Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne TrussAfter I finally finished Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (which I still need to do a post on. EDIT: done), I read my aunt Jill’s selection for this year’s Family Book and CD/DVD exchange (of which I have done a VERY poor job of writing about this year): Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. While I have never been much of a writer (I didn’t have to write too much as a Physics and Astronomy major), I started to read more in college and as I had to write much more at Regent College, language and its use and function become more interesting to me. That being the case, this book was a fun (and pretty quick) read!

My only real qualm with the book is that now my friend Greg cannot tell the joke (the Panda one) nearly as often… and he told it really well (I will attempt to reproduce it at the end of this post; but will not do it the justice it deserves and that Greg provides).

While I think that some take punctuation way too seriously - “sticklers” as they are called - after reading numerous poorly written blogs, I will gladly side with the sticklers when it comes to language and the written word. (And not to appear too hypocritical, I do recognize that I am horrible at spelling and do have numerous writing flaws. Now that that is out of the way, onward!) Truss is quite excited about punctuation and is able to share that in a humorous way. Let me share a number of those places with you.

Of course, if Hebrew or any of the other ancient languages had included punctuation (in the case of Hebrew, a few vowels might have been nice as well), two thousand years of scriptural exegesis need never have occurred, and a lot of clever, dandruffy people could definitely have spent more time in the fresh air.

Heh, so true! And continuing on that line, she discusses the practice in antiquity of using all caps and no spaces that

look to modern eyes like those word-search puzzles that you stare at for twenty minutes or so, and then (with a delighted cry) suddenly spot the word “PAPERNAPKIN” spelled diagonally and backwards… One fifth-century recluse called Cassian argues that if a text was slow to offer up its meaning, this encouraged not only healthy meditation but the glorification of God - the heart lifting in praise, obviously, at the moment when the word “PAPERNAPKIN” suddenly floated to the surface, like a synaptic miracle.

Then Truss gets quite excited about an early pioneer of printed punctuation:

That man was Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515) and I will happily admit I hadn’t heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies.

This woman loves punctuation. In her discussion of the habit-forming nature of semicolons made this remark: “I hear there are now Knightsbridge clinics offering semicolonic irrigation - but for many it may be too late.” That actually made me laugh out loud.

This book also helped me realize that I often write more like an Englishmen than an American (probably due to all those damn Canadians at Regent):

The basic rule is straightforward and logical: when the punctuation relates to the quoted words it goes inside the inverted commas; when it relates to the sentence, it goes outside. Unless of course, you are in America.

But it seems logical to me too! And I am an American dammit!

In a, somewhat risqué, note about hyphens: “There will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: if it’s not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts.” Heh.

Towards the end of the book Truss shows her disdain for “Netspeak”, especially emoticons.

[In email,] clicking on “send” has its limitations as a system of subtle communication. Which is why, of course, people use so many dashes and italics and capitals to compensate. That’s why they came up with the emoticon, too - the emoticon being the greatest (or most desperate, depending how you look at it) advance in punctuation since the question mark in the reign of Charlemagne.

Also noting that emoticons

are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What’s this curvy thing for? It’s a mouth, look! Hey, I think we’re on to something.


And finally, a somewhat serious note about punctuation as merely convention:

Isn’t it the case, in the end, that punctuation is just a set of conventions, and that conventions have no intrinsic worth? One can’t help remembering the moment in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark when the Bellman exhibits his blank map and asks the crew how they feel about it:

“What use are Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
“They are merely conventional signs!”

So there ya have it. Don’t let a book about punctuation put you off. It is a good read and you might actually learn something!

