Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sensible Punctuation

A panda that entered a restaurant, ordered food, and ate there. After finishing up, the panda stood up and fired a gun in the air before moving out of the restaurant. The waiter, confused, asked the panda why he did that. The panda handed him a wildlife manual and said, "I'm a panda, look it up." The waiter flipped the pages to the panda entry: "Panda. A black-and-white bear-like mammal, native of China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

I came across this joke in the book entitled "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" (by Lynne Truss) in February 2005, but I am reading it again this month just for kicks (it is really a humourous book, though reading it helps me with writing papers). The contents give me dizzying visions of red ink swirling over pages and pages of my theses (B.Sc. and Ph.D.) drafts.

As I delved deeper into reading this book, I realised that my academic supervisor, Prof Bob Gilbert, had also kept reminding his students, me included, on how to properly use punctuation marks in writing manuscripts. He once sent, by email, a chapter of "The Chemist's English" (by Robert Schoenfeld) called "One, Hand, Clapping" to all his students. As with the first book, the chapter has that extra comma in its title. Both authors discuss, at length, the importance of correct comma usage, and prescribe rules in using it. The chapter emphasised that some rules may be relaxed in conversational and informal English; however, scientific writing requires that the rules of punctuation be followed more closely – including equations (!). 

Non-native English speakers and writers probably do not mind being told the rules of punctuation. We normally get all of that in grammar classes anyway. The amazing thing, though, is that the target market of these books are native English speakers! I assumed that these people know their language quite well since they use it every single day, and they don't need to be taught the rules.

Then again, I may be wrong about the need for a manual on English punctuation. Filipino is the official language in the Philippines; despite this, the rules of Filipino sentence construction is taught in school, too.