I confess freely that I am not perfect in my use of punctuation. I overuse commas. I have a certain amount of uncertainty over semi-colons. However, just watch me with those apostrophes. Confusion between you’re versus your and they’re, their and there is the sort of thing up with which I will not put. I am in short, a Stickler. As Lynne Truss notes however, I am in good company.
Punctuation is there to keep us safe. Without it, the cheerful invitation to dinner, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” becomes a horrible declaration of cannibalism, as in: “Let’s eat Grandma!” As Truss points out, a lack of accurate punctuation forces innocent pandas from happily chewing bamboo to the life of an outlaw. That being said … pandas are a shifty looking species. They’re probably just waiting for the excuse. Anyway, Lynne Truss is around to fight the good fight and explain the true beauty of those little black marks that scamper across the page.
My own copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves comes courtesy of the wonderful Basildon Free Books Project which means that it smells slightly funny and has a load of grubby marks on it but it does still have its Punctuation Repair Kit inside. Given that I usually travel with a green pen, I have been guilty of correcting notices that are offensive to the eye. Truss describes perfectly the contrast between the way in which one can inwardly seethe at whatever crimes against sense have been committed and the complete lack of interest from the person who has made the mistake. Upon hearing of a man whose Apostrophe Preservation Society wrote polite notices to people informing of them of mistakes made to their signs, Truss’ reaction was that that was just not enough. Every time I walk past this shop sign, I am inclined to agree. Graffiti which corrects poor English should be legalised.
|Ouch. Just ouch.
Lynne Truss is a writer of incredible wit. I recently read her latest offering, Cat Out of Hell
and adored it. Those of us who love punctuation wear the crackpot label very easily but Truss energises the subject with passion and humour. The idea of counting to two between independent clauses when using a semi-colon is of course absurd, as is spending too long musing on when to use an ellipses or a hyphen. Still, the idea of a punctuation-free society is unspeakable and terrifying. Truss cites various examples of famous lines that can be destroyed through improper deployment of commas – this is Punctuation For Laughs.
|Another painful missed apostrophe.
Still, despite her light-hearted style, Truss manages to cram in a lot of fascinating information. Like her, I also find it very exciting to hear about how the punctuation system developed back in the fifteenth century, courtesy of Aldus Manutius. It is interesting too how much things have changed. We may groan at the howlers on signs but the rules have shifted over the centuries, some marks have disappeared and others have faded. We no longer write Mr. or Mrs. although we do write Prof. and Rev. Americans still differ over whether or not to put punctuation inside or outside of speech marks. Comma use is most often a matter of personal preference.
My personal favourite from all of the many anecdotes was when writer James Thurber was asked about the placement of a comma in the sentence, ‘After dinner, the men went into the living room’. He had been locked in a battle with his comma-obsessed editor Harold Ross and responded politely that that particular comma was Ross’ method of allowing the men time to stand up and push their chairs back. To be honest, I was with Ross on that one. For me, a comma marks a place to pause and take a breath. Still, Truss has made me feel self-conscious about using them.
|Listen to the Panda
(c) Daves Urban Art
Truss tells the story of Roger Casement who was famously ‘hanged on a comma’, or as Truss more accurately assesses it, he attempted to get off on one. Due to Graham Greene’s insertion of a comma to his will, he has made it very difficult for people to access his papers. There is a reason why lawyers try to avoid them. Truss describes wonderfully how punctuation can really lift a text. Recently, I read Poets’ Wives, of which the first section is comma-free. The prose was beautiful but it was still tough going. It added a real sense of claustrophobia to the narrative, incredibly effective when used sparingly but not what you would wish for all the time. Semi-colons breathe life into sentences, they are elegant, they add grace.
I am not sure that punctuation is in a genuine decline, I felt that Truss really showed that punctuation is simply more elastic than people realise. Our use of it will evolve but apostrophes will survive – we cannot survive without being to tell the difference between its and it’s, where we have no idea where letters have been dropped. Punctuation is there to guide the reader, to tell them which parts are important; in effect it guides our thinking out of the muddle of a maze of massive text and onto the path that will take us to the point. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is an argument for clarity, for being excited over writing and using punctuation. We should think oh yes when we use a semi-colon, we should step back and think about our commas. Truss’ book reminded me of the beauty of English, the gentle dance of putting a sentence together. You can probably tell by now that I love writing but Eats, Shoots and Leaves reminded me again that it is an art form.
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Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
Published by HarperCollins UK on May 26th 2011
Genres: Humor, General
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