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Punctuation r00lz.

I recently finished reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, and must highly, highly recommend it for a) anyone who wants to brush up on their punctuation usage skills, or b) anyone who experiences the basic Pavlovian "kill" instinct when faced with signs like "We Buy Book's, CD's, Record's," and needs to feel that they are not alone. Not only does this book vindicate me for my occasional foaming-at-the-mouth rants about the comma splice (or "splice comma," depending how you look at it), but the way it's written is hilarious. I have not giggled aloud so much when reading a book in months. I'll give you some excerpts to illustrate:


...there is even a rather delightful publication for children called The Punctuation Repair Kit, which takes the line "Hey! It's uncool to be stupid!" – which is a lie, of course, but you have to admire them for trying. (32-33)

...when the possessor is a regular plural, the apostrophe follows the "s": The boys' hats (more than one boy)... I apologise if you know all this, but the point is many, many people do not. Why else would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying "Giant Kid's Playground," and then wonder why everyone stays away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.) (41)

...consider the difference between the following: "Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise." And: "Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise." Now, huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret the passage (Luke, xxiii, 43), lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were) and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for the Catholics, who believe in it. (74) [This problem emerges because Hebrew, like other ancient written languages, had no punctuation, and thus only in later transcriptions was punctuation added.]

The big final rule for the comma is...: don't use commas like a stupid person.
[Examples, with the problem summarized in my words:]
Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual. (Comma belongs after "on".)
Don't guess, use a timer or watch. (Should be a semicolon. This use actually conveys the opposite of its intended meaning.)
The society decided not to prosecute the owners of the Windsor Safari Park, where animals, have allegedly been fed live to snakes and lions, on legal advice. (Badly written sentence overall, but they definitely need to remove the comma after "animals.") (96-97)

Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world that you are not a thicko. The comma, while less subject to universal rules, is still a utilitarian mark, racing about with its ears back, trying to serve both the sense and the sound of the sentence – and of course wearing itself to a frazzle for a modest bowl of Chum. ... But colons and semicolons – well, they are in a different league, my dear! They give such lift! (105-106)


I could go on. Virtually every page has something quotable and wonderful. Tomorrow, maybe, I'll post the P.G. Wodehouse passage she includes, about dictating aloud. V. v. funny.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 31st, 2004 10:19 am (UTC)
Wodehouse bit hath just been posted. :) He's always good for a laugh.
(Deleted comment)
May. 30th, 2004 04:48 pm (UTC)
Hehe - well, the story of the title is a different affair:

A panda walked into a cafe. He ordered a sandwich, ate it, then pulled out a gun and shot the waiter. 'Why?' groaned the injured man. The panda shrugged, tossed him a badly punctuated wildlife manual and walked out. And sure enough, when the waiter consulted the book, he found an explanation. 'Panda,' ran the entry for his assailant. 'Large black and white mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'

*rim shot*

So really it should be a colon, with no other commas. But as for the serial comma (also called an "Oxford comma"), apparently it is the norm in American style manuals - I prefer it myself - but not in UK ones. And this is a UK book which has kept all its original punctuation and spellings, since really it reads better that way, the author's style just being so British. :)
(Deleted comment)
May. 30th, 2004 08:14 pm (UTC)
It's like a list of facts about pandas:

Color: Black and white
Lives: Asia
Eats: Shoots and leaves

Forgive the intrusion ;)
May. 30th, 2004 08:46 pm (UTC)
Exactly. Thank you for illustrating. :)
(Deleted comment)
May. 31st, 2004 10:24 am (UTC)
Ah yes - probably better without the colon altogether.

Agh, I know. I'd practically given up hope that anyone in future generations will know how to use it's and its. But maybe I shouldn't abandon the cause so lightly! Sticklers, unite!
May. 30th, 2004 11:13 pm (UTC)
'twas a great book indeed! Loved it.

it's funny how she kept reffering to Starbursts and how it got its name changed. She must've been pretty annoyed about it ^^
May. 31st, 2004 10:22 am (UTC)
Yes...I personally don't think "Opal Fruits" is any better a name than "Starburst," but there's no accounting for taste.
May. 31st, 2004 06:48 pm (UTC)
You might also enjoy Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The Transitive Vampire (now apparently available only as The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed).

Yours for the eradication of the "10 items or less" aisles (it's "fewer," damn it!),
Jun. 3rd, 2004 08:44 pm (UTC)
Cool - added it to the book list. Good title. :)

I manage to ignore the less/fewer problem these days, but I still can't bear Quotation Marks For Emphasis. e.g.:

"Fresh" Strawberries!

Are they fresh or aren't they? *sigh*
Jun. 1st, 2004 05:56 am (UTC)
I bought 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' for my mother for xmas, and met Lynne Truss to get the copy signed. I've only read a couple of chapters, but it was very good - I think I'll have to steal my mum's copy to finish reading it.
Jun. 3rd, 2004 08:46 pm (UTC)
That's cool you got to meet her. She sounds like she'd be fun in person. Or scary...hard to say for sure... :)
Jun. 4th, 2004 03:29 am (UTC)
She's a local author, so the town was filled with her book over xmas and she did lots of signings, and there was an impressive queue, considering it's a book about grammar. She was very friendly.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 27th, 2004 10:14 am (UTC)
Ah! LJ is letting me comment today, huh? :)

Yes, he does seem overly scathing at first. Even if Lynne Truss is that serious about her punctuation crusade, I don't think most of us readers are. We're just glad to see someone finally stand up and swat those people who write stuff like "at it's best" and "hundreds of movie's" on actual advertising. But I do like what he says about the difference between the writer and the written product. That's spot-on. Interesting stuff!
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )