I’ve spent most of this year reading depressing non-fiction about the Second World War, but after I handed Montmaray Three over to my publisher, I gave myself permission to read anything I wanted. Something fun! So I decided to read a book about punctuation.
I heard a lot about this book when it first came out, but the author came across as kind of bitter and humourless in interviews, so I thought I’d give the book a miss. Readers, I was totally wrong. Not only is this book hilarious, it could have been written specifically for me. As Lynne Truss says, it is a book for punctuation sticklers:
“Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation . . . No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to ‘get a life’ by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.”
Ms Truss is the sort of person who stands outside cinemas “with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick” in order to demonstrate how to punctuate the film title Two Weeks Notice. However, she readily acknowledges that the rules of punctuation are complex, that rules vary between nations (and even between publishers) and that one stickler’s pet hate might not be shared by another stickler. She is not a pedant. She loves punctuation because it helps us understand what we’re reading, and she hates punctuation errors because they cause confusion. For example, look at how punctuation alters the meaning of these two sentences:
“A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
She claims the book is not a punctuation guide, but it does provide clear instruction in how to use apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks and other forms of punctuation. I particularly liked her discussion of the comma, which demonstrates her pragmatic approach to punctuation:
“See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken . . . My own feeling is that one shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”
[Evidence for the passion the Oxford comma evokes can be found in this post at Bookshelves of Doom. And don’t you love that American commenter who chose to study at a British university, then was outraged that the British professors wanted her to use British punctuation? The nerve of them!]
Eats, Shoots and Leaves also contains some fascinating historical facts about punctuation, and an interesting discussion of the future of punctuation in a world of e-mails and texting. My only criticisms of the book are minor. Firstly, it lacks an index. I think it ought to be compulsory for all non-fiction books to have an index. (Actually, it would be quite nice if fiction books had them, too, so that I could go straight to my favourite bits when re-reading a novel. I can see that constructing an index for a novel could be rather difficult in practice, though.) Secondly (and this isn’t the author’s fault), the edition I read was written in 2003 for a British readership, so it was not completely relevant for this Australian punctuation stickler. Nevertheless, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a terrific read and I heartily recommend it for fellow sticklers.