Whoever could have predicted that a grammar book would become a New York Times bestseller and stay on that esteemed list for twenty-five weeks? Certainly not Lynne Truss, the author, or her mother who suggested that she put a sticker on the front cover: “For the select few.” More amazing still is that it was a bestseller in two countries: first in the United Kingdom where the author lived and worked, and, then, in the United States where readers would have to fight their way through some very British spelling and punctuation.
In 2004, Sarah Lyall wrote in The New York Times: “There are many possible reasons for the tremendous success of ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves,’* a spritely volume that leads the reader through the valley of the shadow of the comma splice; refers to the apostrophe as ‘our long-suffering little friend’; makes a rousing case for the semicolon’s usefulness in, among other things, ‘calling a bunch of brawling commas to attention.’” (*Perhaps putting the book title in quotes is correct in British English, but in the States, a title would be italicized.)
If you haven’t figured it out already, I will tell you that Eats, Shoots, & Leaves is a very funny book, and apparently, people laugh at many of the same things on both sides of the pond. (As I am rereading it, I am laughing out loud. Really. Fortunately, there is no one here to witness this giggle-fest, but I assure you, it is taking place.) Here’s a paragraph that caused my outburst:
“Between the sixteenth century and the present, it (the comma) became a kind of scary grammatical sheepdog. The comma has so many jobs as a separator that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising (British spelling) words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course, darting off with a peremptory ‘woof’ to round up any wayward subordinate clauses that may have made a futile bolt for semantic freedom.” Now, THAT is good writing.
What’s the problem with this small but mighty punctuation mark? “When it comes to improving the clarity of the sentence, you can nearly always argue that one should stay in; you can nearly always argue that one should come out … I have seen an essay on the Internet seriously accusing John Updike, that wicked man, of bending the rules to his own ends with fragments, comma splices, coordinate clauses without commas, elliptic coordinate clauses with commas, and more, changes to which, of course, those of us who have no idea what a new elliptical-coordinate-clause-with-commas might look like, can only comment, Tsk.”
After twelve delightful pages of history and wit, the author finally gets around to mentioning a few rules. “The big final rule for commas is one you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It’s quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it. More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity.” For example:
- “Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual. (Should be: Leonora walked on, her head a little higher than usual.)
- “The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the riverbank. (Should be: “The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank, and swam to the riverbank.)
- The convict said the judge was mad. (Should be: The convict, said the judge, was mad.)
In a chapter called “Arts and Graces,” the author views punctuation as an art. “Naturally, therefore, this is where the colons and semicolons waltz in together, to a big cheer from all the writers in the audience.” While there is no art involved in using the apostrophe or the comma, colons and semicolons are in a different league, according to Ms. Truss, and it seems to take pure poetry to describe them.
“Of course, nothing is straightforward in the world of literary taste. Just as there are writers who worship the semicolon, there are other high stylists who dismiss it – who label it, if you please, middle-class.” Gertrude Stein, whom the author refers to as “the energetic enemy of all punctuation,” wrote the ultimate put down. “Semicolons suppose themselves superior to the comma, but are mistaken, are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma, but they are all the same. They have fundamentally within them the comma nature.”
The chapter called “Cutting a Dash” is about expressive, attention-seeking punctuation, such as the exclamation mark, the dash, the italic.
- Ever since it came along, grammarians have warned us to be wary of the exclamation mark, mainly because, even when we try to muffle it with brackets (!), still shouts, flashes like neon, and jumps up and down.
- “The dash is nowadays seen as the enemy of grammar, partly because overtly disorganized thought is in most email and (mobile phone) text communication, and the dash does an annoyingly good job in these contexts standing in for all the other punctuation marks.
- Of all the conventions of print that make no objective sense, the use of italics is one that puzzles most.
There is actually a whole chapter on a “Little Used Punctuation Mark,” the hyphen. “People have argued for its abolition for years… Yet there will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen … places abound that cry out for hyphens: to avoid ambiguity; when spelling out numbers; when linking nouns with nouns and adjectives with adjectives; when one phrase is used to qualify another; with certain prefixes; when certain words are to be spelled out; purely for expediency;” and on and on and on. There seem to be a lot of uses for a punctuation mark whose life is supposedly in danger.
Finally, in the last chapter, the author concludes with one last defense of punctuation: Despite a “language that is full of ambiguities” and “a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated, our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we better to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.
“If that goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”