Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Eating Shoots, and Leaving

Posted by Neal on September 7, 2006

Arnold Zwicky at Language Log recently wrote about the the kids’ version of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but had to base his comments on examples quoted in a review on Amazon, since he hadn’t read the book. Well, now I have. My wife bought it to read to Doug and Adam, and they laughed at the funny pictures illustrating, for example, “Eat here and get gas.” However, I don’t think they’ll learn much about using commas from the book, other than that they can make a big difference in a sentence’s meaning.

The best illustrations for using commas are those where one configuration of commas gets you only meaning A, and the other gives you only meaning B. The good news is, these make up half of the fourteen examples in the book. However, the ambiguities arise in various ways; the examples are presented in no particular order; and no general rules are noted at the end of the book, where each example is explicated without noting commonalities with any other examples.

Two of these best-chosen examples involve parenthetical or nonessential material:

  • The kids, who got ice cream, were very happy.
    The kids who got ice cream were very happy.
  • The student, said the teacher, is crazy.
    The student said the teacher is crazy.

In four others, a comma shows whether a noun phrase is some kind of object (of a verb or preposition), or something else (a subject, vocative, or interjection):

  • I’ve finally decided to cheer up, everybody!
    I’ve finally decided to cheer up everybody!
  • After we left, Grandma, Mommy and I skipped about in the park.
    After we left Grandma, Mommy and I skipped about in the park.
  • Go, get him doctors!
    Go get him, doctors!
  • No pushing, please
    No pushing please
  • Becky walked on, her head a little higher than usual.
    Becky walked on her head, a little higher than usual.

The ambiguity also depends on a lexical ambiguity in each case: a verb that is ambiguously transitive/intransitive (cheer up, left, pushing) or ditransitive/transitive (get him); or the on, which can be either an object-taking preposition or an adverbial particle.

Two of these mostly-good examples deserve further comment. The get him doctors example would have been perfect if Truss had not chosen to put a comma between go and get in the “get some doctors for him” version. Whether you’re saying Get him doctors! or Get him, doctors!, you can elaborate the get into a serial verb by saying go get. All the comma does is unnecessarily turn a perfectly good serial verb construction into two separate clauses.

The please example is iffy, even though I’ve listed it among the good examples. Without a comma, you could theoretically take please as a direct object, and the illustration shows kids pushing a stone representation of the word. But they’re not “pushing please”; they’re pushing A please. You’d get a sensible parse for the commaless version only if please were a proper noun (and capitalized as such), or some kind of mass noun. Of course, in spoken English, it could be the plural noun pleas, and the sentence might be something that came up in plea bargaining negotiations. But this book is all about commas, which, like spelling, are only part of the written language.

The last of Truss’s best-chosen examples is one that always gives me a chuckle when I drive by a school. Here, the comma distinguishes between slow as an adverb in an elliptical command “(Drive) slow,” and an adjective modifying children:

  • Slow, children crossing
    Slow children crossing

I have to ask, though: If Truss has such a zero-tolerance approach to grammar, then wouldn’t she want a semicolon instead of a comma separating the “(Drive) slow” and “children crossing” clauses?

Now we come to the so-so examples, in which one comma configuration gets you meaning A, and another gets you meanings B and C. They’re so-so because Truss treats them as if they have only two meanings. Two of these examples, including the title one, hinge on the interaction two kinds of lexical ambiguity. The pattern is to have a word (say, eats) that is ambiguously an intransitive verb (IV) or a transitive verb (TV), followed by words that are ambiguously transitive verbs or plural noun phrases (NP) (e.g., shoots and leaves). Here they are, plus one more:

  • Eats, shoots, and leaves (IV, IV, and IV)
    Eats shoots and leaves (TV NP and NP)
  • Anthony turns, slides, and swings. (IV, IV, and IV)
    Anthony turns slides and swings. (TV NP and NP)

Truss never mentions the third meaning you can get with these eats and turns sentences: the (TV NP and IV) parse. This is the parse in which someone eats shoots and then departs, and Anthony turns some slides and then plays on the swings. Maybe they got left out because they’re kind of pointless, half-funny, half-straight readings, or because they wouldn’t fit on a two-page spread. You could make this reading more salient by punctuating like this: Eats shoots, and leaves, and Anthony turns slides, and swings. You could still parse it as (TV NP, and IV), but only with stress on the and. Even so, the commaless versions of Eats shoots and leaves and turns slides and swings are still ambiguous, but the book gives the impression that the magic comma makes everything clear.

The last of the so-so examples is this one:

  • What is this thing called, honey?
    What is this thing called honey?

