Tag Archives: punctuation

Comma Placement, Panda Character, and Bible Translation

A  useful and delightful aid for anyone who, attempting cogent communication, might like a rule or two about punctuation marks such as apostrophes or commas, Lynne Truss’s best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves really is balm for the souls of English language “sticklers”—English majors, copy editors, writers, etc.—the sorts of folks who, lest the world fall into chaos, hold serious opinions as to whether or not the possessive of a proper noun ending in “s” requires simply an apostrophe or also another “s.” Is it Curtis’ or Curtis’s? (I’m not sure I’m happy about it, but modern usage and rules tend strongly toward the latter; Truss does say, though, that the possessive of “Jesus” is always formed by adding the apostrophe only. Good.)

Even the title of Truss’s (note the possessive) book makes me smile. Two pandas adorn the dust jacket. One is on a ladder inserting a comma after “Eats,” and the other is walking away, two-leggedly upright, holding a pistol in one paw. You see, the installation, or not, of that comma matters. (And you can count me firmly in the camp of the “Oxford comma”—comma in a series—folks who’d argue that, if a comma after “Eats” is included, an additional comma after “Shoots” is also in order.) If you opt for a comma or commas, the panda in question is a full-bellied criminal on the run after assault with a deadly weapon. If you opt for no commas, he’s simply being described as a typical panda.

This sort of thing doesn’t just matter to pandas and fussy English majors. Time magazine has reported that a court in Maine recently awarded five million dollars to a dairy company’s drivers because of “the lack of one Oxford comma” in a list of their tasks “legally exempt from overtime pay.”

Word folks have long found in commas potential for combat. Truss notes the good-natured but real battles between humorist James Thurber and New Yorker editor Harold Ross in the 1930s and 40s. Ross loved commas; Thurber eschewed them, opting for a star-spangled “red white and blue.” Ross, the boss, would undoubtedly go for “red, white, and blue.” Thurber opined that “all those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look.”

Oh, and here’s a note to give one pause. (Why does that make me think of pandas’ paws?) The earliest manuscripts of the Bible were written with basically no punctuation at all. The early manuscripts of the New Testament contained no punctuation AND were written in all capital letters. I survived two years of biblical Greek, which I’ve mostly forgotten, but we rarely messed much with capitals and, since I was never a fraternity member, I’m quite fuzzy on them. Throw me overboard into an ancient Greek manuscript, and I’d be completely at sea.

Everyone’s job is more difficult than anyone else thinks, but Bible translators, a much-maligned and misunderstood lot, deserve combat pay and our undying gratitude. As Truss mentions, punctuation placement in English in Isaiah 40:3 determines whether “a voice” is “crying in [the midst of] the wilderness” or pointing toward the wilderness. Highly-educated translators are incredibly proficient at making good, wise, and defensible choices for such options, or letting us know in a footnote that “options exist, and here they are.” (See the NIV note on Isaiah 40:3.)

We really needn’t worry much about such. I think we can be very sure, and immensely thankful, that we have God’s revealed Scripture and that folks whose job it is to worry about translation and thus punctuation do, on the whole, an amazing job.

But don’t try to tell those Maine dairy drivers, or pandas whose character is in question, that comma placement doesn’t matter.



       You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!



Copyright 2018 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“And So This Panda Walks Into a Café and . . .”

One of the most delightful (“filled with delight”) books that I’ve ever been given (thank you, Betty Little!) is the “Runaway #1 British Bestseller” Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by author and journalist Lynne Truss.

I find it interesting, surprising, and incredibly encouraging that, at least back in 2003 when this book was published, folks had the good sense to buy it and propel it to bestseller status.

You see, this is an incredibly humorous book about a subject crucial to the survival of the human race: punctuation. I’m not surprised to find me spending some time searching the Web to find pros and cons for whether “bestseller” is at its best when hyphenated, not hyphenated, or broken into two words. Working with words is a significant part of my work, but evidently a good many other folks care about such things, too. Wow!

The title of this book (I just said “this book” so as not to have to decide between “Truss’ book” and “Truss’s book) comes from the great word-nerd joke about the panda who goes into a café and orders a sandwich. After the meal, he proceeds to pull out a gun and shoot twice into the air. When the astonished waiter asks why, the panda, on his way out, tosses a “badly punctuated wildlife manual” toward him and says, “I’m a panda; look it up.” The waiter does: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

The joke, you see, is humorously pointing out the importance of the “serial comma.” It’s also known as the “Oxford comma” (since Oxford University Press style required it). A good article in Wikipedia defines the serial comma as “a comma placed immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms.”

Style manuals—even the major ones—vary in their rule on this. It’s the difference between “eats, shoots and leaves” and “eats, shoots, and leaves.” Word people have serious opinions about this. As Truss says, it would be a serious mistake to sit in a bar between two copy editors who hold different opinions on this issue and might at the moment short of inhibitions. I myself am fairly passionate about the serial comma. Use it! Why risk plunging headlong into chaos?

Speaking of chaos, I’m working with a friend right now to decide the style rule for the ellipses (that’s two or more of the little three-dot doohickeys) that show up in his novel. Style guides vary widely (… or . . .). Truss is right: “The ellipsis is the black hole of the punctuation universe, surely, into which no right-minded person would willingly be sucked.” I wish the major style manuals would get their act together on this one. Alas, no. Not even close.

Sometimes a copy editor just needs to take a hike and breathe some fresh air unpolluted by misplaced apostrophes and confused uses of en and em dashes.  It’s good for me to remember that when the Author of life published our salvation, he needed no punctuation at all. Only one Word (John 1:1-14).



You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!



Copyright 2018 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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