April 03, 2007

The panda says NO!

The title of Lynne Truss' book Eats, Shoots & Leaves comes from an old joke - not referenced in the text but printed on the back cover - about a panda that walks into a bar and orders a meal, then pulls out a gun, fires two shots, and walks out. Asked why he did it, he shows the bartender a nature book, whose badly edited entry on the panda says it is a native of China that "eats, shoots and leaves." Rim shot. As soon as I read the following paragraph, I knew two things about this book: a) I was about to be subjected to a protracted vent about crimes against grammar, and b) I was going to have a lot of fun reading it:

I don't know how bad things are in America, but in the UK I cannot emphasise it enough: standards of punctuation are abysmal. Encouraged to conduct easy tests on television, I discovered to my horror that most British people truly do not know their apostrophe from their elbow. "I'm an Oxbridge intellectual," slurred a chap in Brighton, where we were asking passers-by to "pin the apostrophe on the sentence" for a harmless afternoon chat-show. He immediately placed an apostrophe (oh no!) in a possessive "its". The high-profile editor of a national newspaper made the same mistake on a morning show, scoring two correct points out of a possible seven. On a TV news bulletin, the results of a vox pop item were shown on screen under the heading "Grammer Test" - the spelling of which I assumed was a joke until I realised nobody in the studio was laughing. Meanwhile well-wishers sent hundreds of delightful/horrific examples of idiotic sign-writing, my current favourite being the roadside warning CHILDREN DRIVE SLOWLY - courtesy of the wonderful Shakespearean actor Timothy West. Evidently, this sign - inadvertently descriptive of the disappointing road speeds attainable by infants at the wheel - was eventually altered (but sadly not not improved) by the addition of a comma, becoming CHILDREN, DRIVE SLOWLY - a kindly exhortation, perhaps, which might even save lives among those self-same reckless juvenile road-users; but still not quite what the writer had in mind.1

Each chapter of Eats, Shoots & Leaves is devoted to one punctuation mark (or a few related ones). The lesson is served with a generous helping of snarky anecdotes. The best of these is about a teenage Truss tearing her new pen pal, the befreckled Kerry-Anne (who dotted her i's with little circles), a new orifice with a semicolon:

I replied to her childish letter on grown-up deckled green paper with a fountain pen. Whether I actually donned a velvet smoking jacket for the occasion I can't remember, but I know I deliberately dropped the word "desultory", and I think I may even have used some French. . . . The main reason I remember this shameful teenage epiphany, however, is that in my mission to blast little Kerry-Anne out of the water, I pulled out (literally) all the stops: I used a semicolon. "I watch television in a desultory kind of way; I find there is not much on," I wrote.2

Book Review
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss
Gotham-Penguin, 2003
ISBN: 1-592-40203-8
209 pp.

But amidst all the biting wit, the book does give helpful, and largely unconfusing, guidance for good punctuation usage. Many of the examples form a running gag involving Starburst candies (Truss is amusingly resentful of their name change from Opal Fruit), and in the chapter on semicolons, several take a jab at Kerry-Anne and her freckles.

The one thing this book doesn't explain clearly is quotation marks. For some reason, Truss prefers North American-style inverted commas (double outside single), but British-style "logical" placement of other punctuation within them. Her explanation of logical punctuation didn't un-confuse me any more. I think I can see why the American edition was published with British spelling and typology instead of following the usual custom of converting it to American usage: one side of the Pond might completely miss the point!

My edition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves comes with a "Punctuation Repair Kit," consisting of a variety of punctuation-mark stickers, which pedantic vandals can use to correct local vendors' signage; and a handful of "The Panda Says NO!" stickers, which I assume are to cover up superfluous apostrophes when your grocer tries to sell you "apple's"3 at $1.49/lb. I wouldn't use them myself, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be immensely satisfied to see that other grammar vigilantes have stuck them on signs all over town.

"Bad Comma", Louis Menand's peevish review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves in the New Yorker4 points out, in painstaking detail, numerous instances of punctuation at odds with Truss' rules. Perhaps the copyeditor should have paid closer attention to detail. However, it's nit-picky to place a serial comma (a stylistic preference that Truss doesn't like) on the same level as an apostrophe in a plural (an error). Truss is a curmudgeon, but she's not a pedant. Maybe the New Yorker prefers its grammar descriptive rather than prescriptive.

After finishing up Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I sought out Truss' followup, Talk to the Hand. In this book, she laments the death of common courtesy, in such ways as the lack of simple pleasantries (please and thank you); the breakdown of public and private spaces (leading to telemarketers intruding upon your dinner with obnoxious sales calls, or loud cellphone conversations on the bus about how many times and with whom and in what positions); the end of true customer service (so that customers must serve themselves by punching endless numbers into automated attendants); and the Universal Eff Off Reflex (because everyone has the right to do what he wants and to be free of criticism for doing it5, "Eff Off," or an equivalent hand signal, has become the expected response to any attempt to rebuke or correct loutish behaviour). It's an excellent read - in many ways more entertaining than the previous book - but here, Eats, Shoots & Leaves gets the nod simply for not merely pointing out what's wrong, but being helpful. I'd be happy enough to have both volumes on the bookshelf, but it's Truss' earlier book that I would include in the library I carry from workplace to workplace.

Footnotes

1 xx-xxi.

2 104-05.

3 Halal footnote: Or, more commonly around here, shawarma's.

4 Louis Menand, "Bad Comma: Lynne Truss's Strange Grammar," The New Yorker, 28 June 2004, 102-04.

5 Judge not, lest ye be judged footnote: I sometimes wonder if our prevailing non-judgmentalism ought not to be classified as a Christian heresy. After all, Jesus did say "judge not" (amongst other things), and it's probably the one thing in the Bible everyone knows . . .