Friday, September 23, 2005
Pesky Punctuation Mark
"Shift-8" on a keyboard may not seem like a powerful player when it comes to the written language, especially compared with letters or numbers. But this summer, I discovered how important a role it can play. Since writers aren't the most healthy people in the world, I decided to champion my poor, neglected body and lose a few pounds. I also started taking fish oil capsules, which are supposedly why Scandinavia is full of robust, energetic ninety-year-olds.
"Ten calories each," I thought, glancing quickly at the label. "This is good stuff."
After fifty days of dieting and taking fish oil capsules, that terrible red digital counter on the scale actually climbed to a higher number instead of obeying my desperate command to "STOP! STOP!"
That's when I took a closer look at the label on the bottle of fish oil capsules. Instead of 10 calories per capsule, as I had thought, the number actually read 10*. At the bottom of the pill, the asterisk was explained in extremely small type: "10% of a 2000 calorie daily diet." By overlooking the asterisk, I had consumed 50 pills at 200 calories each, for a total of 10,000 extra calories, adding five "daily calorie intakes" to those fifty days. To put it into perspective, I would have had to run 100 extra miles during those fifty days just to avoid gaining weight — two miles a day per pill.
Thanks a lot, asterisk.
The bad news is that these sneaky characters aren't just on pill bottles. They qualify "great offers" with time limits, hidden costs, and expiration dates, usually described in easy-to-ignore tiny type at the bottom of the page. Like most punctuation marks, asterisks can change the entire meaning of words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire manuscripts. Maybe that's why God, who is passionate about communication and truth, chose writers who were proficient in ancient Hebrew and Greek — two languages with no punctuation marks whatsoever. Especially that shifty-8 asterisk. What you read is what you get. Anyone need half-a-bottle of fish oil capsules?