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Sunday, May 02, 2004

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

I had been seeing this odd title scattered throughout my Internet travels, but had no idea what it was. When I had a chance to get a free copy of the book, I jumped on it, wanting to know what it was all about.

My friends have many reasons to think me odd and my choice of books is one of them. Only Douglas, they might think, could get excited about a book on punctuation. While I wholeheartedly agree that I am odd in many ways, many other people in Britain and America have found this book interesting as well. It is reassuring to know, sometimes, that I am not alone in my madness.

While the subject matter, the use (and abuse) of punctuation such as apostrophes, commas, semicolons and the like, may seem dry to most people, Truss' (oh, goodness, I hope I placed that apostrophe correctly) writing style is light, humorous and dry as a Los Angeles summer. I regularly found myself laughing out loud at some of her examples of horrible punctuation, and then quietly wondering to myself if I had committed similar faux pas in my own writing over the years.

The title of book comes from this punctuation parable, cited on the back flyleaf of the book:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots into 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-link mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

So, there you have it. Misplaced commas and apostrophes, abused or forgotten semicolons and colons not only make us look a bit foolish, but hamper the very communication we are desperately trying to achieve.

A few years ago, Lynne Truss presented a show on BBC Radio 4, Cutting a Dash, where she developed many of the ideas and examples for this book. Only in the UK could you have support for a regular show about punctuation. You have to love the British sometimes.

This edition for American audiences is exactly the same as the British version and might throw some American readers for a loop. Fear not, though. Even if you don't know what a "high street" is, or stumble over the concept of a "green grocer", the lessons, humor and fun of this book come through.

If I ever had to study punctuation as a class again, I certainly hope this would be my textbook. In fact, this book might just help students find the fun, and usefulness, of the English language better than dry dissertations on the use of the semicolon.

While Eats, Shoots & Leaves has left me a bit self-conscious about my own writing, the refresher course in punctuation will serve me well for years to come.

More information is available at the Eats, Shoots and Leaves Web Site.


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