Puns in polyresin

Lots of artists like to play with language — see, most recently, my posting on puns in cartoons — and now we have a sculptor doing what amounts to punning cartoons in polyresin. This is Marsha Tosk, who says on her Figures in Speech website:

“Figures in Speech,” my new series in hand painted polyresin and found material [AMZ: comma missing here as a result of an incredibly common — mistaken, but entirely understandable — idea that the final comma in non-restrictive modifiers isn’t really necessary*] originated in September 2008 as a response to the economic downturn. The figurative, realistic work is based on my belief that humor is an antidote to tough times.

In this series the humor stems from fun with the use of language, a sculptural visualization of a play on words. Pig in a Blanket is the first piece in the group of sculptures which include Bagels and Locks, Hot Dog, Holy Cow, Tee and Lemon and Peeking Duck. Soon to come: Flying off the Handle.

(The website is fixed so that you can’t copy and paste text, much less images, so you’ll have to go to the site for the full text and the illustrations. Click on the titles at the bottom of Tosk’s Figures page to get full images. The Figures homepage gives you a slide show.)

The pieces aren’t cheap, even in these economic-downturn times (but then artists deserve to get paid for their labors; yes, I know, as an artist myself, I’m biased in these matters): the prices for the six sculptures listed are, in order, $850, $850, $1250, $750, $1500, $950. Plus $35 for shipping and handling.

What size are they? you ask. Two feet or under in the greatest dimension. Nothing that would consume a room.

There is, of course, a Wikipedia page on visual puns, some of which have language explicitly attached to them, as with Tosk’s sculptures (and Simon Drew’s wonderful drawings); in others, the linguistic expressions involved are merely implicit.

*It all depends on what you mean by “necessary”. The closing comma is necessary in non-restrictive modifiers according to the conventions of standard English orthography. Very often, however, it’s not necessary to convey the semantics and intonation of these modifiers, which can be easily supplied by the reader; that’s why it’s so frequently omitted, even in edited prose. Examples are only too easy to collect. Here’s one from 2009:

Upon his return to Europe he sought to share his discoveries with the learned community, but was met with ridicule—as Phillip von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus (1493-1541) would also be a century later. (Arthur Goldwag, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, p. 304)

10 Responses to “Puns in polyresin”

  1. Rick Barr Says:

    Allow me to play a little bit dumb with regard to the note on the comma, and I apologize in advance for this. But I do so because I find it interesting. It is a comma that is so often omitted that I had come to think that it was optional, even in standard English orthography. The omitted comma you were illustrating would come after “Europe,” correct? If so, could you point to a standard work that does indeed formulate the rule? I’ve had this discussion before, and I have insisted on supplying the comma, but I was convinced that I was fighting against Cuchulain’s waves because the mass of evidence against using the comma was so vast. Furthermore, MW’s Style Guide, for instance, says that nonrestrictive clauses are “usually set off by commas.” From usually to optional, the path seems rather short.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Rick Barr: No, the comma I was talking about in the Goldwag quote was not one after the introductory adverbial “upon his return to Europe”, but a second one setting off “aka Paracelsus [I’ve now corrected my spelling typo] (1493-1541)”. Similarly, a second one setting off “my new series in hand painted polyresin and found material” in the Tosk example.

    A comma after introductory material is, in many contexts, optional. Commas in pairs around parenthetical modifiers (including non-restrictive relatives) are, however, obligatory in standard orthography. As far as I know, there is absolutely no disagreement in the handbooks about the second case; every handbook that attends to punctuation — not all of them do — is clear on the point. A small sample:

    Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed, p. 677: “Fourth, the comma marks the beginning and end of a parenthetical word or phrase, an appositive, or a nonrestrictive clause… Some writers mistakenly omit the second comma…” [with examples of both].

    Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, p. 90: “The first rule of bracketing commas [i.e., commas that bracket, not the bracketing of commas] is that you use them to mark both ends of a “weak interruption” to a sentence…” And then, hyperbolically, on p. 91: “… there is actual mental cruelty involved … in opening up a pair of commas and then neglecting to deliver the closing one. The reader hears the first shoe drop and then strains in agony to hear the second. In dramatic terms, it’s like putting a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I and then having the heroine drown herself quietly offstage in the bath during the interval.”

    (The burder-on-the-reader argument is complex. As Truss admits, the difficulty arises specifically for “sensitive people trained to listen for the second comma”; they “find themselves quite stranded… They feel cheated and giddy. In very bad cases, they fall over.” That is, the burden is induced by training in the conventions of standard punctuation and is not a simple matter of extracting meaning from written texts.)

