather a cold-blooded murderer who eats before shooting his victim and leaving the scene of a crime. Let us also consider the difference between two invitations: “Let’s eat, grandma” and “Let’s eat grandma.” The first of these is a call to our grandmother to come to dine with us. The second is an invitation for grandma to be the main course for the Donner party. Which would you prefer? Again, we see that the presence or absence of a simple comma is the difference between life and death.
The humble comma can also drastically change our view of the Bible. Let us take one example in the interests of brevity. We know, of course, that there was no punctuation in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Any punctuation we have was added when the Bible was translated into those languages, like English, were punctuation is vitally important as we have already seen. Luke 23:43 reads very differently with the different placement of a single comma. It can be read: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” or it says, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” There is a very wide difference between the meaning of these two sentences based on the location of a single comma. The first sentence, which is how most translations write this verse, claims that because of the “good thief’s” profession of faith, he would enter into paradise that very same day with Jesus Christ. Of course, we know that not to be so because the day that Jesus Christ was on the cross, he did not enter into paradise, but rather he entered into the grave for three days and three nights. This verse, as understood, would make Jesus a liar. The second understanding says that because of what the thief said that day, he would enter into paradise with Jesus Christ in the future, presumably at His return when the righteous dead are raised into eternal life. Again, a great deal of importance is placed on properly understanding the right place to put a comma.
Let us now, in the brief time left to us, look at how punctuation can save our lives. There is a wide difference between a polite “what are you doing?” and a frantic “What are you doing?!” The difference between these two ways of communication can be the difference between life and death. Given the amount of unnecessary conflicts many of us deal with, especially online when tone is difficult to convey and understand, and given the fact that high blood pressure and heart attacks are a threat for many of us passed down from our fathers, how we use punctuation, based on how we communicate with others, can be the difference between life and death. It can be the difference between being seen as friendly and curious or being seen as rude and bullying and obnoxious, and it can be the difference between a life of peace and happiness and a life of stress and conflict ending in an early death. Let us therefore chose our punctuation wisely.
Today, I have examined three ways that punctuation can save lives, either by stopping the rampages of murderous pandas and cannibalistic feasts, by helping us to understand the Bible better, and also by helping us keep stress under control and avoid unnecessary conflict. Given the importance of punctuation in our lives, let us resolve ourselves to choose our punctuation wisely. Let’s start saving some lives today.