Lynne Truss made me laugh out loud while reading her best-selling book on punctuation, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. Any author who can make a reader laugh, even silently, about punctuation is to be respected and commended. If the reader loudly guffaws, they are to be knighted.
My indoctrination into punctuation and sentence diagramming came under the boring tutelage of my seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Barr. I found her descriptions tedious and often hid other reading material behind my English textbook and was regularly reprimanded for not paying attention. If she had taught as Truss writes, I would have listened.
Truss artfully weaves the history and development of punctuation marks into this primer on proper usage. Though she writes from other side of the pond, she regularly points out the distinctions between UK and USA terms for the marks and the variances in usage. For example, a “full stop” is the UK equivalent of the period; and “inverted commas” are only American quotation marks in disguise.
A self-described stickler, she speaks of the “little shocks endured” when she looks in horror at badly punctuated signs and the world goes on, completely blind to the plight of the sensitive stickler. She compares herself to the little boy in The Sixth Sense, “who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation”.
Truss appreciates punctuation properly used and portrays the necessity and usefulness of these printers’ marks. She writes, “Another writer tells us that punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop”. Punctuation lets the reader “hear” the words as though they were spoken rather than written, and tell actors how to speak them. For example, commas serve to delineate the “rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow” similar to musical notation.
Punctuation is essential for clarity of communication. Truss employs numerous examples to drive home her point. One of the best is the following:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Further examples include, “A re-formed rock band is quite different from a reformed one. Likewise, a long-standing friend is different from a long standing one. A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public”. I had to read the last one twice before I caught the subtle difference, but it is there. Many of the distinctions are nuances; and the examples require careful reading with a proof-reader’s eyes.
I confess to writing these comments with a sense of apprehension. Several times I’ve wondered if I am using the punctuation marks correctly. Wait, was that the US or the UK usage of inverted commas at the end of the sentence? Are they to appear before or after the full stop? Nevertheless, (a comma is definitely required here!), I am pecking away at the keyboard in hopes that you, too, will pick up the book and marvel and laugh at those little marks who use often confuses, but whose absence would leave us truly confused.