A Panda Walks Into a Bar . . .

by Dennis Baron

Americans are convinced that there’s a right and a wrong way to write something. We gleefully point out other people’s language mistakes, though many of us secretly worry that given half a chance, we’d use “who” when we should be using “whom,” or put the comma in the wrong place. So we buy books to find the answer.

Self-help language books sport attention-grabbing titles and forced humor. They seldom follow through. “Painless Grammar,” according to its blurb, will make you laugh (hah!). “The Well-Tempered Sentence” promises to rescue punctuation from the perils of boredom (yawn). “The Transitive Vampire” aims to keep readers awake with gothic sentences (a wooden stake and some caffeine would work better). “Woe Is I” is “the grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English” (since when is “Woe is I” idiomatic? since when is “grammarphobe” plain English?). “Grammar for Grownups” targets “people who have to use language in the real world” (forget your seventh-grade English teacher, who made you a grammarphobe in the first place). “When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People” plays on the common fear that “how you speak or write is holding you back at work” (Donald Trump never fired anyone for a solecism). And “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style” speaks for itself.

New to this corpus is Lynne Truss’ “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” a British best-seller about where to put the commas which was just released in the U.S. and now (May 2, 2004) holds the number 2 spot on the New York Times nonfiction list, just behind Richard Clarke’s book about the nation’s counterterrorism failures. That should be a measure of how seriously Americans seek out language advice.

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves” takes its title from a joke about a panda. There are many versions of this joke, including an off-color variant featuring a koala. To digest Truss’ version: a panda walks into a bar, has a snack, and shoots the place up. When challenged, the panda points to the definition of “panda” in a poorly-punctuated natural history book: "Large black-and-white mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves." Get it? A bit of British humor. Or humour, for unlike “Harry Potter,” Truss’ book preserves its Briticisms.

There’s not much chance that a book whose title hinges on a bad joke poses a threat to such classics as Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” Henry Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” or George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” But it shares the faults of the genre: relying on such books for advice on writing is like relying on the almanac for a weather forecast. The information provided may not fit your individual needs or circumstances.

Another problem of self-help language books is their tendency to slip up. When an acknowledged “stickler” like Truss faults writers for being sloppy or ignorant, readers will hoist the purist with her own petard. Fowler made up rules when it suited him. Strunk and White violated their rules when it suited them. Orwell stole his rules of good English from Fowler and passed them off as his own. Nobody’s perfect. Reviewers of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” have accused Truss of being ignorant and sloppy.

She’s also wrong. While I agree with Truss that both amateur and professional writers often mis-punctuate, fails to prove that bad punctuation causes misunderstanding. The panda joke isn’t about punctuation. Many written versions of the joke don’t even have commas: the definition simply reads, “Eats shoots and leaves.” Such jokes are meant to be spoken. The ambiguity—the humor—is in the ear of the beholder.

But people are buying the panda book, and some of them may even read it. That’s where the problem lies. Usage guides should come with the warning, “Don’t try this at home.” 

These books play on our fears of being incorrect. But they mislead insecure writers into thinking that correctness guarantees effectiveness. A purist in my neighborhood once climbed onto the checkout counter at the grocery store and with a marker changed the express lane’s “12 items or less” to “fewer.” Correct, perhaps, but ineffective, because it wasn’t idiomatic. Sometimes less is more.

Just as shopkeepers will keep on selling “Apple’s $1.49” and shoppers will keep on buying them, there’s no silver bullet that will turn bad writing into good, no just-add-water formula for producing perfect prose. True, books like “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” make us more aware of our language use. But paradoxically, this self-consciousness often backfires: in our attempts to be correct, to follow directions that may not fit the context, we will make more mistakes, not fewer. Americans may want to be correct, but our English remains vibrant and effective not because we adhere to an arbitrary purism, but because we’re skeptical of authorities. When corrected, we plead the First Amendment: “It’s a free country, and no one tells me what to say!”

Dennis Baron teaches English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.