‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ takes on poor punctuation

"On Language"

Chicago Tribune

Centuries ago, the word “stickler” meant the judge of a duel who made sure all the rules were obeyed. To author Lynne Truss, those were the good old days. At least people listened to that kind of stickler.

“I think the role of the stickler these days has dwindled to that of enraged observer,” she said in an interview. “Sticklers of my sort have no authority!”

Truss has tried to change that with her book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” which became an unexpected best seller in Britain and will be released in North America by Gotham Books.

“Sticklers, unite!” is her book’s rallying cry. “Some of us were born to be punctuation vigilantes,” she writes but adds that everyone can “unleash your Inner Stickler.”

Do you doubt the importance of punctuation? Consider the example Truss takes from a popular e-mail that has been widely forwarded: With just a few strokes of a pen or keyboard, the statement “A woman, without her man, is nothing” becomes “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” Or take Truss’ title, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” Without the comma, the book’s back cover explains, the phrase describes a panda’s diet. With the comma, it reports armed assault in a deli.

“Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart,” Truss writes. “The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it, there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”

Truss samples some popular analogies about punctuation. Punctuation marks are the stitches of language that hold it together, or the traffic signals that tell us where to go.

Punctuation is also like good manners. “Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves,” Truss writes. “It is no accident that the word ‘punctilious’ (‘attentive to formality or etiquette’) comes from the same original root word as punctuation.”

Violation of this etiquette can summon an alarming amount of rage in sticklers. When Truss says that committing the cardinal sin of writing “it’s” as a possessive is cause for the offender “to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,” it is reassuring to see that the publisher lists the book in the unique category of “reference/humour.”

Despite the fierceness of her defense, Truss acknowledges that punctuation is a relatively recent invention. For much of the history of writing, Truss says, punctuation was spare; in plays or texts to be read aloud, a few rudimentary marks were inserted to tell actors or readers where to breathe. With the rise of printing came the need for a standard system of marks.

Truss celebrates the 15th Century printer Aldus Manutius, who is generally credited with developing the modern comma and semicolon and inaugurating the period.

Truss takes the major punctuation marks one by one (she spends a chapter each on the comma, the apostrophe and the hyphen), listing rules of usage and adding examples and anecdotes. Her sources vary, from the 16th Century printer who tried to introduce the reverse question mark for rhetorical questions, to Virginia Woolf, who used five semicolons in one sentence in “Mrs. Dalloway,” to the British child who defended putting everything he wrote in quotation marks, since, after all, “it’s all me talking.”

Despite Truss’ pledge to take a zero-tolerance approach to punctuation, she allows for some subjectivity, respecting linguist G.V. Carey’s rule that punctuation proceed “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste.”

Truss’ own British spellings and punctuation style (such as putting a closing quotation mark before the period rather than after it) call attention to the elasticity of punctuation standards. Gotham Books decided not to revise the book according to American spelling and style.

“We were so taken with the book as it was, so much of the wit and charm of it was very British,” said William Shinker, Gotham’s senior vice president and publisher. “If you Americanize it, it would just have ruined the tone of the book.”

While punctuation is ever evolving, the Internet and instant messaging have made punctuation appreciation an urgent cause, Truss said in an interview.

“People are writing much, much more than they used to do, and writing publicly,” she said. “So much editing used to go on that’s been thrown away. People write directly into the medium.” As a result, she said, “language is losing a lot of its charm, a lot of its subtlety, a lot of its meaning.”

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