August 15, 2006

Commas for kids

Finger-wagging Lynne Truss has reached down to the kindergarten set (ages 4-8), to put them straight on commas, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! (Putnam Juvenile, 2006, with illustrations by Bonnie Timmons; 32 pages).  Now that Strunk & White has been illustrated, can we expect a kids' version of it?  Go Away, Needless Words!

Language Log works hard to keep you abreast of hot developments in the publishing world -- the latest Dan Brown, Lynne Truss for the afternoon-nap set, the hiphop Syntactic Structures, with a CD jam-packed with hot tunes (ok, I made that one up).  Remember, you read it here first.

According to the book description:

lluminating the comical confusion the lowly comma can cause, this new edition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves uses lively, subversive illustrations to show how misplacing or leaving out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence completely.

This picture book is sure to elicit gales of laughter -- and better punctuation -- from all who read it.

I raise an eyebrow at the better punctuation part.  Let's see some evidence, I say.  Not that I'm particularly enthusiastic about correct punctuation as a high priority for young children.  But here's a positive Amazon review from reader Robert Schmidt of Honolulu:

Examples: "Eat here, and get gas," versus "Eat here and get gas."

"The student, said the teacher, is crazy," versus "The student said the teacher is crazy."

Now I'd say this is a book for, say, 4-6 year olds. No more than 6. I think this is a book to be read to kids, not necessarily to have them read to themselves. One, it is fun to read, and kids and adults can joke about even more interesting examples of clever, contorted meanings. Two, it is a book that plants a seed for kids and adults seeing signs or other writings during the day that they can tease each other about. And if it makes kids AND adults more aware of the power of commas, so be it!

(I'm afraid that the comma really doesn't help the first example; the causal-sequence reading is still easy to get.)

I haven't seen the book yet, so I'm still hoping the ratio of fun to fodder-for-teasing is high.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 15, 2006 02:47 PM