Today, on the BBC website, in an article on the US-Mexico border wall, an important punctuation mark has gone AWOL. A sentence reads ‘A government watchdog is also reviewing compulsory purchases being made along the US-Mexico border with property owners resisting the Trump administration’s efforts to build on private land.’
The missing comma between border and with introduces ambiguity. A busy reader scanning the text could interpret it as meaning ‘the watchdog was reviewing compulsory purchases together with/alongside property owners’. This is in contrast to the intended meaning: ‘against a backdrop of property owners resisting the Trump administration’. Omitting the comma changes the meaning completely.
It might be hard to believe that one little comma could change the core message of an entire sentence, but it can.
Take this comma for instance: ‘It’s time to eat, Grandpa’. You’re obviously calling Grandpa to dinner. Remove the comma and you have ‘It’s time to eat Grandpa’.
Grandpa might not fare so well in the second example.
Remedying this punctuation dilemma
In the BBC news sentence, inserting a comma after border would signal to the reader that additional information is coming. It would tell us that private property owners are resisting the Administration building on their land. This is crucial, particularly when the world is getting its news from this reputable source.
The primary purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. And when it comes to navigating the minefield of ‘fake news’, clarity is all.
Confused about the rights and wrongs of punctuation? Worried about mis-punctuation? Even the most confident writer can make punctuation mistakes that compromise their message. Let’s connect, to establish a better understanding of punctuation, spelling, word history, plain English and so much more! You can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook and The Writing Guy podcast.