Wordsworth

Sometimes, it’s the little things by Noel Hamiel

English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education – sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street. – E.B. White, American writer
When it comes to saying what you mean, punctuation often is as important as the words themselves.
Humorous examples abound of what happens when a lowly comma is omitted.
For instance, look at these two sentences:
“Time to eat, kids.”
Then, omit the comma, and the result, “Time to eat kids” is a cannibalistic thought even the most neglectful parent would not contemplate.
Or this magazine cover headline about celebrity cook Rachel Ray:
“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”
Not all that appetizing, is it? But, a couple of commas, and voila! “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.” (Turns out the magazine cover was a fake, which is probably why it went viral.)
Sometimes phrases, not just commas, make all the difference. A number of years ago the South Dakota Legislature passed a bill that affected meatpacker Morrell’s ability to purchase livestock outside the state.
The measure included this sentence: “A packer purchasing or soliciting livestock for slaughter in this state may not discriminate in prices paid or offered to be paid to sellers of that livestock.”
The legislator’s intent was to protect South Dakota producers, but in court, it was determined that the measure included all livestock purchased, even that outside the state, and Morrell’s challenged the law as an unconstitutional restraint of interstate commerce.
Morrell’s won the case. As written, the key phrase, “in this state,” modifies the word “slaughter” and therefore meant that any livestock, even that purchased outside of South Dakota, would be subject to the law. The phrase would have to be placed after the word “livestock” to mean only animals purchased in South Dakota.
And who is burdened with making sure the punctuation and phrases are correct? The Legislative Research Council, a state agency that drafts bills for state lawmakers.
Taking into account that as many as 600 bills may be introduced, that can mean a lot of commas, phrases, and other minefields characteristic of the English language.
There are 22 full-time LRC employees, the smallest agency of its kind in the nation, said Jason Hancock, director.
Smallest doesn’t mean “last,” as we South Dakotans hear all too often.  In fact, given the flood of words that lawmakers labor to introduce each session – and the absence of lawsuits focusing on language – we can be thankful for the dedicated employees of the LRC and simply say, well done!

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