Cognitive Dissonance of the Comma

Here is an excerpt from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech. Beautiful speech. But can you see what is wrong with how it has been reproduced here?

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny , and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge , not wholly or in full measure , but very substantially . At the stroke of the midnight hour , when the world sleeps , India will awake to life and freedom . A moment comes , which comes but rarely in history , when we step out from the old to the new , when an age ends , and when the soul of a nation , long suppressed , finds utterance . Its fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity .

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest , and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures . Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength . We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again . The achievement we celebrate today is but a step , an opening of opportunity , to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us . Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future ?

The glaringly obvious problem: there is a space before every comma, full stop and question mark. It is so obvious only because your brain wasn’t expecting it; the brain has certain ideas about how these should be used which clashes with how the above snippet uses them. I call this conflict cognitive dissonance of the comma.

(I do realize that cognitive dissonance may not be the most appropriate term to use here. However, it’s pretty close and makes it sound like I know what I’m talking about. Maybe I do.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that people are going around thinking “this is how a comma should be used” all the time. Neither am I suggesting that people will have any problem in understanding the above — our brain is capable of ignoring such aberrations to some extent, thus allowing us to understand what is being said. But years of setting expectations for the brain takes its toll. When expectation isn’t met the brain takes notice, at least at a sub-concious level. I can’t imagine a prose where you would want to divert the reader’s attention towards the punctuation — the only accomplishment would be to take away some of the focus from the message.

I have heard some very amusing reasons for why people continue to use punctuation like this. The common theme seems to be: “I like it this way. I find text more readable when it is this way.” Great, so your brain is wired differently from most other people; nothing wrong with that. But the question you need to ask yourself is: “Who am I writing for? For myself or for others?”

Another mistake in the above reproduction — one that is not as obvious but far more common — is the use of “its” where “it’s” should have been used. http://www.its-not-its.info/ does a great job at explaining the difference, so I’ll not attempt to repeat it here. In summary: “it’s” is just short for “it is” and “its” indicates possessiveness.

Yet another mistake that I notice being made very often (this is not present in the above snippet): using “few” when one means “a few.” This is a big problem because the meaning is the exact opposite! “Few” has a negative connotation, indicating an almost complete absence where as “a few” has a positive connotation, indicating the presence of something. This discussion at the EnglishForums.com offers some good examples: Difference between ‘few’ and ‘a few’. Here are a few posts from PluGGd.in, a popular blog on Indian startups, where this mistake has been made in the title of the post itself:

(My intention for pointing to PluGGd.in is only to show how common this mistake is, not to pick on them; Ashish, the guy who runs the blog, is a friend.)

When PluGGd.in says “Content Filtering: Few Great Lessons from Twitter and FriendFeed,” it seems like they want to say that Twitter and FriendFeed have done a terrible job and offer almost no lessons we can use, when, in fact, they list out some very good lessons they have gleaned out for us!

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