Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lynne Truss's Fluffy Duck Comma

Sometime last fall, my ex-wife bought our younger son a copy of the kids version of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves. (I don't link to it here because I don't want to encourage you to buy it.) In this book, facing pages show the same sentence, but with different punctuation, and each page is illustrated to show what the sentence says.

Some of the examples in the book are wonderfully illustrative of the importance of proper punctuation to communicate the desired meaning. For example, "After we left Grandma, Mommy and I skipped about in the park." versus "After we left, Grandma, Mommy, and I skipped in the park."

But one of the examples left me flummoxed, and I am flummoxed still. On the left is a picture of a boy on a playground holding a yellow plush ducky while a mean little girl blows raspberries at him. The sentence beneath the illustration says, "Becky teased the boy with the fluffy duck."

On the opposite page, the same girl is standing on a chair, holding the plush ducky over the boy's head, just out of his reach. The sentence beneath this illustration says, "Becky teased the boy, with the fluffy duck."

In the back of the book, Ms. Truss explains the difference like this:
"Becky teased the boy with the fluffy duck."
(Without the comma, with the fluffy duck modifies the boy.)
"Becky teased the boy, with the fluffy duck."
(With a comma separating the two phrases, with the fluffy duck describes Becky's actions.)

In what English-speaking world does setting off the prepositional phrase "with the fluffy duck" change the meaning of this sentence in this way? None that I know of.

The truth is, the original sentence ("Becky teased the boy with the fluffy duck.") could be interpreted either way -- either she has the duck, or the boy does. Punctuation cannot clarify the intended meaning of the sentence. With no context to tell us what's going on, the only way to clarify the meaning is to rewrite the sentence or to add information:  This is one instance in which a passive sentence structure will give a clearer meaning: "The boy with the fluffy duck was teased by Becky" cannot be misread. I think any copy editor worth his or her salt would rewrite the sentence completely to make it clear.

So where was the copy editor during the writing of this little book? One may be tempted to blame whatever editors were in charge of this book for not pointing out this problem, but I know from experience that the author always has final say on edits. And in a book (and a world) in which Lynne Truss considers herself an expert on proper punctuation, if she truly believed that the insertion of this comma changed the meaning of the sentence, I can't imagine that any editor would have been able to change her mind.

But, simply put, she should have used a different example. Is there, I ask you, dear reader, an example that fits this mold? Can you think of an example of a sentence that changes meaning if you merely set off a sentence-ending prepositional phrase with a comma?

If you think I'm wrong about this, let me hear about it. I'm open to arguments. But, as a copy editor myself, this sentence would need to answer me these questions three, ere the other side ye see.