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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Reviewed: July 2, 2004
By: Lynne Truss
Publisher: Penguin Books
240 pages, $26.00

I have to admit to a weakness for amusing books about language. Lynne Truss has certainly produced one of those in this book.

The title itself is an example of the problems she's discussing. The phrase concerns the dietary habits of the Panda, which "eats shoots and leaves", punctuated this way, not the way that Truss found it printed.

On the book's cover, there is an illustration of a Panda climbing a ladder to remove the offending punctuation mark. I sympathize. I feel like doing the same thing every time I drive by that restaurant out by Wal-Mart that sells "Rib's". Sadly, it's a neon sign. I wince when I see a notice at the post office advertising "boys skate's" for sale. I have been known to X out offending punctuation on public posters and even in graffiti, but it's a mug's game to try and keep up, so I don't do it much. I get more than enough of it going through student compositions.

Lynne Truss suggests (with tongue in cheek - I think) that punctuation purists should march about with a kit containing scissors, whiteout, various sizes of self-stick commas and other gear for dealing with the public plague.

I won't go that far, but I do understand. Sometimes carelessness in these things does matter. Truss cites the case of the missing comma that allowed the Boer War to start. She presents us with a number of sentences in which the proper placement of punctuation makes a difference.

Try this for instance:

A woman, without her man, is nothing

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

How about the headline that read DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED? Just think of the possibilities there.

Truss deals with apostrophes, commas, dashes, parentheses (or brackets), colons, semi-colons and numerous other marks that have been known to stump high school graduates and otherwise intelligent people. The point of them all, as I tell my students repeatedly, is to translate the four dimensional act of speaking into the two dimensional act of reading so that your reader will have a better sense of what you are trying to communicate.

We are constantly trying to overcome those barriers in written language. Both text messaging and e-mail have spawned a whole lot of new markings (shorthand scribbles like "U NO?" and emoticons like " : >" that have to be read sideways) intended to get more than just the words across to the reader.

We obviously need punctuation marks or we would not have developed them. The grammarians didn't make them up after all; they simply noted what was already happening and recorded it.

Truss's point, and I think it holds up even when she goes a bit over the top, is that we should attempt to make better use of the squiggles we've got - actually teach their most basic uses in school again - and let them help us be better communicators.

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