The Importance of Punctuation

Punctuation can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence. Without correct punctuation, the intended meaning is not known and in most probability, the reverse meaning is highlighted. As an interesting example, the following excerpt from the comedy play “Ralph Roister Doister”, written by Nicholas Udall (Headmaster at Eton), sometime during 1551-1553 is given. This play is also known as the “first regular English comedy”.

In this play, Ralph Roister Doister is convinced by Matthew Merrygeek to woo Dame Christian Custance, a rich widow, who is already affianced to Gawyn Goodluck. Merrygeek reads a letter, which is a love letter, intended to  convince Dame Custance of Ralph Roister Doister’s affections and good intentions towards her.  Merrygreek’s reading aloud, which ignores the punctuation, communicates the reverse of what is intended.  He reads (in part):

‘Sweet mistress, whereas I love you nothing at all,
Regarding your substance and riches chief of all,
For your personage, beauty, demeanour and wit
I commend me to you never a whit.
Sorry to hear report of your good welfare.
For (as I hear say) such your conditions are
That ye be worthy favour of no living man;
To be abhorred of every honest man;
To be taken for a woman inclined to vice;
Nothing at all to virtue giving her due price.’

The actual intention of the piece is as follows:

‘Sweet mistress, whereas I love you – nothing at all
Regarding your riches and substance, chief of all
For you personage, beauty, demeanour and wit-
I commend me unto you. Never a whit
Sorry to hear report of your good welfare;
For (as I hear say) such your conditions are
That ye be worthy favour; of no living man
To be abhorred; of every honest man
To be taken for a woman inclined to vice
Nothing at all; to virtue giving her due price.

~0~

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