Sunday, May 17, 2009

Eats, Shoots & Leaves - A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss


If you're like me you ask yourself this question once a decade, if at all: does punctuation really matter? We, who live in a world of “Netspeak” and emoticons (both excuses for not putting the right words in the right places), do we think the age of the appropriately placed semicolon, dash or parenthesis is dead?

I personally murder the semicolon on a daily basis it seems. I tire of pursing my lips in thought at the end of every sentence I write (or send as it were), wondering if I should use that uppity mixture of comma and full stop, or slice off its bottom (and more lovely) half, until I start drooling uncontrollably and mumble gibberish to myself. Who really cares after all? Ah, and see – therein lies the problem: someone always cares.

With the advent of the internet and millions of us fancying ourselves “writers” when really we are “senders”, there are – for the good of those with stock in the makers of red and blue pens; I’d hate for them to suffer – some still left in the world, hiding in corners waiting to pounce on the first ill-used word; shouting with their fists in the air, “Sticklers unite!”

Lynne Truss is one of those standing in the picket lines, with her blue pencil in hand of course, editing everyone’s protest signs and encouraging all to read her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book about a misplaced comma and a panda with a gun....ahem. Truss is a woman on a mission; a personal journey that nimbly gyrates from the grocer, and the newspaper;

to the sign on the building,

and the Hollywood marquee.

This woman is extremely anal (and seriously frowning in this lovely pic), perhaps even bordering on obsessive- compulsive, but I don’t think she cares. For her punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop. But did I learn something, which after all, is probably her point, regardless of her nit pickiness. I would say, yes I did.

Mainly, it was this: in a lot of cases, it’s a matter of personal taste. If it burns deep within your bosom to place a semicolon after a sentence, then by all means – do it! Want to put a comma after the word and? Apparently it depends on which country you’re from. What? So, besides the fact that someone at the New Yorker doesn’t find her book very accurate, I thought it very witty and fun, and most of it made sense. Do I now feel more paranoid about those pesky dots and dashes? Not really, but just in case I’ll continue to avoid the caffeine beverages and try to remember that writing a sentence is a bit like adding paint to a blank canvas. Each is unique and subject to personal taste. Whoopety-do. 4 stars

13 comments:

Amanda said...

Lula, have you seen the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks? That's what this reminds me of. Those grammar blogs crack me up. :)

Nymeth said...

Hmm...now I want to read this just to learn about semi-colons. I'm pretty sure I butcher them too :P

Normally I'm not too big a fan of prescriptive grammar, but misplaced commas bug me too. So I guess I'm picky about some things but not others. I always learned you could use a comma before "and", though...I was taught British English at school, so maybe that's why?

Lula O said...

Amanda - I have, that's a funny blog. She talks about those type of blogs in the book. We do seem to have an unhealthy relationship with quotation marks as a society. And the internet makes it even worse. Maybe good grammar is dead after all.

Nymeth - I agree semicolons, yech!
Truss discusses the many English and American differences in grammar. There are quite a few actually, including the one you just mentioned. Grammar seems to be like what one considers to be modest, it varies from country to country.

Amanda said...

I had to learn how to use semi-colons about two years ago, and have them down pretty well. There are some forms of grammar that have changed since I learned all the rules in 2nd grade and thus bug me. The commas before "and" like Nymeth mentioned them is one. In lists, we learned you put a comma after every entry, including before "and." Nowadays, they leave it out, and that bugs me. Also, how do you make possessive a word that ends with "s"? Like the name Chris. If you want to talk about his TV, do you say, "Chris's TV" or "Chris' TV." I learned the latter, but see much of the former now.

Julie said...

I think this book may make me paranoid. I always think I could improve my ability to punctuate correctly.
But I like your answer better at the end of the review:
Do I now feel more paranoid about those pesky dots and dashes? Not really, but just in case I’ll continue to avoid the caffeine beverages and try to remember that writing a sentence is a bit like adding paint to a blank canvas. Each is unique and subject to personal taste.

hamilcar barca said...

Amanda wrote : "The commas before "and" like Nymeth mentioned them is one. In lists, we learned you put a comma after every entry, including before "and." Nowadays, they leave it out, and that bugs me.

i'm a poor one to comment on this, since i view punctuation as an art-form; but i think the "final comma usage" depends on context. for instance, two very different meanings can be derived from the use or omission of that last comma in this hypothetical book dedication :

"this is dedicated to my parents, Emily Dickinson and God."

Lula O said...

Oh, that's a good one. Here's another:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Jason Gignac said...

Or the poetic:
A woman, without; her man is nothing.

hamilcar barca said...

or a brief elegy for Lily Munster (of the old, forgettable TV series, the Munsters) regarding her dim-witted husband :

"A woman without. Herman is nothing."

Jason Gignac said...

Ouch, General Barca. That one burns.

Lula O said...

You and I are probably the only ones that remember watching that show. And not the reruns either damn it!

Trixie said...

I'm late to comment, but I watched the Munsters too.
I liked this book mainly because I found it funny. I had an English teacher in high school who was a big stickler about things like signs that spell "busses" wrong in reference to vehicles and not kisses.
The New Yorker article you link to, Lula, is interesting too. The author suggests that a British woman preaching to Americans about punctuation is like an American teaching the French about sauces. We Americans are bigger sticklers for punctuation than the British. The dropped comma at the end of lists before and is apparently a British thing. According to the New Yorker piece, Americans keep the comma except in newspapers and magazines.

Lula O said...

I like that reference about French sauces! It's true too, but I still liked the book for the same reason you did: It was funny. There's something about British humor that cracks me up!