A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward 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.”
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Trust, 2003.
In this case, one comma. Shouldn’t have been there. Without it, we have the panda’s diet. With it, a panda has a meal, discharges a firearm, and walks out of the restaurant…
I suspect I know what you’re thinking: “John, you’re going to blog on punctuation? Really?”
I initially thought I’d be blogging on the challenge of communication. Not all communication; written communication.
But I see that I should simply ask you to jump with me into the deep end of the written communication pool: punctuation.
Ms. Truss notes that the reason to “stand up” (as she puts it) to punctuation is that there is no reliable way to communicate without it.
- A woman, without her man, is nothing.
- A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Two entirely different meanings, by just changing one comma to a colon, and moving another comma one word to the left.
It’s hard enough to keep our grammar unambiguous. I think I can make a pretty strong case (finding ample evidence in my email inbox right now) that our grammar is responsible for an ungodly amount of misunderstanding and hence inflated email traffic.
And then there’s spelling…
But this post is about punctuation!
Extra-marital sex is quite a different thing than extra marital sex… The former is a no-no; the latter; hell yes! That little dash is quite the differentiator!
How about the sign broadcasting a new, large play area for children reading “Giant Kid’s Playground” and soon noticing that nobody is playing there… why? Neighborhood kids and parents alike are all afraid of the giant kid; none of them are crazy enough to play on his playground!
I am quite sure that it takes me way longer to craft an email than the vast majority of my colleagues. While some of it is agonizing over the grammar and spelling, there is a fair amount of gnashing of teeth over punctuation: should that be a comma, or a semi-colon? … Instead of that semi-colon, maybe I should just end the sentence there… Should the “its” be “it’s?” Should the “it’s” be “its?”
I happen to think it’s worth it.
Don’t you just love that apostrophe there?
You, I suspect, think I’m crazy.
You think that last sentence would be better off without those two commas?
I rarely text. I’d be crazy to — I have to punctuate! Do you realize how incredibly cumbersome it is to punctuate while texting? And talk about dangerous! Texting while driving; bad. Texting — with punctuation — while driving? Very, very bad…
So where’s this going? (That apostrophe is perfect too, no?)
Pay attention over the next week to your punctuation. See if you can notice the ambiguity, or possibility of multiple (and unintended) interpretations, just from a comma missing there, or an extra one there…
The cafe waiter would greatly appreciate it.
“Panda… Eats shoots and leaves.” Soooo much better!