    The advice that nonrestrictive clauses are “usually set off by commas” is sort of correct. Most usage advisers would say that they are always set off by commas in standard orthography; Geoff Pullum takes up the question in several Language Log postings. But there are two hedges here: (1) there are times when a modifying clause might be intended as either a restrictive or non-restrictive modifier, with only an extremely small and very subtle difference in meaning; and (2) the convention that non-restrictive relative clauses are set off by commas became fixed only in (roughly) the 19th century, which is relatively recent as these things go. Informal writing (in personal blogs and messages, for instance) tends to be packed with non-restrictive relatives without their bracketing commas; writers trust their readers to work out what kind of clause they intend and don’t give an explicit indication via punctuation. But by current conventions of formal standard writing this is a mistake. But the mistake is in omitting both commas, not just the second one.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    In short, “set off by commas” is “may be” but it’s commas plural, not just one. If you use one, you need a second. Otherwise, for instance, you might read “found materials originated in…” oh, that’s wrong.

  4. Rick Barr Says:

    I’m sorry to have veered you away into these minutiae. Especially because my question stemmed from confusing the introductory material with the nonrestrictive clause. Sometimes these modifiers and clauses are tricky to place on the grammatical grid. At least for me. Besides, the plethora of overlapping terms used to describe these phenomena doesn’t help. Your answer was both complete and informative. Thanks. I have Garner at hand, and I’ll turn to that to follow up on your quote. I didn’t think of looking there; as you say, usage styles don’t always cover punctuation. I’ll try to find Garner’s grammar section in the Chicago Manual of Style, and I’ll take a look at Truss too.

    BTW, on a marginally related note, here’s a sentence that I found jarring because it omitted a comma that would’ve been useful: “You move your canoe through open water a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads” (John McPhee, “The Patch,” The New Yorker, 8 Feb 2010). The juxtaposition of elements seemed to demand a comma at the hinge (between water and a fly), but grammar books and style guides say it is optional, as the second part of the sentence acts as a subordinate adverbial clause. I would’ve suggested adding a comma anyway.

  5. From the Simon Drew pun files « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Rick Barr, moving even further afield: As the McPhee sentence reads in its published version (whether by his choice or by an editor’s revision), the very strongly preferred reading has that final PP (“a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads”) as a postnominal modifier attached to “open water” (‘open water that is a fly cast away…’). That strikes me as a perfectly good interpretation, but then it’s the one I got when I read the piece.

    With a comma, there are more possibilities. The final PP could still be a modifier of “open water” — but a non-restrictive (“supplementary”, in CGEL’s terms) modifier. This is only very subtly different from the restrictive reading I just talked about.

    But the final PP could also be a sentence adverbial, spatially locating the event denoted by the preceding clause. However, it’s subjectless and requires a referent for its missing subject, so the question is where you find this subject, the main candidates being the closest NP (“open water”) and the subject of the preceding clause (“you”). There’s an extremely strong tendency for people to get the missing subject from the main-clause subject rather than from the closest NP. But these readings are (again) only very subtly different, since the addressee and the open water are in fact in the same place.

    Actually, both sentence-adverbial interpretations aren’t very different from the postnominal-modifier interpretations, so it doesn’t make a lot of difference semantically which interpretation the writer intended or the reader saw. You can construct examples in which the semantic difference is much more substantial, but in this example it’s slight. So maybe the writer should just choose the version that seems to be prosodically most satisfying.

  7. Rick Barr Says:

    Very interesting analysis. Still, I think it’s persuasive to treat the final clause (“a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads”) as a subordinate adverbial clause latched on to the verb move: moved how? Moved with a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads. Your reading was very interesting, as it seems to take the fly as a metaphorical fly that stands in apposition to either the open water or the subject of the sentence. I didn’t read it that way, even tough the sentence was discomfiting and forced me to reread, probably because of the next sentence, which I should have supplied: “You cast just shy of the pads–inches off the edge of the pads.” Thus, we get people fishing, and they move with the fly on the water. But without the comma that I felt was urgently needed, readings such as yours become plausible and allow for poetic comparisons.

  8. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Rick Barr on “fly cast”: there’s too much here for me to try to sort out, but surely McPhee meant “fly cast” to be taken as a compound noun (‘the casting of a (fishing) fly’), with “a fly cast” functioning as an adverbial modifier (of extent) of “away (from a patch of lily pads)”. How far away from that patch of lily pads is that open water? Only a fly cast away — a few yards at most.

  9. Rick Barr Says:

    Oh, you’re absolutely right. Sorry. My bad. I clearly misread the compound.

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