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Jots and Tittles

At long last, a Mein Kampf for grammar nazis.

By 6.18.04

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Lynne Truss
(Gotham Books, 240 pages, $17.50)

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."

ES&L occasionally made me feel like a drunken pedant. Truss declares, for example, that words ending in "s" must use an apostrophe followed by another "s." But this is not the only way -- or so it seems to me. I prefer to use just the apostrophe, and this is perfectly acceptable usage. Grammar is sometimes a matter of taste.

But then sometimes it isn't, and much can ride on a mere comma. There is the story of Sir Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist "hanged on a comma," it was said, in 1916. He was charged under the Treason Act of 1351, which was written in Norman French and completely unpunctuated -- making interpretation rather ambiguous.

Less grave, but no less closely argued, is the case of Graham Greene's Comma. On his deathbed, the novelist inserted one in a statement giving his authorized biographer, Norman Sherry, access to his papers at Georgetown University. Does this comma restrict access solely to Sherry? Georgetown's librarian thinks so, but Greene's own son does not.

So take that, young text messengers, with your punctuation-free prose. Truss argues that the Internet Age has made language education more important than ever, now that practically everyone is a writer of some sort: a blogger, a reviewer at Amazon.com, or just an e-mail correspondent. Now that "People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others."

As Truss explains in the introduction, punctuation is analogous to good manners. She notes that "punctuation" has the same root as "punctilious," which means "attentive to formality or etiquette."

It is no surprise why so few modern Americans know how to use a comma. It is for the same reason that they ignore RSVPs, immediately call their friends' parents by their first names, and don't bother to send thank-you notes. These are not mere trivialities. As Emily Post wrote in her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, "manner is personality -- the outward manifestation of one's innate character and attitude toward life."

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About the Author

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash.