“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).

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