By Lynn Truss
You’d be surprised how punctuation affects us all!
I used to live in Los Angeles, which has famously become a melting pot. I’ll leave it to more profound minds to discuss the ramifications and benefits of the blending of so many cultures in one place. I’ll just confine myself to the effect that blending has had on the language: I don’t like it and I’ll tell you why. It has nothing to do with xenophobia (an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or of that which is foreign or strange). In fact, I loved having access to so many cultures. What bothered me was the effect that multiple converging languages had on signage.
Petty? Probably. But I just couldn’t help extrapolate the effect signs written by non-English speakers — and left unchecked by sign company proofreaders — would have on future generations.
So you can imagine my joy at finding a book devoted to this and other niggling grammatical worries. Not only does Eats, Shoots & Leaves author Lynn Truss share my concern over errors made on signage; sheâ€™s raised the correction of them to high art. The subtitle of the book is â€œThe Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuationâ€ and she isnâ€™t kidding. If youâ€™ve ever cringed at a sign that read â€œBananaâ€™s for Saleâ€ (which of course should be the apostrophe-less â€œBananas for Sale”); youâ€™ll love this book.
A clue to the content of the book can be seen in its title, which comes from an old joke:
A panda walks into a restaurant, sits down and orders a sandwich. After he finishes eating, he pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter. He then stands up to leave.
“Hey!” shouts the manager. “Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!”
The panda yells back at the manager, while throwing a badly punctuated wildlife manual at him, “Hey, Iâ€™m a panda! Look it up!”
The manager opens the manual and sees the following definition for the panda: “A large bearlike mammal with characteristic black and white markings, native to certain mountain forests in China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
This just shows you how much trouble one lone comma can create. Had the comma after â€œeatsâ€ been omitted, the panda would have just stuck to eating shoots and leaves and there wouldnâ€™t have been any gunplay.
Truss is so hopping mad about the abuse of language; she has stopped just short of advocating gunplay herself for language abusers. But she does it with such wit and insight; she makes you want to join in.
Here are just a few examples from the book that explain how we get ourselves into trouble with punctuation:
Commas run amuk
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
In the first example, the poor hypothetical woman doesnâ€™t amount to much without a man around. In the second, the man is the one left wanting. The meaning is completely reversed simply by replacing the first comma with a colon and moving the second comma.
A sign hangs in front of a large childrenâ€™s playground that reads â€œGiant Kidâ€™s Playground.â€ Truss points out that itâ€™s no wonder no one uses the playground. The misplaced apostrophe strikes fear in the hearts of neighborhood children by announcing the presence of the Giant Kid who owns the playground.
Although Lynn Truss advocates for all of us to become soldiers in the punctuation war by packing correction fluid and stickers to both cover unwanted punctuation and introduce punctuation thatâ€™s missing; itâ€™s all done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Thatâ€™s what makes this book so special. Like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, Eats, Shoots & Leaves uses humor to distract us while poking us with a stick to jar us awake.
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