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Tom Chaney: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Of Writers And Their Books: Eats, Shoots & Leaves Or -- Punctuation Matters -- Even if it is Only a Matter of Life and Death. Tom says author Truss does quite well with the relation between the rules of punctuation and clarity of expression. This column first appeared 22 January 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Joseph Alexander Altsheler of Three Springs

By Tom Chaney

Eats, Shoots & Leaves Or -- Punctuation Matters -- Even if it is Only a Matter of Life and Death

" 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.' "

Lynn Truss has written a fine diatribe on the value of punctuation in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, published in this country in 2004. Previously the book sold more than half million copies in her native Britain.

It is time, she says, to look at just how sloppy our punctuation has become. She looks at full stops (periods, colons, semicolons, exclamation points and question marks) and pauses (commas and the like) as well as the apostrophe, the dash, the hyphen in a delightfully witty way trying to convince us of their absolute necessity for clarity of expression.

I have an idea that both Mrs Ruth Saunders and Mrs Louise Christian, both of whom spent their lives trying to teach recalcitrant scholars in these parts, would have approved of this most sensible polemic for the correct use of punctuation.

There was a time in education, most evident in the 1970's, when punctuation and spelling were either ignored or looked upon as an impediment to self-expression. It is unfortunate that this wave of slothful ignorance happened just as communication by written word was about to get a tremendous boost from the internet and email.

The position of Truss is quite well stated:
"[I]n some matters of punctuation there are simple rights and wrongs; in others, one must apply a good ear to good sense. I want the greatest clarity from punctuation, which means, supremely, that I want apostrophes where they should be, and I will not cease from mental fight . . . until everyone knows the difference between 'its' and 'it's' and bloody well nobody writes about 'dead sons photos' without indicating whether the photos in question show one son or several."
Truss does quite well with the relation between the rules of punctuation and clarity of expression. After a lengthy discussion full of rollicking examples she concludes rule four on apostrophes with this imprecation:
"Getting your 'itses' mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, 'Good food at it's best', you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave."
With which sentiment both the sainted Mrs Saunders and Mrs Christian would surely agree.

And her discussion of other elements of punctuation is no less forceful. She makes it quite clear that punctuation marks are "printers'" conventions designed over a couple of millennium to make for better understanding. It is interesting to note that punctuation first began as a guide to oral language. It began so that the actor, the reader could speak aloud and communicate ideas to the hearers.

A non-bookseller might argue that the electronic media is supplanting books and printing. I will not concede that fact. The death of printing is not set for next Friday at 2:00 p.m. It has held sway since the seventeenth century.

But the times, they are a-changing. Electronic communication is a blend of writing and speaking. We, heaven forefend, 'message' our communicants rather than 'writing' to them. But the written, if not the printed, word is coming back into prominence despite the alarums raised with the advent of television replacing the book for a source of information and pleasure.

"We have a language," concludes Ms Truss,
"that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother 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 it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable."
And who knows, the maligned panda may not just shoot in the air. He may fire at the waiter or the illiterate author of the inaccurate description of his nature.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-03-30 04:17:54
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