Friday, May 25, 2007

Review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves

My only justification for reviewing Lynne Truss’s book, subtitled The zero tolerance approach to punctuation, is a brief anecdote that appears on the back cover that Truss uses to illustrate the importance of correct punctuation, and from which the book takes its name:
A panda walks into a café. 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 towards 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 above excerpt should make it obvious that Truss uses humor and witticism to actually make reading this book about punctuation enjoyable. Even if you are not particularly enthralled with apostrophes, commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, exclamation points, question marks, italics, quotations marks, double dashes, brackets, ellipses, and hyphens (and really, who is?), this book will leave you much more knowledgeable about these cornerstones of written English.

I have just one major disagreement with Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and that is in the title itself. You see, I firmly believe in using the serial comma (also known as the Harvard comma). A serial comma is the comma “that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items.” It is widely (though variably and not universally) used in American English, less so in British English. Where I would write “sausage, egg, and cheese,” Truss (Brit that she is) would write “sausage, egg and cheese.” A minor annoyance at best, though I would argue that, on the whole, use of a serial comma results in fewer ambiguities.

Not withstanding my minor quibble with serial commas, this is really a very readable book. I would recommend it to all bloggers who want to make sure they aren’t sending the wrong message to their readers.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Iris said...

That book title has always bugged me. I'm an editor by trade and a lover of the serial comma (don't even get me started on the true joy of a well-placed en-dash). Nothing gives a sentence clarity like the serial comma. Take the classic example, just begging for that comma: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." Thanks for spreading the word!

May 25, 2007 6:12 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Thanks for the comment, Iris. I've done a fair amount of editing of government documents and scientific publication, and my experience is that (unfortunately) use of the serial comma is not at all universal among American writers. Is it no longer being taught in school?

May 25, 2007 8:58 PM  

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