I love the title of a popular grammar book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It’s a book about the importance of punctuation. If you take the commas out, the words have an entirely different meaning.
In the era of texting we have the same dilemma. Without a voice giving importance to certain words, the meaning can be misunderstood, depending on the mood we’re in.
Here’s an example. “I’d love to come over.” If I heard the excitement in your voice, I’d know you really mean it. I’ll open the door because you’ll be flying in. But if I’m in a bad mood, and I wasn’t sure how well the invitation would be accepted, I might read sarcasm in the tone. My eyes would see the words, but my mind might think, “Oh sure, I really want to ruin my day by coming to your house.”
Where this really gets touchy is when a friend asks for an opinion. I’ll use one of my favorites. “Does that gorgeous dress make me look fat?” A no answer is what I’m looking for, and if the answer is yes, tread carefully. “The color is great on you. The style is different from your usual. I like your black dress better.” Honest answers that tell me “yes,” but don’t hurt my feelings.
Emails are the same. You have opportunities for a lot more words, but if you’re not careful you can inadvertently say something that gets taken wrong. If the person is standing in front of us he or she sees our facial expressions, hears the inflections in our voice, and can better understand if what we’re saying is sincere or snarky.
So what do we do about this? Smart phones understand this dilemma and are adding more and more emoticons to help you convey tone. All those hearts and smiley faces are there for a reason. Emails are harder because they depend on your skill as a writer to avoid misinterpretation.
We can always use the phone as a phone. (Do you hear sarcasm in my words?) Or better yet, if possible, talk directly to the person face to face.
The meaning in written sentences can be changed if we don’t know where the commas go. The meaning in a conversation can be misinterpreted if we don’t hear the inflection in the voice.
We can end up with a crime scene Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, or the dining habits of a Panda in the wild, Eats Shoots and Leaves.