Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On punctuation

While we're on questions of written usage, let me suggest a book which has had me laughing out loud of late: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

Truss, a London journalist, wishes we were more literate -- and defends proper punctuation as a prerequisite.

The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation is not that it's an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours [sic, British spelling] when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. ...

I'm with Truss on this -- I try to use punctuation to convey sense, even on a blog.

This book may be a cultural stretch for a writer of U.S. English. I'm not sure it would have been quite so enjoyable to me if I hadn't spent an odd couple of months in South Africa acting as an occasional "sub-editor" (British usage for "copy editor") on a Cape Town newspaper. My ideas about proper punctuation collided shockingly with the local norms -- acquiring some fluency in a novel variant usage made me much more aware of my own punctuation assumptions.

But anyone could appreciate Truss' good humor about a subject more likely to elicit yawns than howls of laughter. To convey the flavor, here's the anecdote that provided the book's title:

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 toward the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiters 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."

Enjoy if the opportunity presents itself.


sfmike said...

"The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation it not that it's..."

You might want to fix that typo of "it" for "is" since this post is all about proper English usage. And yes, the awful English I see on the internet does drive me a bit batty. Somebody has to be a really interesting writer for me to get past consistent bad spelling and punctuation.

janinsanfran said...

Fixed. Thanks Mike -- my face is red...

Darlene said...

I was not an editor and it has been so many moons ago since I left the classroom that my punctuation skills are long forgotten. I am especially lax in knowing where to put a comma and probably use it too often.

Anyone reading my blog would probably tear their hair out. I would appreciate corrections when warranted.

Kay Dennison said...

I got that book from a friend for Christmas a few years ago and love it! It's a stand by on my desk.

ellen said...

I'm mad for commas and I'm sure I overuse them. Proper grammar seems to be leaving our society in a rush. Between the gratuitous apostrophe and the apparently interchangeable homonyms I spend a good portion of my internet time shouting helpful suggestions at the screen.

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