An alligator recently killed a human swimming in Southeast Texas. Obviously, this is a tragedy, but could better punctuation have prevented it?
A sign at the marina where the the alligator bit reads, “No swimming alligators.” More precisely, it reads:
The victim probably simply ignored the sign. He may, however, have read it literally, and taken comfort from the reassurance it provided.
Consider these three possible punctuations:
Even the most literal-minded swimmer would understand this sign as a warning to people not to swim because of the presence of alligators.
Only a highly literate alligator could respond appropriately to such a sign; it forbids alligators to swim.
The literal meaning of this sign is that there are no swimming alligators in the marina. There may be swimming fish, swimming dolphins, swimming birds, swimming dogs, or non-swimming alligators lurking at the bottom of the water, or possibly jumping about, but no alligators that swim are present.
Granted, the sign has a larger space between “swimming” and “alligators” than between “no” and “swimming,” but this space, while it may prejudice the reader against the literal reading of the sign, certainly does not offer the clarity of a colon.
Of course, there is context. The sign maker presumes that humans who are potential swimmers:
- recognize that alligators do not read,
- give the sign maker credit for knowing that alligators don’t read signs, and
- assume that there is no need for signs to alert them to the absence of alligators, or to the inability of local alligators to swim.
Linguists call considerations of this kind pragmatics. In general, oral speech relies on pragmatics more heavily than written speech, and with good reason. In oral communication, intonation and facial expression help to disambiguate among possible readings. A friend alerting a swimmer to the presence of an alligator will show some anxiety, while a casual observer noting the inability of local alligators to swim may seem puzzled, surprised, or curious.
It would be best for safety warnings to use precise punctuation, rather than to rely on pragmatics alone to clarify otherwise ambiguous words.