Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Punctuation is Funny

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
By Lynne Truss, copyright 2003
ISBN: 1-592-40087-6

Punctuation is a funny subject if the writer is Lynne Truss. In the understated and humorous manner of P. G. Wodehouse, Truss discusses the usage, history and fine distinctions of quotation marks, semi-colons, exclamations marks! etc., as demonstrated in this quote from the back cover:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife novel and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "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."

My son gave me "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" last year for my birthday. At first I felt dismay -- a book on punctuation for a birthday present?

Discovery: it's the perfect present for a writer.

Lynn's forty-two-page essay on the comma is a marvel of humor, history, and literary correspondence. At the hands of Lynne Truss the apostrophe, colon and semicolon are hilarious subjects. The distinction between a hyphen and a dash is risible!

The most vexing questions for many writers center on quotation marks, used with commas, periods, etc. The author illuminates the quirks of punctuation with discussions of historical usage. Writers began using quotation marks about three hundred years ago, therefore the British style and American style developed separately and are opposite. Even more confusing is the use of quotation marks inside a quotation. Lynn Truss slices and dices all the dots and squiggles with aplomb.

I recommend reading "Eats Shoots & Leaves" at any convenient time: waiting at the dentist, in the bathtub, riding the subway. There is one time I recommend against reading the book. If you have a sense of humor, do not read this book while you are eating. Lynn's sly humor is sprinkled throughout the book, and spontaneous laughter combined with swallowing food can cause choking.

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