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.

 

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