Strange But True: Celebrate correct use of comma, semicolon

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Q: How did you celebrate Sept. 24? What would you exclaim to make the point?

A: Founded in 2004, National Punctuation Day celebrates the correct use of punctuation. For a quick review: Periods are simple enough, end of statement, end of thought — period. Make that ... and the thought isn't over but is trailing off. Commas are little pauses and aren't much, as Gertrude Stein stressed when she said, "Commas are servile and they have no life of their own," as reported in "Mental Floss" magazine. George Bernard Shaw had similar disdain for the apostrophe: "There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli."

Exclamation marks can be fun as you exclaim one thought or another, that is, underscore it, exaggerate it, shout it out. F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke." For a semicolon, think of half a colon, half a comma — not a full stop but half way. As Kurt Vonnegut joked, "All it does is show you've been to college."

A question mark seems straightforward enough. But is it a real question or a rhetorical one? To denote the latter, a reversed question mark called "punctus percontativus" was used in the 16th and 17th centuries to mark a question for which an answer is not expected. Do you get it?

Q: A month doing what? When a very bright scientist put his mind to mulling research stats and doing the math, what did he come up with?

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A: "Men and women big and small all pee at the identical average rate — between one-third to one-half ounce per second," says astronomer Bob Berman in "Zoom: How Everything Moves, from Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees." This figures to a quart or two a day and a couple of minutes spent expelling it — rarely more than three. Breaking it down, the average woman urinates eight times a day, the average man seven, though up to 13 is not considered abnormal.

"Now adding it all up, a person who urinates seven times daily will require between nine and 27 seconds to do the job per session. We thus dedicate an entire month of our lives to this activity."

Q: Talk about a far-out thought experiment: Would all the water in the universe be enough to drown out our sun?

A: As you probably know, fire is a chemical reaction requiring heat, fuel and oxygen. Remove any of these and the fire will die, says Sam Buckton of Hertfordshire, UK, in "New Scientist" magazine. However, our sun is not like a big candle, running on combustion; rather it's "a giant ball of plasma," running on nuclear fusion. Enveloping the sun in water wouldn't help douse it out; while the water would remove some heat, it would also increase the sun's mass and the pressure inside, speeding up the rate of nuclear fusion. Plus the water molecules "might get hot enough to be ripped apart into their constituent nuclei, providing more fusion fuel. So the sun would actually burn more fiercely and rapidly than before."

But back to the original question: "What if you dumped all the water in the entire universe over the sun?" Because of the coldness of space, it would actually be a tremendous ice dump, increasing the sun's fuel-consuming mass. "Then it would explode cataclysmically as a supernova, destroying Earth and leaving behind an extremely dense neutron star, or even a black hole. I guess you could count that as extinguishing the sun."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com


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