Tricky thing, punctuation. One of our reporters came into the engine room today gleefully brandishing a press release promising "free drugs and driving leaflet".
Yes, we all understand that the press release is referring to a leaflet warning of the hazards of driving while under the influence of recreational drugs. But as written it seems to be offering free drugs in addition to a leaflet on driving. The author of the press release would no doubt point out that the meaning is clear in its context, and all the ambiguity does is raise a cheap laugh. But in many contexts, from technical manuals to legislation, meaning must be made unambiguous.
In the case of that drugs leaflet all that's needed is a colon or, if you take the belt-and-braces approach, a colon and a brace of hyphens so the phrase reads "free: drugs-and-driving leaflet".
Alternatively, recast the phrase along the lines of "free leaflet on the danger of driving under the influence of drugs".
In my case an English teacher rammed home the importance of punctuation with the sentence: "King Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off." This apparent claim of regal life after death can be sorted out with a single full stop: "King Charles I walked and talked. Half an hour after his head was cut off."
The ambiguous Oxford comma
1 week ago