Just Above Sunset
April 25, 2004 - The Panda as seen from Canada, Paris, Boston Georgia and Chicago ...

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This book has been in the news for months, and Jonathan Kay posts this quick overview on the web log run by The National Post - a rather dull Canadian newspaper, as you might know.


There is a weird phenomenon going on in Britain: The hottest book on the market is about ... punctuation.  It’s called Eats, Shoots and Leaves and over 500,000 people have purchased it.

The story behind the title describes why punctuation is so important:

A panda walks into a bar. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

"Why? Why are you behaving in this strange, un-panda-like fashion?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda walks towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."


The problems of this world are directly related to punctuation?

Well, maybe not all the problems of this world....


Deborah Vatcher, whose fiction appears in these pages (see Martha's Secrets, Goat Farm and The Ride) comments –


I requested this book from my local library last week - and still haven't received it.  When I checked with them today, they told me that I was number fifteen on the waiting list.  So I might have to wait quite a long time before I borrow, read and digest this one.


Ah yes, it is a popular book – as it is even discussed in Paris.  Ric Erickson reports this book being discussed at the regular club meetings of MetropoleParis – on Thursday, 8 January here.  And he discussed the implications of punctuation and web publication, in regard to this book, on Tuesday 13 January in his Metropole Café column.


But the final word comes from Rick Brown, late of Associated Press and CNN but still in Atlanta, or Decatur, or some such place.


Actually, this charming author lady was on the air all last week (NBC "Today Show," NPR "Morning Edition") discussing her book.


Well, the link embedded in The National Post item above will take you to the NPR interview.  Rick gives an interesting detail on that – and then adds his own detail one really and truly needs to know.


When asked about the possibility of someone buying up the movie rights, she said she asks only that Julia Roberts play the part of the semicolon.


But stickler that I am (and which I wouldn't be, were I not such a compulsive proofreader), I must argue that the joke behind the title doesn't quite work, simply because it's hard to believe any wildlife manual would make this peculiar error, that of placing a comma in there for no particular reason.


So, in fact, the way the joke OUGHT to go is that the Panda is stopped on his way out the door, they ask him why he did what he did, he shows them the section of his manual that mandates it (which, by the way, should specifically reference the "Giant" panda, since there are also "Red" pandas, which are not from China, look sort of like fluffy raccoons, and, I think, eat something entirely different.)


But when the bar patrons point out to him that there actually IS no comma in the definition, and explain that his actions would only have been true-to-form HAD there been a comma in there, the Panda is absolutely mortified, but also relieved to learn he doesn't have to do this stuff anymore, especially the "leaving" part.  So he hangs around for a few more beers, over which everyone swaps shaggy dog stories, a genre the panda finds absolutely delightful, and with which he has been heretofore totally unfamiliar, surprising as that may seem, given his line of work as a character in a "shaggy dog" story.


But the true controversy, an example of which is in the title of the book, is, of course, the issue of the "serial comma."  According to classically correct grammatical rules (although probably not those you learned in school), the punctuation of the title "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" is incorrect; it should read "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves."  (Note the comma after "Shoots".)


From whence does the incorrect rule of leaving out the comma before the last conjunction originate?  Researchers have traced it back to the Associated Press Stylebook!  Apparently newspapers invented to rule as a way of saving column space.  But AP (and certain British grammarians) notwithstanding, American experts almost universally concur that the comma, which we all leave out, should stay.  Why?  Because deleting it opens up the possibility that the reader will be fooled into thinking the last two items in the series are somehow connected.


An example from a restaurant menu: "Choice of mixed vegetables, potatoes, soup and salad."  What if you choose "the third one" - should you complain when the soup arrives without the salad?


Can anyone think of other examples that might lead to similar confusion?


Neither can I.  Which brings up the question, Why is this such a controversy?


Or, maybe more to the point, Why did I bring this up in the first place?


No reason, really. Just being chatty.


Well, I raised the troubling issue, a matter perhaps whimsical, perhaps not….  The problems of this world are directly related to punctuation?   Well, maybe not all the problems of this world.


Ric in Paris wrote back.  Some of them?”


Perhaps so.


And in a final flurry of puns, this from Sally in Chicago – “Whimsical punctuation?  It's a comma mistake.  Hyphen thinking about it for a long time.”




Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....