Two Indispensable Masterpieces
Somewhere in my prowling of the Web I ran across a mention of a book about punctuation that was a runaway bestseller in the United Kingdom and, at the time, not yet available in the United States. I found the book, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss ($12.25; Gotham Books; www.amazon.com), on amazon.co.uk’s bestseller list and ordered it.
The nutty title comes from an old joke about a panda in a restaurant who had dinner, pulled out a six-gun, fired into the ceiling and walked out. The joke comes from the definition for panda in an encyclopedia of wildlife that had a misplaced comma: “Panda: Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
The book arrived, and I devoured it. It is not only very instructive, but an absolute scream. A sampling from Truss explains her reason for writing this book:
“While other girls were out with boyfriends on Sunday afternoons getting their necks disfigured by love bites, I was at home with the wireless listening to an Ian Messiter quiz called Many a Slip, in which erudite and amusing contestants spotted grammatical errors in pieces of prose.”
“Erudite and amusing” is the perfect three-word review of this extraordinary work. Truss sails through the intricacies of punctuation marks with gleeful abandon, working in history and illustrations by literary masters from Wordsworth and Keats to D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
Another sampling of Truss’s breathless prose:
“There are times, however, when the semicolon is indispensable in another capacity: when it performs the duties of a kind of Special Policeman in the event of comma fights. If there is one lesson to be learned from this book, it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation. One minute the semicolon is gracefully joining sentences together in a flattering manner … and the next it is calling a bunch of brawling commas to attention.”