Eats, Shoots and Leaves (The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation) by Lynne Truss (Gotham Books, 2004)
As one who always spellchecks his e-mails, and tries to ensure the correct use of capitalization within them, I can be expected to be a bit of a pedant about punctuation. When I was managing computer types, I was perplexed by their struggles with the little signifiers that carry so much meaning. Programmers were quick to tell me about the Mariner 1 spacecraft, which reputedly went astray because of a misplaced comma in the code that controlled it, but their memos and reports to me looked as if such items of punctuation had been sprayed there by a random number generator. Thus the stellar success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves on both sides of the Atlantic surprised me. While attention to punctuation appears to have gone out of fashion, does the public harbor a deep-seated desire to learn how to use it properly?
The book’s title refers to an anecdote about a gun-toting panda – the astute reader will guess the ambiguity within it, but can find the joke recorded on the book’s cover. Lynne Truss’s success can be ascribed to an air of gentle authority spiced with a deft wit. She admits that grammatical sticklers like herself are “unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families”, who don’t patronize stores with check-out counters that declare “five items or less”, when it should read “fewer”. Her plea for greater attention to the nuances of grammar rests primarily on the opportunity for messages to be distorted through sloppiness, but she also sees it as a matter of common courtesy. She illustrates her argument with examples both familiar and unfamiliar, although she restrains herself from referring to the rather tortured syntax of our Second Amendment, and the grief of interpretation that it has caused our constitutional experts. Similar doctrinal debates have lingered on the differences between “Comfort ye, my people” and ”Comfort ye my people”.
However, her training as an editor, and her knowledge of the history of the English language, allows her to recognize that fashion has frequently directed what is “correct” in punctuational use. US and British usage still differs sharply. The semicolon was invented in 1494, but George Orwell tried to eschew it completely. If you read a few well-edited books published in the 1930s, you will find more commas in use than is probably the guideline in similar works today, and pundits will even now argue as to the necessity of a comma separating concluding list-items, when common-sense can easily indicate when they are necessary to avoid confusion. Truss is insightful on the subtle differences implied in dashes, brackets, italics, and the ellipsis (that mainstay of the bodice-ripper), and she offers a plentiful set of guidelines to aid the serious writer or blogger whose [not “who’s”] education missed out during the Great Grammar Neglect of the liberal 1970s, or the e-mail writer suddenly eager to complement his or her emoticons with carefully measured punctuation marks.
“What about her own use?”, I hear you cry. Well, any self-respecting critic knows that his or her duty is to nitpick over the minor flaws, and Truss has her share of them. Inconsistent use of dashes, one or two severely hanging participles, and even some dubious deployments of the comma. “Could do better”. But this is a refreshing and easy read, full of sage advice, and deserves its [not “it’s”] best-seller status. I just hope that the Great American and Great British Publics pick up on it, so that we know longer have to face the prospect of buying “apples’ and orange’s”, or have to consider whether Fred deserves our custom when we evaluate the prospect of dining at “Freds’ place”. (If he can’t spell, what must his cooking be like?) So if you would like to know the difference between “a printer’s convention” and “a printers’ convention”, or just want to hear the voice of a kindred stickler, this is the book for you.