The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

What's that near the top of the New York Times and best seller lists for nonfiction--a book on punctuation that inveighs against everyday misuses? Believe it. Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" is selling like hotcakes, validating the author's crusade against rampant mis-punctuation in everyday written communications and media.

As I work in publishing as an editor, I'm in the camp that winces every time I see written flubs in communication. I make no apologies for assuming the worst about the author of a written piece that's riddled with errors and questionable usages; it's the impression that's being given that counts, and points to a generally lackadaisical delivery. I'm not excluding myself from this; I often groan when re-reading my own work, including this blog, and running across the inevitable boner.

I particularly like Truss' retort to the usual reaction from people when they're corrected on one point or another:
As Truss points out in her introductory chapter, sticklers' efforts are not warmly received by those who do not stickle: "When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to "get a life' by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves. Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions. Being burned as a witch is not safely enough off the agenda."
Only too true. The response of "get a life" implies that the culprit has a life so busy that s/he can't be bothered to pay attention to details like grammar. Which is pretty much always untrue; they're never that busy, they're simply lazy.

Also a joy to read: The story behind the title "Eats, Shoots and Leaves":
A panda walks into a cafe. 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 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."
The importance of the almighty comma. Of course, I much prefer the New York Times style, which also would have prevented the panda's foul mood: Use of a comma after each item, including the last.