Monday, August 30, 2010

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

My school library has a hardback class set of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. A #1 New York Times bestseller, the book's sub-title is The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. While Truss may have zero tolerance for punctuation errors, she has a high tolerance for humorous prose.

My librarian (and, for me, librarians have always been a my and never a the) said she likes  the book. If she's the one who ordered my school's class set, then I love her because the book is wonderful--simultaneously humorous and informative.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2003 and in America in 2004, Truss is a British writer and journalist who has won the Columnist of the Year (in Britain, I imagine) and who  is also a familiar voice on BBC Radio 4, where in 2002 she presented a popular show called Cutting a Dash, about punctuation.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves will be one of the required texts for my high school British literature course. It provides insight into the use of punctuation, and it also provides a great deal of insight into the British people.

The book sold a half million copies in England before being published in the United States. That says something about the Brits: "My book was aimed at the tiny minority of British people 'who love punctuation and don't like to see it mucked about with.'"

(By the way, I'm using American conventions, even though Truss's book uses the British conventions of punctuation. My American commas and end punctuation are "too little to play outside" and are placed inside quotation marks; hers are placed outside. And, Lynne, I proudly used the semicolon in the previous sentence!!!)

There is a great deal of information about punctuation in Truss's book--often supplied with a healthy dollop of humor:

Writing that a panda "eats shoots and leaves" is accurate, since pandas eat bamboo; however, writing about a panda that "eats, shoots and leaves" is entirely another matter. Whom did the panda shoot after finishing its meal, the cook?

And then there is the pearl about the hyphen: ". . . if it's not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts" (my italics).

Truss is a punctuation stickler. It is rumored that during the premier of the movie Two Weeks Notice, she prowled London with a marking pen, adding missing apostrophes to the word Weeks (it should be placed after the s).

She includes in the book's introduction the wonderful example of how misplaced punctuation can change meaning:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Yes, Truss is hot on punctuation; in fact, she has the hots for Aldus Manutius, the Elder, who first used the semicolon: ". . . I still swoon every time I look at this particular semicolon . . ." Too bad it was printed in 1494--Aldus and Lynne would have made a nice couple, I think.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves will also provide many opportunities for discussion about Britain in my literature class: language and dialect as an indicator of class, British slang, and that brilliant British capacity for satire: the Apostropher Royal, the King's English, and how "no dogs please" is indefensible punctuation because "many dogs do please, as a matter of fact; they rather make a point of it."

I'll let Truss finish for me:
"So what I propose is action. Sticklers unite; you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn't have a lot of that to begin with. Maybe we won't change the world, but at least we'll feel better. The important thing is to unleash you Inner Stickler, while at the same time not getting punched on the nose, or arrested for damage to private property."
 Copyright 2010 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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