“Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.” The title of this famous book on punctuation demonstrates how an extra comma can entirely change meaning. In the book, the extra comma leads only to the punchline of a joke. There is a very serious real-life example, though, in the Nov. 16 Murray State News feature story, “Hiding Guns”:
“Knives, other than pocketknives, swords, nightsticks, karate sticks, death stars, artificial knuckles and bow and arrows are all considered weapons.”
As the sentence stands, the list (pocketknives, swords, nightsticks, karate sticks, death stars, artificial knuckles and bow and arrows) is made up of items that are not considered weapons, while knives that are not pocketknives are the only things considered weapons. Obviously that is not the intent of the sentence. In fact, because of that misplaced comma it says the opposite of what it is intended to mean.
The problem is the comma after “Knives.” Remove it, and “knives other than pocketknives” is one category of weapon on the list that includes swords, nightsticks, etc. Only pocketknives are exempted from being considered weapons.
As the article consists of advice on the new policy from Murray State Police Chief David DeVoss, it could lead students to believe that they can carry dangerous weapons such as death stars or brass knuckles into labs and classrooms.
Mr. DeVoss is not to blame–he was undoubtedly interviewed, trusting the reporter to represent his words accurately.
The reporter who mispunctuated his words is to blame, along with the proofreader, the editor and the faculty advisor.
This error should have been caught and corrected. Otherwise, someone arrested for having one of these weapons on his or her person could get a lawyer to claim that the Police Chief said it was not defined as a weapon. This time a misplaced comma produced much more than a joke!
Finally, because too many people don’t know why the sentence with that comma and the sentence without it have opposing meanings, it should have been rearranged for clarity: “While pocketknives are exempt, all other knives, swords, nightsticks, karate sticks, death stars, artificial knuckles and bows and arrows are all considered dangerous weapons.”
I’m not in the classroom fighting the good fight for accurate language anymore, but this error is just too dangerous not to point it out.
Letter from Jean Lorrah, professor emeritus of english and philosophy from Murray, Ky.