I was in the middle of one depressing novel and four books of nonfiction, and I needed some entertainment. So I turned to a book on–what else?–punctuation. If you’ve kept an eye on the bestseller lists at all over the past few years, you’ll have guessed that I picked up Eats, Shoots & Leaves by British author Lynne Truss.
Truss is a self-proclaimed stickler of the sort who parade outside of movie theaters with signs supplying the missing apostrophe in “Two Weeks Notice.” (Note the subtitle: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.) She makes her case with humor, wit, and passion. Aside from the first and last, each chapter is devoted to a specific punctuation mark–the comma, the apostrophe, the hyphen–or a group of them, i.e. colon and semicolon. Truss relates some of the history behind each mark–where it originated, how it has been used–and then goes on to describe its appropriate use today, as well as some of the ongoing controversies. In many cases she acknowledges that there are no hard-and-fast rules–and if there are, they exist only the minds of sticklers who argue hotly for their own set of rules against other firmly convinced sticklers who adhere to another barely differentiated set of guidelines. Truss relates that New Yorker editor Harold Ross once admitted in a letter: “We have carried editing to a high degree of fussiness here … I don’t know how to get it under control.” Ross, apparently, was in favor of commas, and humorist James Thurber was not (if that is not a too-great simplication of the debate). Truss writes:
If Ross were to write “red, white, and blue” with the maximum number of commas, Thurber would defiantly state a preference for “red white and blue” with none at all, on the provocative grounds that “all those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look” (69).
Truss is probably preaching to the choir, as I suspect that most of her readers belong to the “fussy” camp. Indeed, the preface acknowledges this; Truss’s rallying cry for the book-in-progress, as she envisioned it, was “Sticklers unite!” (xviii). She confesses that “my own mother suggested we print on the front of the book ‘For the select few'” (xviii). My edition comes complete with a “punctuation repair kit”–stickers in the form of punctuation marks with which the informed can correct the ignorant. Only a stickler would have need of that.
Not that the punctuation-challenged can’t benefit from Truss’s lucid discussions of the ins and outs of punctuation. My aunt, a high-school English teacher, said that a seminar she attended for AP Lit instructors recommended the book for classroom use. But Truss’s co-religionists might most appreciate her inspired wit, which is, in my opinion, what really makes the book worth reading.
I tend to think myself fairly adept when it comes to punctuation placement (having said that, I am doomed to have committed some heinous punctuation error in this very post). But I am less of a prescriptivist than some, and I thought perhaps Truss carried her argument a bit too far in the closing chapter. She herself writes that “while massive change from the printed word to the bloody electronic signal is inevitably upon us, we diehard punctuation-lovers are perhaps not as rigid as we think we are. And we must guard against over-reacting” (190). However, just a few pages later she makes this reactionary claim: “Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable” (202).
There may be something to the assertion that the process of punctuating requires some writers to formulate their thoughts more carefully than they might otherwise. But surely Truss cannot believe that the ancient Hebrews and Greeks operated at the dismal level of intellectual impoverishment she now fears for the Western world. In the chapter on the comma she explains that the Hebrew scriptures and texts from the classical period had neither punctuation nor spaces between words. According to Truss, this scriptio continua constitutes a “chaotic…swamp from which [our language] so bravely crawled less than two thousand years ago” (201). I would like to hear Truss expand on the ways in which contemporary texts are so far superior to the classics. I wonder how many of our modern works will still be venerated two thousand–or even fifteen hundred–years from now.
But who wants to read a treatise by a temperate campaigner? If Truss had been less zealous, she probably wouldn’t have written this book, and I would have been deprived of a few good late-night chuckles over, of all things, punctuation.