Thursday, February 10, 2011

Eats, shoots, leaves a bad taste in my mouth

I have a visceral reaction to the misplaced apostrophe. Seeing a plural turned into a possessive on a billboard because someone doesn’t know any better can send me into fits unfit for publication.

Suffice it to say: Punctuation is about clarity of communication. It’s isn’t its. Learn the difference. End of lesson.

That’s probably why I recently received a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. ("Tony will love this," thought the person who gifted me with the book. "It’s just the sort of thing he obsesses on. This’ll shut’im up.")

(Boy, was he wrong.)

For one thing, there’s the title. It’s not a funny joke.

I mean, we sticklers get it: It’s a misplaced comma. But if you’re really a stickler, you wouldn’t find it all that humorous. If you’re not a stickler, you wouldn’t understand. If you’re Truss, the author, you feel the need to explain it — and nobody likes having a joke explained to him.

Therein lies the rub, and it rubs the wrong way, for about 200 pages.

Perhaps the earliest warning that the book is not for American audiences should have been in the foreword, where it was explained that no changes were made to adjust the English edition for American publication. American punctuation, like word usage, is vastly different from English punctuation, so almost every paragraph of the book makes for a painful read

for an American obsessivecompulsive punctuation stickler.

Consistently seeing Truss end sentences with the punctuation outside her quotation marks is enough to send any American stickler into hysterics. After a few chapters, it became unbearable for this one.

I suspect the people who made this a bestseller in America, like the person who bought the book for me, bought it for their friends and not for themselves.

But the clearest indication that this book is not for sticklers of the U.S.A. variation came only a few pages later, with the author’s declaration that sticklers "got very worked up after 9-11 not because of Osama bin Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude.’"

I think a good editor would have done Truss the favor of removing that bit of "levity" for the American edition.

Begin quote: Truss can keep her opinions and her "rules." Full stop. End quote.

(You’ll note the punctuation is inside the quotation marks.)
This originally appeared in The News Herald on Sunday, February 20, 2005. I unearthed it because a friend and coworker last week read this book and hated it, and I printed this out to give him my reaction.
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