Confound you and your punctuation book!

There’s been a lot of press about Lynne Truss’ bestselling book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s a very quick and light read, but the book certainly deserves all the attention it’s been getting. Lynne Truss has written what is essentially a very long essay on the history and contemporary uses of punctuation, amply supported by personal rants and jokes on the subject. While it does contain well-explained rules on how to use commas, semicolons, colons, etc., that’s not what the book is about.

It’s probably one of the funniest books I’ve read for a long time as well, making me chuckle out loud in glee; the humour is very reminiscent of Douglas Adams. I considered marking the pages with especially good jokes on them and then concluded that there would be no use in having a book which had the majority of its pages marked.

Truss is in love with punctuation and defends it in this book with almost feral rage. She tries, mostly successfully, to hide this with self-deprecation and humour, but it’s still there. I think it’s endearing. In any case, she’s well aware that punctuation sticklers have their own quirks and democratically pokes fun at them as well as the punctuation-illiterate.

One memorable chapter in the book features George Bernard Shaw castigating TE Lawrence for his abominable use of colons and semicolons. Truss includes a few quotations from a letter from Shaw to Lawrence:

“My dear Luruns [sic], Confound you and your book: you are no more to be trusted with a pen than a child with a torpedo.” and

“You will see that your colons before buts and the like are contra-indicated in my scheme, and leave you without anything in reserve for the dramatic occasions mentioned above. You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.”

One of Truss’ strong points is that she has a knack for finding wonderful quotations and little stories like the one above to illustrate her points; no doubt this was not too difficult for her if she’s been in love with punctuation for her whole life, but it makes the book no less entertaining. Truss is equally good at writing her own jokes though; in a section towards the end about the future of punctuation, she writes about F. T. Marinetti, a person who wrote a manifesto in 1913 calling for the total reformation of punctuation:

Marinetti wanted to explode the “so-called typographical harmony of the page” and he was influential both on poetry and on graphic design. Reading him now, however, one’s main impression is of a rather weedy visionary who fell asleep one night, saw in a dream how to use QuarkXPress, and was then cruelly deposited back again in the days before the First World War.

It’s not necessary to be a punctuation stickler to enjoy Eats, Shoots and Leaves (although it probably helps). It’s a great and funny read; the only fault I can think of is that it takes too long to get going, and once it does, it’s too short. If you can’t afford it or don’t want to wait for Amazon to deliver it (someone over there must have screwed up because they don’t have any in stock) you could probably read it in a couple of hours in some quiet bookstore. Truss’ book hasn’t turned me into a punctuation stickler, but it has made me think a little more carefully about where I put my commas and semicolons, as well as giving me a new-found appreciation for the art of the colon. If this even remotely sounds like it might be fun for you, check it out.

2 Replies to “Confound you and your punctuation book!”

  1. Quotations, by the way, should be introduced with either quotation marks OR a colon, but never neither; it’s ugly and wrong, like polka-dot dresses.

    I also think you have abused the poor semi-colon enough in this short piece and ought to find some other form of punctuation to overuse. I hear the cedilla is particularly good at this time of year.

  2. Meh, I only used the semicolon four times; I think that’s a perfectly reasonable usage.

    Quotations, by the way, should be introduced with either quotation marks OR a colon, but never neither; it’s ugly and wrong, like polka-dot dresses.

    While I would agree with you, this is the internet and I can dispense with whatever punctuation I see fit. And since when were polka-dot dresses both ugly and wrong?

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