This one plays on a somewhat unusual construction typically used for philosophical ruminations. (It reminds me of the snowclone What is this X, of which you speak?) This is the reading without the comma. With the comma, Truss parses honey as a term of endearment, but it could also be a mention of the word honey, which the speaker proposes as an answer to their own question. Choose a term that’s not a term of endearment, and this reading is the only one available with a comma: What is this stuff called, oatmeal? Note also that stuff works better than thing, but Truss had two competing requirements to satisfy. First, she had to use thing because that’s what’s in the what is this thing idiom. Second, she had to use a word that was ambiguous between a term of endearment and a noun. Darling or dear wouldn’t work, because the commaless version would have to put in an indefinite article, and there would be no ambiguity: What is this thing called a darling? Honey is a mass noun, and doesn’t require a determiner (such as a), so itwould fit better… except for the inconvenient detail that it is better referred to as stuff than a thing. It’s close enough to get a laugh, but this example is more obviously contrived than the others.

Coming to the definitely misleading examples, Truss sometimes points out that a comma can single out one of two meanings, but logically errs in claiming that the lack of a comma singles out the other one, when in fact the commaless version still has both meanings:

  • Becky teased the boy, with a fluffy duck.
    Becky teased the boy with a fluffy duck.
  • Look at that huge, hot dog.
    Look at that huge hot dog.

Regarding the with a fluffy duck example: Does Truss seriously think that adverbial prepositional phrases have to be set off with a comma? What if there’s no intervening NP to confuse the matter? Should I put a comma in I slept on a waterbed? Or what if there is a noun phrase, but the prepositional phrase clearly doesn’t modify it, as in I dug up the weeds with a trowel? Written like this, does it mean that the weeds had a trowel? Of course not. Becky teased the boy with a fluffy duck is just ambiguous; that’s all there is to it; the ambiguity does not need to be fixed with a comma. It can be, certainly, but then you make the prepositional phrase sound like a sudden afterthought instead of part of the message that you intended to include all along.

In the hot dog example, the comma is able to single out the “dog that is hot” meaning only because there’s an adjective (huge) preceding hot dog. If the sentence were Look at that hot dog, it would be similarly ambiguous, and a comma wouldn’t help it. Furthermore, even though huge, hot dog is unambiguous, it doesn’t mean huge hot dog is also unambiguous. It can still have refer to huge dogs that are hot, just like big red dog can refer to big dogs that are red. What really disambiguates the two meanings of hot dog, whether preceded by another adjective or not, is the stress placed on dog, but commas don’t show that.

The worst example is the one Zwicky mentioned, in which the comma doesn’t disambiguate at all, but Truss claims that it does. That is, one comma configuration gets you meanings A and B, and the other comma configuration does, too! Here it is:

  • Eat here, and get gas.
    Eat here and get gas.

Truss claims the commaless version implies causation (and hence the intestinal-gas reading), while “Eat here, and get gas” unambiguously gets you the “eat, and put gasoline in car” reading. Zwicky notes that both readings are available with or without the comma, and to tell kids otherwise is just going to confuse them and sow doubt in their own competence.

Despite my criticisms of ES&L for kids, I had fun reading it with Doug and Adam. Many of the examples were well chosen, as noted above, and the pictures were always fun, and sometimes pretty clever. (Can you guess how they illustrated I’ve finally decided to cheer up, everybody!? I couldn’t have.) But as an educational experience, the book ranges from unhelpful to misleading or false. The grammar lovers/parents that it targets should expect more.


3 Responses to “Eating Shoots, and Leaving”

  1. Glen said

    So when you’re reading it to the boys, do you feel a need to editorialize? “Eh, Doug, I’m afraid this is a crummy example. Why don’t we just turn the page now?”

  2. Russell said

    Nice review. I guess such books can’t be ALL bad.

    To pick up one one example, namely “What is this thing called(,) honey?” It’s interesting that the philosophical reading totally passed me by on the first several readings. The non-comma reading that I got was actually directly influenced by the rhetorical questions that I have been looking at recently:

    — What do you think they sell at this store, sushi?
    — What do you think they sell SUSHI at this store?

    Where the first has two intonation units, with an “answer” to the (rhetorical) question, but the second is just one intonation unit. If you could imagine a case where someone can hardly believe the gooey sweetener could possibly have the name “honey,” then there is yet another reading for “what is this think called HONEY?!”

  3. […] On a lighter note, Eats Shoots and Leaves has been condensed for a younger audience. Roald Dahl Day is coming up on September 13th. And Shelley Jackson, author of Half Life, has written a novel on two thousand people, one word at a time. […]

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