Monday, September 27, 2004

What Was I Thinking?!

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. "Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward 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."

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Lynne Truss

This is a hugely interesting book! So interesting that I was riveted to the loo seat. Seriously -- And I don't use the phrase lightly! I began thumbing through a copy, which I had picked up from a thoughtfully provided pile within reach, when seated in Narayanan’s loo and I lost track of time.

Passions always run high in our household when we start talking punctuation. S tends to use semicolons and colons interchangeably and vice versa. It wouldn't be such an issue if she didn't bring her writing to me for a read; thus necessitating a long and increasingly grouchy explanation of why she is doomed to go to the hell reserved for the syntactically-challenged. To me confusing the colon with the comma borders on an immoral vagueness. I once read somewhere -- if you can't punctuate properly, you probably aren't thinking properly in the first place. I couldn't agree more.

What really gets my goat is the misdirected apostrophe. Like, "… recent reading's have led me to conclude…" Yes, begone, conclude yourself. I guess, this is the point that in medieval Japan the Kogi Kaishakunin would be sent off to dispatch the offending grammarian… But, I digress.

Lynne Truss's small, but eminently readable book is a defence of punctuation. She laments the name of the pop group Hear'Say, pounces on newspaper headlines with missing apostrophes, and tells us how she once demonstrated outside a cinema showing the film Two Weeks [sic] Notice, with a large cardboard apostrophe on a stick.

The book sketches out a clear history of punctuation marks and their usages - commas, dashes, brackets (or lunulae) and so on; ending with a plea to preserve our punctuation, when advertisers, academics, not to mention e-mailers and text-messagers and other anti-social elements are conspiring to destroy it.

Truss is funny too… in a reserved kind of English manner. But at times, the reader goes away feeling she is trying too hard. Like the point she volunteers to have 15th century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius's babies… What was that all about?

Alarmingly, Eats, Shoots & Leaves might turn you into a Lady Macbethian punctuater, exorcising the ghosts of your past excesses on every new thing you read, especially over the 24 hours following your reading of the book.

This is then a clever little book, and I don't mean clever in the American sense. It conveys a considerable amount of useful information, teasing out apparent contradictions and explaining correct usage.

If you ever wondered about whether (or how) to use a semi-colon, or why it's it's and not its, then you will enjoy this book. This is not a style guide, nor an absolute reference. It is a very readable book on grammar that does not lay claims to being one. It's a fun book on profound thoughts. Perhaps one that you might be tempted to leave within reach on occasions when you might have a few moments to contemplate such weighty issues. Thanks Narayanan, for leaving this book by the loo!