Will sent me a link to this t-shirt vendor that has a shirt that reads, “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Punctuation saves lives.” This, of course, is very much in keeping with Lynne Truss’ fun book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. But as much as I find these kinds of grammar jokes wonderful, I am, as always, a grammar liberal.
So here’s the thing: meaning is contextual. If you are watching a horror film about some very naughty grandchildren, then sure: we’re talking about eating the grandmother. (Let me point out that meat from an old human is bound to taste gamy.) That might also be the case if you were in an airplane that crashed in the Andes. But in all other contexts, it means you are entreating grandma to enjoy a pleasant repast—comma or no.
And that’s the thing about English (or any other language): there are times when it is vague. And this is the basis for just about all of those little grammar jokes that pedants like me love. For example, “The dog caught the ball as it flew through the air.” To which your high school English teacher would add, “I sure hope the dog didn’t hurt itself when it landed.” And yes, I delight in such word play. But it is wrong to think that it is important. No one but a pedant would for a moment think that the dog was flying through the air rather than the ball.
Good writing is not about rules; it is about clarity. As a result, I try not to create constructions like, “The dog caught the ball as it flew through the air.” That’s because they are unclear. And sometimes, that requires ugly rewrites like, “The dog caught the ball as the ball few through the air.” (Much better: “As the ball flew through the air, the dog caught it.” Although a pedant might ask, “Caught the air?”) But it makes me wonder if teachers who highlight such problems are very good teachers.
The truth is that almost any sentence is a mush of vagueness. I so wanted to use “vagaries.”) And that makes me wonder if we truly communicate with words. Maybe I’m just fooling myself by thinking that I can get anything but the most basic ideas across to a reader. But then I’m something of a solipsist, so I’m not even sure you exist—much less that I can communicate with you.