Tuesday, February 21, 2012

eats, shoots and leaves

A week or so ago, I read what I'm quite sure is the most popular book about punctuation on the shelves today.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a humorous look at the correct way to apply all commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, periods (or "full stops" in British English), and the like. Author Lynne Truss has a "zero tolerance approach to punctuation" and wants to stand up for all other punctuation "sticklers" in the world. It is simply inexcusable, she believes, to still see shop signs reading "Apple's" or movies titled "Two Weeks Notice." And if it disturbs you, you are perfectly within your right to complain or, pulling out a big black marker, correct the error (with the joy of knowing Truss would applaud you if she knew). People are simply becoming too lax in their writing. Rules are becoming too hazy. 

Because Truss is English, however, American readers must realize that some of her rules don't apply to us or are changed slightly. For example, whereas Americans always set their periods and commas inside quotation marks (unless they're citing a source or using a question mark), British writers can correctly write a sentence like this one:

Sophia recognized in Lord Fellamar the "effects of frenzy", and tried to break away.
Or this one:

Sophia asked Lord Fellamar if he was "out of his senses".
There are other small differences between American and British punctuation rules and, as I mentioned before, some of the marks even go through a name change as they cross the Atlantic. Our "periods" become their "full stops," our "exclamation points" are their "exclamation marks," and our "parentheses" are their "brackets." Do I understand why the rules are different when we both speak English? Not at all. Does it make the book confusing? Not really. Would I prefer it if all the rules applied directly to American English? Well, yeah. That would have been nice.

Disregarding the American/British divide, there are some punctuation rules I still don't quite understand after reading the book. Truss elaborates on all her rules, but some applications of punctuation just don't have finite rules.

For example, when using a possessive apostrophe with a singular word ending in "s," do you add another "s" after the apostrophe? Truss writes that in this situation, the rule is murky and allows for "acceptable exceptions." 

Current guides state that with modern names, an "s" is required after the apostrophe, like this:

Lynne Truss's book

With names from the ancient world, it's not required:

Achilles' heel

With names ending in an "iz" sound, it's also not required:

Mr. Bridges' score

And Jesus is also always allowed the exception:

Jesus' disciples

But these rules aren't set in stone and often fall to personal preference. In many American newspapers, Truss notes, journalists don't add that extra "s," but other papers, like The Washington Post, insist their writers use it.

Personally, I always add the extra "s." It just feels right to me (plus it's the rule that writing authority Fowler's Modern English Usage abides by). Just as I personally find semicolons pretentious when they're used a lot within a text (often because they're used incorrectly) and believe an Oxford comma almost always improves a sentence.


This is a great book for anyone who cringes at punctuation mistakes or has argued over semicolons, Oxford commas, or exclamation points (like Elaine, perhaps?). And of course I would also recommend it to those who are confused by punctuation or want some clarification. Truss is very thorough and will get you thinking about all those underused (colons) and overused (commas) marks you never really considered! Plus, not only is it educational, but it can make you laugh as well. Very much recommended.

* If you were wondering about the title of the book and the gun-handling panda on the cover, they come from a joke about bad punctuation: 

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
'Why?' asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
'Well, I'm a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'

* And by the way, reviewing a book about punctuation is a sure-fire way to freak yourself out that every comma or quotation mark you're placing is incorrect. I apologize for any punctuation errors in this post and urge you to remember that everyone makes mistakes, even those of us who like punctuation enough to read a book about it!

TITLE: Eats, Shoots and Leaves
AUTHOR: Lynne Truss
PUBLICATION DATE: 2 January 2003
VERDICT: 3/5 stars.

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