I am not ashamed to admit it — I’m a grammar nazi. I cringe at misplaced commas. I wail when I receive e-mails without a single capital letter. I snort at signs advertising “banana’s for sale.” Just this minute, I’m enraged by Fox News Channel’s ignorance of the difference between “its” and “it’s.”
British critic and novelist Lynne Truss wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation for people like me. “[Y]ou know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself?” she asks. “This one gives you permission to love punctuation.” “Sticklers unite!” is her rallying cry.
So it’s rather surprising, then, and probably to no one more than the author herself, that Eats, Shoots & Leaves climbed to No. 1 bestseller in America, even though Truss employs British spellings, usage, and examples throughout. The secret of her success is that she’s written a book on a topic most consider dull and made it fresh, fun, and witty.
ES&L is part history (did you know the exclamation point was originally known as “the note of admiration”?), part instruction (the chapter on the hyphen, an excellent example of telling by showing, is a particular joy), and even part confession (she once banished a poorly-read American pen pal with a plethora of semicolons). But mostly it’s a celebration of those beautiful symbols: the comma, the hyphen, the exclamation point, the dash, and, oh yes, the semicolon.
And there are jokes. This is not as cringe-worthy as it sounds. Except, perhaps, the joke in the title — about a panda turned violent by the mistaken addition of a rather important comma.
Truss’s enthusiasm does now and then get the better of her. She seems obsessed with the grammatically incorrect movie title: Two Weeks Notice, for example. Hollywood is a notorious punctuation scofflaw — witness also the missing question mark in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
But how pleasant it was to spend a few hours musing on the subtleties of the English language. And how pleasant to know thousands of Americans are doing so as well — hours they might have wasted reading the usual wisdom-for-dummies tripe that litters bookstores.
It is easy enough to understand why fewer people normally would prefer to wrestle with the intricacies of punctuation than the intricacies of The Da Vinci Code. Many are frightened by punctuation or confused by it. And the subject generates quarrels faster than anything except religion (and The Da Vinci Code). As Truss says, “There are people who embrace the Oxford [i.e., “serial”] comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
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