“Why?” asks the confused waiter. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder as he heads for the door. “I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
And that, my friends, is why punctuation is so important. It can save lives (“Let’s eat Grandma” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma”); prevent unnecessary ulcers (is anything so distressing as a sign that reads “Freshly Baked Donut’s”?); and help pandas stay comfortably within the bounds of the law.
Now is as good a time as any to point out that the world consists of two very different kinds of people: those who care about what I just said, and those who don’t. That is to say, those who care about punctuation and seek to use it properly, and those who don’t give two shakes of a rat’s butt about the difference between it’s and its.
Lynne Truss is one of the former. Her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a two hundred page love letter to the beauty and necessity of punctuation. You should read it.
You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation. It’s about how we got the punctuation we have today; how such a tiny but adaptable system of marks allows us to notate most (but not all) types of verbal expression; and how (according to Beachcomber) a greengrocer in days of yore inspired Good Queen Bess to create the post of Apostropher Royal. But mainly it’s about making sticklers feel good about their seventh-sense ability to see dead punctuation (whisper it in verge-of-tears tones: “It doesn’t know it’s dead”) and to defend their sense of humor.
The author’s own sense of humor is a big part of why this book is so darned enjoyable. As a reviewer for The Boston Globe put it, “Truss is a reformer with the soul of a stand-up comedian.” Her style is engaging and chatty, running the gamut from gentle instruction to foot-stamping indignation.
No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.
This is where sticklers the world over leap to their feet, clapping till their hands fall off, cheering till they faint from lack of oxygen. “Lynne Truss for President! Lynne Truss for prime minister! Lynne Truss for dictator-for-life!”
To state the obvious: I loved this bold, brainy, and delightfully British book (I’m still waiting for a chance to use ‘lawks-a-mussy’ in a conversation). Truss’s enthusiasm is infectious, bubbling up and spilling over as she writes about the tractable apostrophe, the enigmatic ellipses, the misunderstood semicolon, and the overused, underused, and often abused comma. This is great stuff. In the words of James Lipton, “Punc-rock on!”