altEats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (Gotham Books, New York, 2003)

A panda walks into a café.  He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit.  The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

I’m a panda,” he says, at the door.  “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda.  Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Many thanks to DSTB for giving me this book, and thereby redeeming a past mistake on my part, made in response to a mistake on the part of our library.

I’d heard that Eats, Shoots & Leaves was a good book—though I knew little about it, as you will see—and so one day when I found it on tape at our library, I checked it out.  I obviously was not paying attention when I put the cassette in our player, because apparently the wrong tape had been returned to the Eats, Shoots & Leaves packaging.  What I heard was so uninteresting to me that I didn’t even finish the book, and don’t remember it now; it certainly wasn’t about punctuation.

“What?”  you ask.  “There’s something more boring than punctuation?”

Read Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  You’ll never call punctuation boring again.  You’ll laugh, and you’ll also learn.

One thing I learned is something I’ve suspected for a while now:  the rules change when you cross the Atlantic.  It’s not just the spelling (and pronunciation) of that metal out of which we make soda cans and “tin” foil.  Truss encourages us to be sticklers for proper punctuation (hear, hear!)—a difficult enough task when bad examples surround us—but also cautions that sometimes what looks incorrect may be merely a cultural difference.

Be that as it may, the only thing that annoyed me about this short and pleasant book—and only as much as fingernails on a blackboard—was this British author’s persistent use of the British way of combining punctuation and quotation marks.

Many words require hyphens to avoid ambiguity:  words such as “co-respondent”, “re-formed”, “re-mark”.

I would have called that plain wrong, but it turns out that putting the punctuation inside the quotation marks (<ahem> where it belongs!) is an Americanism.

Many words require hyphens to avoid ambiguity:  words such as “co-respondent,” “re-formed,” “re-mark.”

I see the logic of the British system, but it still grates.

I also learned that there’s a reason for another annoyance ; this one is found in my beloved collection of George MacDonald books : What ?  Colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points ! find themselves preceded as well as followed by spaces.  Truss provided the answer to my puzzlement:  these books are facsimile editions, and that now strange punctuation procedure was at one time the Way Things Are Done.

Are you confused by the Way Things Are (or Should Be) Done Now?  Check out Eats, Shoots & Leaves for some seriously amusing enlightenment.

A headline recently provided by my Google News feed illustrates the importance of correct punctuation.

Ratko Mladic arrested, Hillary Clinton in Pakistan

Imagine it now, without the comma:

Ratko Mladic arrested Hillary Clinton in Pakistan

Punctuation matters.  So read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest—and enjoy!

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Edit
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Punctuation matters, and so does spelling. Is the title supposed to have these problems? "Eats, Shoots a& Leaves: Th Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation"

Posted by IrishOboe on Saturday, June 04, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Touché. Thanks.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 04, 2011 at 1:52 pm

I recently learned about the British punctuation rules regarding quotation marks. I too see the logic in keeping the quotation's integrity but it feels so wrong to do it that way.

Unrelated trivia you may enjoy: according an episode (S03E01) of the BBC comedy quiz show "QI," the North American gray squirrel has not made it to the Isle of Wight despite introduction to the United Kingdom.

Posted by David July on Saturday, June 04, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Perhaps the Isle of Wight is requiring a name chance to "the North American grey squirrel."

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 04, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Or "the Drab Yank Squirrel". With "correct" punctuation.

Posted by Stephan on Sunday, June 05, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Hmmm. Sorry, that one went over my head.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, June 05, 2011 at 8:39 pm

I think he means, "name change" and Drab==grey, Yank==North American

Posted by joyful on Monday, June 06, 2011 at 7:06 am

Oops. I meant "name change" also....

Oh, and I also think I just figured out what he meant by "correct" pronunciation. Not exactly "drab." More like what the Red Sox fans call the NYC team. I was tired last night.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, June 06, 2011 at 7:23 am

"Drab==grey, Yank==North American." You are such a nerd. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, June 06, 2011 at 7:24 am

You once corrected my commas outside the quotes somewhere, and I thought it was odd, but figured I didn't know what I was talking about. Apparently, I was taught the British way or something....

Posted by Jon Daley on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 11:11 am

I was taught that punctuation always belongs inside the quotation marks, but I thought that didn't make sense because it would be unclear whether the punctuation belongs to the quotation or not. In English that distinction probably matters rarely, but when programming a computer it always matters. So I do it the logical way rather than the "correct" way.

Posted by Peter V on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 12:06 pm

You know your joke was a miss when it spawns several explanatory comments! Yes, I meant what Heather guessed, though not referring to the "chance" I'd also spotted. The "correct" punctuation referred to my keeping the "full stop" outside of the quotation marks.

Posted by Stephan on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Change, chance, pronunciation, punctuation, whatever. Not your fault Stephan; apparently I can neither type nor read....

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I get it from you, Mom (:

Posted by joyful on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 4:29 pm