And here is the wonderful joke that I first heard from Greg (and haven’t heard it told better since, and this retelling won’t stack up at all, I guarantee):

A waiter was working one day when a giant panda came into his restaurant, sat down, and asked for a menu. This was certainly a strange occurrence, but the waiter wasn’t going to keep the panda from enjoying their food. The panda ordered his food and when it was brought to him, gulped it all down. After letting out a belch, the panda stood up, pulled out a gun, fired it in the air, and headed for the door. Before the panda could make it through the exit the waiter yells at him to stop. The panda turns to him, looks him in the eye and says, “Hey, it’s what I do.” The next second the panda was gone. The waiter was dumbfounded. For the rest of the evening the waiter couldn’t focus on his work, he was just so confused by what happened earlier. Seeing that the waiter was completely useless, the manager sent him home. Well the waiter still could not take his mind off the happenings at the restaurant so he pulled down his old Encyclopædia Britannicas and looked up “panda” to see if it would give him any idea about why the panda had acted so strange. As he opened up the “P” volume, he had an epiphany! There is was, in black and white: “The giant panda: native to central and southern China; eats, shoots and leaves.” Eureka!! (Greg can make this story go on and on, it’s good times.)

  1. September 28th, 2006 at 19:41 | #1

    Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is possibly the best grammar book ever-if not the best book ever. I drool for it.

  2. September 28th, 2006 at 20:27 | #2

    Hehe, a “stickler” I see! ;) Have you drawn in apostrophes on Two Weeks [sic] Notice posters?

    I also see that you use the Oxford comma (which I guess is fairly standard here in the States, but not in the UK). I have always been a fan myself as I feel that (contrary to the English title) Eats, Shoots and Leaves just looks too naked and that additional comma really is important.

  3. Becky
    September 29th, 2006 at 00:02 | #3

    Is this what Greg’s joke is from?

  4. Becky
    September 29th, 2006 at 00:03 | #4

    Okay, I feel dumb now…

  5. September 29th, 2006 at 00:27 | #5

    Hehe, don’t feel dumb! I am actually not sure where Greg first heard this joke. Have you heard him tell it. It really is a think of beauty. He can keep it going like 5-10 minutes!

  6. September 29th, 2006 at 12:25 | #6

    I must have my Oxford commas. According to Chicago style writing, the final commas are being phased out. I simply do nto understand why! there is a definite pause in my inflection where the comma should go. I grew up thinking that if there was a pause in a sentence, that there should be a comma there. Call me comma-crazy…or just start singing “Comma comma comma comma comma chamelion”. Either way, I probably use them too often. Like that last sentence- should there have been a comma after way or not?

  7. September 29th, 2006 at 13:08 | #7

    I think there should definitely be a comma after “way” in that sentence. I think I tend to lean on the side of overuse as well. Silly non-comma users!

  8. September 29th, 2006 at 14:43 | #8

    I enjoyed this book immensely. The only problem was that I would loan it to people and not see it again for months. Fiona

  9. September 29th, 2006 at 16:09 | #9

    Heh, I guess the sure sign of a good book, eh? Who knew a book on punctuation could be so popular!?

  10. September 29th, 2006 at 16:49 | #10

    Gotham Books.

  11. September 29th, 2006 at 16:56 | #11

    Those darn soothsayers.

  12. September 29th, 2006 at 17:18 | #12

    Stone them!

  13. September 29th, 2006 at 17:22 | #13

    But only if they weigh more than a duck…

  14. October 2nd, 2006 at 17:06 | #14

    Cool you went to Regent. We were there in ’95 - ’96 - my husband was in law school.

    , , , , , ,

  15. October 2nd, 2006 at 18:34 | #15

    Very cool! I love Regent and miss taking classes. It was a very good experience for me.

  16. October 11th, 2006 at 20:06 | #16

    Is “oxford comma” just a pleasant way of saying comma splice? :)

  17. David A. Cobb
    February 5th, 2007 at 10:50 | #17

    It’s way after the fact. I don’t suppose anyone will see this. I first saw something similar, but in reverse, showing how leaving the comma out can distort.

    Book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

  18. February 23rd, 2010 at 20:05 | #18

    This is awesome. I really enjoyed “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” even if it confused the punctuation in-or-out debate (oh, those Brits!). Nice post :) <-an emoticon!

  19. February 23rd, 2010 at 20:50 | #19

    Darn Brits! Which do you prefer in the debate? I’m not actually sure why I started with the Brit way, I think it just seemed logical to me.

  1. September 29th, 2006 at 13:55 | #1

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