I confess: I frequently find myself self-conscious about my use of punctuation. A few years back, I even bought a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but have yet to read more than a chapter or two at a time before discovering something else to do, even if it’s bathing the dog. Similarly, I procrastinated on reading Eats Shoots & Leaves, and I really shouldn’t have. Full of humor and information, it explains some of the easier nuances to punctuation in a useful and engaging manner.
“The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning… Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.”
Truss nicely covers the basics of beginner to advanced punctuation with chapters devoted to each: a rationale for punctuation, the apostrophe and its many uses, the comma, the semi-colon and colon, the dash, the hyphen, and various brackets. She makes brief mention of the punctuation debate surrounding the Oxford comma, a concept I’ve heard referenced but didn’t understand (Is a comma needed on the noun before ‘and’ when you are making a list? Ex.: “I need to buy cream, coffee and sugar.”) Use is reviewed from a British-English perspective, but she often makes note of where American-English differs (except for the chapter she hilariously ends with “unless, of course, you are in America”). By integrating short pieces on the history of that particular punctuation, she adds insight into language as an evolving process. In fact, she when talking about the semi-colon, hyphen and dash, she notes how usage is fading with hyphenated words, but the dash is enjoying a resurgence with texting. Examples are pulled from personal accounts, famous writers’ anecdotes, classic literature, plays and newspaper articles, adding interest.
Humor runs through the book, increasing its readability. Somewhat to my surprise, not only did I find myself enjoying it, but also unwilling to put it down. I found myself chuckling more than once, but that could just be nerd humor. For instance, in the section on apostrophes, she relates a law mentioned in a newspaper column, “the Law of Conservation of Apostrophes. A heresy since the 13th century, this law states that a balance exists in nature: ‘For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its.’ Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant…” She also uses an engaging strategy of relating a particular story, say perhaps, punctuating Keats’ name, then continuing to reference that story as appropriate, making it into a witty running gag (Keats, St Thomas’ Hospital, Gertrude Stein, Starburst).
From the start, Truss acknowledges that those who insist on correct punctuation run the risk of being thought more than a little daft. One of the enjoyable aspects of her writing is how she is willing to acknowledge that truth, and yet continue to make her case for clear communication. One of my favorite sections of self-disparagement was when she calls apostrophe sticklers to arms: “Here are the weapons required in the apostrophe war (stop when you start to feel uncomfortable):
stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain
(for sticking over unwanted apostrophes)
and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
tin of paint with big brush
strong medication for personality disorder
I get that frustration–I really do. While I’m prone to be sloppy with grammar in general and to be forgiving of punctuation while reading books, nothing makes my spine crawl like seeing a post/text/note stating, “I had a busy day taking care of all my patient’s.” (Patient’s what, exactly?) I wholeheartedly agree with her; punctuation facilitates meaning. It dovetails with my feeling that text messaging is inadequate for more than simple questions, partially due to the lack of nuance from our hastily typed phrases. Punctuation, tedious as it may seem, would help clarify those messages. Besides, if we don’t start using the colon and semi-colon, our little pinky finger on the right hand might start to wither away while we type. Truss says so. All in all, a great refresher for one not versed in the upper echelons of punctuation philosophy and an entertaining read.