“So what I said was true,” says Obi-Wan to Luke, “from a certain point of view.”
A friend of mine is making a whole bunch of hats to sell. She has her sewing machine humming away, and every day she adds to the mound of hats, each one a unique design. It’s looking very Bartholomew Cubbins-like around her place.
Well, the other day when I stopped by, she asked, “Kyou no mitai?” — meaning, in Japanese, “Do you want to see today’s?” — that is, did I want to see the hats she’d made that day?
But here’s the way my mind made the word-breaks: “Kyou nomitai?” — “Do you want to drink [alcohol] today?” To which my response was, “Huh?!” (That’s not the sort of question she would typically ask!) We eventually had a good laugh over it. Or at least I did. Her reaction was more a rolling of the eyes. But it all ended well as I admired the day’s hats.
The experience reminded me of something I heard last week. Supposedly a scientific study was done (though it wasn’t verifiably cited — I suspect maybe someone made up the part about its being an actual study) in which a teacher wrote the following sentence on the chalkboard and asked students to punctuate it:
A woman without her man is nothing
According to this tale I heard, the male students mostly did it this way:
A woman without her man is nothing.
And the female students rendered it as:
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Next story: my dad used to tell me about a prisoner in the old Soviet Union who was set free because the jailer in charge of him received orders without punctuation. The commander sent this telegram:
RELEASE IMPOSSIBLE TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA
The commander had intended: “Release impossible. To be sent to Siberia.”
The jailer understood: “Release. Impossible to be sent to Siberia.”
Again, as the old Italian proverb goes: “It may not be true, but it makes a good story.”
Finally, another story of my dad’s: A traveler wandered into town and got along pretty well there, but one feature of the antique setting always mystified him, and no one seemed inclined to say much about the subject. In the center of the ramshackle town where the dusty streets converged, visible to all like some icon of a long-forgotten religion, was a weathered standing stone, tall and narrow, its surface pitted with untold years of sun and rain, freezings and thaws. And still clearly visible, these letters etched into it:
Some travelers who came into the town seemed to understand the signficance of the inscription and would nod or even walk away chuckling, perhaps at some esoteric spiritual enlightenment. Others, like the first traveler, could only scratch their heads and go look for clues in Leonardo’s paintings.
The message for us as writers in all this: have fun with words. Be aware that what you take for granted about a sentence you’ve written may be understood in a nearly opposite way by your readers — do all you can to cover all bases, which normally means bouncing your stories off lots of test readers. And finally, as an editor’s rejection letter once brusquely advised me: “Learn standard punctuation.”
Oh! One more somewhat related note: In “The Star Shard,” now appearing monthly in Cricket Magazine, the main character’s name is Cymbril. I know how I pronounce the name, and I never imagined anyone would think to pronounce it any differently. But during the editing process, the editor asked me whether the C was hard or soft — was it “SYMbril” or “KYMbril”? (The editor, by the way, was pronouncing it the opposite of how I was.) I told her my way, but I suggested the Bugs in the margins of Cricket not tell the readers how to pronounce it. The editor agreed.
So then, on Cricket‘s Web site where readers are writing in with questions (www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin), I put the same question to readers: How do you pronounce Cymbril’s name? So far, the results are 50/50 — the Symbril school and the Kymbril school! What do you think?