Just Above Sunset
April 25, 2004 - The Panda as seen from Canada, Paris, Boston Georgia and Chicago ...
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.
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
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
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.
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?”
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.”
This issue updated and published on...
Paris readers add nine hours....