Don't lapse into a comma

A piqued grammarian insists, 'You can learn to punctuate correctly!'

Don't let the hard-nosed tone of her subtitle put you off: "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation." Lynne Truss has done the English-speaking world a huge service. In one tidy little volume that a reasonably swift reader can zip through in the time it takes for an in-flight movie - but with far more laughs - she has wittily and concisely presented the rules of English punctuation.

The title derives from a joke about a badly punctuated wildlife manual that said the giant panda "eats, shoots & leaves," (verb, verb, and verb) instead of "eats shoots and leaves" (verb, noun, and noun). The book has been a surprise No. 1 bestseller in Britain with more than 800,000 copies in print.

"Zero tolerance" is Truss's approach not to any particular punctuation issue but to the whole notion that mastery of the basics is beyond the ken of ordinary people. "If I did not believe that everyone is capable of understanding where an apostrophe goes," she writes, "I would not be writing this book."

As one who once applied a red felt tip to a restaurant menu offering a baked "potatoe" (several years before Dan Quayle burst onto the national scene), I can identify with the guerrilla approach she recommends, especially in the fight against "apostrophe abuse." She even lists "the weapons required in the apostrophe war (stop when you start to feel uncomfortable): correction fluid, big pens, stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed), tin of paint with big brush, guerrilla style clothing...."

But seriously, the meat of the book is a series of chapters on individual marks, starting with the "tractable apostrophe." If I could get everyone in North America to read one chapter, it would be this one. That poor little flying comma gets stuck, willy-nilly, into all sorts of situations where it's neither wanted nor needed, and then left out of places where it is called for.

If the apostrophe is the most abused bit of punctuation among the general population, the comma is likely to cause more grief among professional wordsmiths. It began, Truss explains, as a sort of performance direction, a tick on a manuscript to suggest a pause or a phrase break to those who would read the text aloud. But somewhere along the line, the comma became an indicator of syntax. An introductory clause gets a comma, but not so an introductory phrase, for instance.

When an editor and a writer arm-wrestle over a comma that one wants in and the other wants out, they are generally reprising the traditional struggle over these two views, Truss says. One of the comma heavyweight championship bouts of the 20th century played out between Harold Ross, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, and the equally legendary humorist James Thurber. Ross was a pro-comma kind of guy. Thurber was of the less-is-more school, but since Ross was the editor, he generally had the last word. Thurber was asked by a correspondent why he used a comma in the sentence, "After dinner, the men went into the living-room." Truss writes, "His answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. 'This particular comma,' Thurber explained, 'was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.' "

"Eats, Shoots & Leaves" includes a publisher's note explaining that the American edition is a reprint, complete with original spelling and punctuation, of the British edition. That turns out to matter less than one might expect. Which rules are followed is less important than having a set of rules in the first place. Those who use the serial comma (the one after "white" in the phrase "red, white, and blue") have more in common with those who don't than with those who don't even know what the serial comma is.

Language is the richest, most adaptable instrument that human beings have to transcend the isolation of individual consciousness and share knowledge, experience, and feelings with one another. A book like this can help language do that important work better.

Ruth Walker is the Monitor's chief copy editor. To read her grammar blog, log on to http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy/

* * *

Even in the knowledge that our punctuation has arrived at its present state by a series of accidents; even in the knowledge that there are at least seventeen rules for the comma, some of which are beyond explanation by top grammarians - it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don't know the difference between who's and whose, and whose bloody automatic "grammar checker" can't tell the difference either. And despair was the initial impetus for this book. I saw a sign for "Book's" with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped; snapped with that melancholy sound you hear in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," like a far-off cable breaking in a mine-shaft. I know that language moves on. It has to. Not once have I ever stopped to feel sorry for those Egyptian hieroglyph artists tossed on the scrapheap during a former linguistic transition ("Birds' heads in profile, mate? You having a laugh?"). But I can't help feeling that our punctuation system, which has served the written word with grace and ingenuity for centuries, must not be allowed to disappear without a fight.

- from "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"

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