Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Don't Lapse into a Comma ; A Piqued Grammarian Insists, 'You Can Learn to Punctuate Correctly!'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Don't Lapse into a Comma ; A Piqued Grammarian Insists, 'You Can Learn to Punctuate Correctly!'

Article excerpt

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. …

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