Friday, November 26, 2004

Two pandas and some commas

Now here's a funny thing. Odd, anyway.

I am reading Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This is a how-to book for writers, based on a workshop for writers which the author gave in 1996. In the introduction, Ursula says that she offered the course (and wrote the subsequent book) because she had met a lot of writers who were 'afraid of semi-colons and didn't know a Point of View from a Scenic Vista.' Not surprisingly, therefore, an early chapter deals with punctuation.

Midway through the chapter, Ursula offers a story which I will reproduce here absolutely verbatim:
I will now tell the Panda Story to illustrate the importance of the presence or the absence of a comma. This panda walked into a tea shop and ordered a salad and ate it. Then it pulled out a pistol, shot the man at the next table dead, and walked out. Everyone rushed after it, shouting, "Stop! Stop! Why did you do that?"

"Because I'm a panda," said the panda. "That's what pandas do. If you don't believe me, look in the dictionary."

So they looked in the dictionary and sure enough they found Panda: Raccoon-like animal of Asia. Eats shoots and leaves.

Now -- ladies and gentlemen -- those of you who are English, and possibly those of other nationalities too, will immediately recognise that this (very old, I suspect) story is essentially the same as the one which Lynne Truss used to give her the title, and raison d'etre, so to speak, of her big hit of last year Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

With one critical exception.

In Lynne's version of the story, and hence in the title of her book, she has an extra comma. As in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

What are we to make of this? I have given the matter deep thought, and I have decided that what we have here is two pandas with differing standards of education; or possibly outlook on life. Or both.

First, Ursula's panda is clearly, and sadly, a bit of a dimmo. His dictionary tells him that a panda 'eats shoots and leaves'. This, I dare say, is literally true. I have to admit that I have no first-hand knowledge of the diet of pandas, but as a piece of zoological data the statement seems unexceptionable. But this particular panda lacks a sound working knowledge of the importance of correct punctuation, and so he regards the four words as an instruction to take three separate actions. Indeed he goes further, and seems to read into the alleged instruction an implication that he must not just 'shoot' harmlessly into the air but commit murder. This demonstrates a lack of proportion, in addition to, in all probability, a misspent youth.

Lynne's panda, on the other hand, appears to be a little brighter. He derives the justification for his extraordinary behaviour from a 'badly punctuated wildlife manual' (at least if the Guardian is to be believed). So he evidently went to a tolerably good school, or paid attention during the lessons, and as a result he has some appreciation of the importance of a strategically placed comma. He grasps the point that 'eats, shoots and leaves' carries a different meaning from 'eats shoots and leaves'. Nevertheless, he too is of a somewhat literal turn of mind. He fails to appreciate that if his wildlife manual is indeed badly punctuated, then it might be wise to exercise caution about the interpretation of what appears in it. But no. He likewise regards the four words quoted as an instruction which it is compulsory to obey on every occasion, rather than merely an observation about what happens from time to time -- perhaps among badly behaved pandas. So he too equips himself with a firearm and proceeds to perform the three steps of the instruction. Though in Lynne's version of the story homicide is avoided; possibly because he has consumed a ham sandwich in a bar rather than a salad in a tea shop.

Hmm. There is considerable food for thought here.

Mind you, I myself am inclined to agree with the reviewer in the New Yorker, who pointed out that, if we are going to introduce commas into our list of three terms plus a conjunction, we really ought to have two commas: as in 'eats, shoots, and leaves'. The regular use of this second comma is one of the early admonitions of our old friends Strunk and White, who tell us that the second comma is often referred to as the 'serial' comma.

We must earnestly hope that neither of our two pandas went on to become a serial killer.


DeAnn said...

Truss' version is definitely the right one here. Without the comma it means what it's supposed to mean. What in the heck was Ursula thinking?

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