General · 24th March 2013
Remember this book? It came out over a decade ago, penned by one Lynne Truss who got her knickers in a knot over the ubiquity of poor punctuation. I loved the title, not least of all for the visual image it conjured. In the years since the book's release, I'd wager things haven't improved sufficiently to satisfy the author. And the burgeoning of social media has only served to entrench certain grammatical gaffes into common usage. Here's what reviewer Nigel Williams had to say about the matter in the Guardian Observer back in 2003:
Punctuation! Who needs it??? Do we really care that the italic typeface was invented by a geezer called Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449-1515)? Is it of interest to anyone that he was also the man who printed the first semicolon? And is the semicolon really 'a compliment from the writer to the reader'? Do you really have to count to two in between two related but independent clauses before you use it? When is it correct to use an_ er_ ellipsis? Will not an ordinary dash - like this one - do just as well?
Well, Lynne Truss, who is a little worried about the dash - I know how you feel, Lynne - has written a 'zero- tolerance approach to punctuation' that aims to explain why it really does matter. She has called it Eats, Shoots and Leaves , a title which comes from a joke in which a panda goes into a bar, asks for a ham sandwich, eats it and then takes out a revolver and fires it into the air. When the publican asks him what on earth he is doing, he throws a book on to the bar and growls: 'This is a badly punctuated wildlife manual. Look me up.' The barman flicks through the book and, under the relevant entry, reads: 'PANDA. Large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'
There are plenty of laughs in this book. My favourite story is one about the American chap playing Duncan in Macbeth, listening with appropriate pity and concern while a wounded soldier gives his account of a battle and then cheerfully calling out: 'Go get him, surgeons!' (it should of course be: 'Go, get him surgeons!'). And she reminds us of that old gag loved by Spike Milligan that reworks a sentimental song lyric into a domestic inquiry with one stroke of a comma - 'What is this thing called, love?' She tells - while we're on the subject of commas (sorry, again, about these dashes Lynne) - a marvellous story about New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who liked to put commas in far-flung places, rather in the spirit of a British mountaineer scattering the Union flag in remote corners of the Himalayas.
James Thurber, who fought Ross's comma obsession manfully during his time on the magazine, was once asked by a correspondent why the paper had printed a comma in the sentence: 'After dinner, the men went into the living-room.' 'This particular comma,' Thurber explained, 'was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.'
But this is more than a witty, elegant and passionate book that should be on every writer's shelf. In that last sentence, for example, if I had added a comma after 'elegant' it would be known as an Oxford comma. I did not add it because, although Fowler's Modern English Usage (and most Americans) suggest I should have added it, Truss suggests we should only use it if there is a case for calling attention to the last noun in a list. And, quite clearly, 'passionate' is doing the same kind of work in the sentence as 'charming' and 'elegant'.
Punctuation, in other words, invites you to give careful consideration to the meaning of what you are saying. And people who ignore it, like Marinetti, the futurist, or Gertrude Stein, the_ er_ writer, are generally full of shit. Truss tells the story of Roger Casement, who was charged under the Treason Act of 1351. His counsel contended that, because the Act was unpunctuated, the phrase 'if the man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere' could be construed to mean that it was perfectly all right to plot against the realm provided you did it abroad. Two judges trudged off to the public records and found a faint comma, after the second 'realm'. This, according to Mr Justice Darling (is this where Blackadder got the name?) proved that 'giving aid and comfort' were words of apposition, ie if you were on the side of the king's enemies you were on their side wherever you happened to be. And Casement was duly hanged.
Lynne Truss's book is (stay with this sentence, and remember the function of punctuation is to 'tango the reader into the pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken word would convey') as much an argument for clear thinking as it is a pedantic defence of obsolete conventions of written language. Well. Done. Lynne!!!
PS: Betcha dollars to donuts you'll find Eats, Shoots and Leaves at Book Bonanza in the Cove.