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

EATS SHOOTS & LEAVES: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation BY LYNNE TRUSS GOTHAM 2004, 209 PAGES, $17.50

Lynne Truss styles herself a "stickler," and what she stickles about is the punctuational anarchy she encounters everywhere. Confusion of "its" and "it's" seems epidemic, and commas are all too commonly used to splice independent clauses. Truss, a British journalist and editor, offers a droll but tenacious defense of proper markings in proper places. "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place," wrote Ukranian journalist Isaac Babel. Truss despairs that we are living in a period in which ignorance and indifference have depleted our powers of expression. "The reason to stand up for punctuation," she argues, "is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning."

Eats Shoots & Leaves became an unlikely best seller when published in the United Kingdom in 2003. The American edition reproduces the original, including British spellings ("behaviour," "cheque"), allusions (London's 73 bus), and punctuation (periods outside quotation marks), and it retains Truss' truculence about careless usage of semicolons and parentheses. The title of her book comes from a joke about a panda who walks into a cafe, consumes a sandwich, and then fires two shots. An explanation for the bizarre behavior is found in a poorly punctuated wildlife manual. The entry for "Panda" states: "Large black-and-white bearlike mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

Truss offers several other examples in which punctuation determines sense. Consider the difference between "The convict said the judge is mad" and "The convict, said the judge, is mad"; and "A woman, without her man, is nothing" and "A woman: without her, man is nothing." Though punctuation marks are conventions designed to facilitate reading, they are neither arbitrary nor picayune for clear and complex expression. Truss reviews the rules of punctuation but delights in the flexibility that enables individual writers to use hyphens, dashes, and apostrophes to achieve subtlety and grace.

The author examines the characteristics and uses of various punctuation marks, and she surveys their origins noting that they largely coincide with the history of printing. She celebrates Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515), who invented italics and semicolons, and she speculates about the extinction of punctuation in the Internet age. While facilitating and demecraticizing reading and writing, electronic messages often are dispatched devoid of capitals, commas, and nuances. "Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking," she insists. "If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable." Concluding in effect with an ellipsis, Eats Shoots & Leaves imagines a barmy future in which it no longer is possible to distinguish between a pickled-herring merchant and a pickled herring merchant....


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Author:Kellman, Steven G.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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