Porn for Punctuation Nerds
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
The summer I turned 13 our neighborhood grocery store took the progressive step of making two checkout express lanes. I remember this not because I cared much about advancements in grocery store traffic engineering, but because the event introduced me to a crucial grammatical point: the difference between less and fewer. The store management had printed up bright signs with red letters reading "13 Items or Less." They didn't last long. Know-it-all customers complained about the grammatical error and the store had new signs printed up within a couple of weeks. Of course, that didn't mean the signs offering "Orange's 99¢" disappeared too.
You may be thinking to yourself, "Who cares?" The signs got the message across, didn't they? Well, you may have a point there, but spending a lazy afternoon with Lynne Truss' new book might change your mind. With plenty of charm and self-deprecating wit, Truss simultaneously calls herself a nerd (she uses the word stickler) and makes you want to join her nerdy club of people who desperately wanted to add an apostrophe to the title of that Hugh Grant movie Two Weeks Notice. A lover of literature and former literary editor, Truss says she was driven to write this book after seeing a sign advertising "Book's" and feeling something inside herself snap. If that sounds preposterous, then you should just stop reading now. Flip ahead to the smutty ads in the back.
This book makes you realize how technology has forever changed the way we write (CU@8 or L8R? Txt Me!!!), the way we read (Click here for details!) and how much we value the printed word. With the advent of the Internet, Truss says, "People who don't know their apostrophe from their elbow are positively invited to disseminate their writings to anyone on the planet stupid enough to double-click and scroll."
So, the Internet has ruined proper English. It's a small price to pay for something that also brings us online poker tournaments and celebrity sex videos, right? Yes and no. E-mail means we're actually writing a lot more than we used to, albeit in a different, sloppier way.
The author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves never lets you forget that punctuation serves a real, legitimate purpose worth preserving and defending. She cites an Anton Chekhov short story in which the protagonist, a man who prides himself on his punctuation, realizes he's never used an exclamation point. As Truss explains, "The inference for the reader is clear: nothing of any emotional significance has ever happened to [him]. Nothing relating, in any case, to the ’delight, indignation, joy, rage and other feelings' an exclamation mark is in the business of denoting." Isn't that sad? Can you imagine a life without anything worthy of exclamation marks? I would rather die!
In moving through discussions of the apostrophe, comma and other punctuation marks, Truss keeps the conversation lively and her own writing punctuated with examples that make you laugh out loud often enough for others to ask what it is you're reading that's so damn funny. Just don't give in to the temptation to read aloud from Eats, Shoots and Leaves if being called a nerd would ruin your day.