Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Say Hello to My Read of the Week

Ordinarily I don’t like being called a stickler, a vigilante, or an obsessive. But when the accusation puts me in the company of Ms Lynne Truss, I consider it a compliment.

Also ordinarily, I do not write book reviews, but Centsational Girl is hosting a linky asking for book recommendations, so I am adding this post to the party.

Lynne Truss is the British author of a book with the improbable title of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the book’s been around since 2002. She's a self-professed stickler for proper punctuation, who obsesses over misplaced commas, and toys with the idea of forming a party of vigilantes to remove superfluous apostrophes from green grocers' signs and movie marquees.    

Who would have guessed then -- or even now -- that a book whose subject is punctuation and the abuses it suffers in contemporary England would be so entertaining? Not most of us, and not the author either. But it’s become a best seller with over three million copies in print.

Does a book that reviews the when and where of placing dashes, hyphens, colons, apostrophes and semicolons, sound boring? 

Trust me, it’s not. I hung on every word and re-read some sentences for the sheer pleasure of savoring the style and content. Call me crazy, but first listen to Ms Truss talking about the exclamation mark.  

Ever since it came along, grammarians have warned us to be wary of the exclamation mark, mainly because even when we try to muffle it with brackets (!), it still shouts, flashes like neon, and jumps up and down. In the family of punctuation, where the full stop (what we call the period in this country) is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.

Or what she has to say about the two ways a Biblical quote is punctuated:

Now, huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret the passage (Luke xxiii, 43) lightly skips over the whole business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were) and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for the Catholics, who believe in it.

In this sample, she provides proof of the power that punctuation holds, and how it can change the meaning of a simple sentence:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

While Ms Truss is a stickler for punctuation, she is not a strict grammar snob. She’s not averse to breaking the rules of good writing for the sake of clarity. So, relax. She’s not going to hound you about using the Queen’s English, or sticking to obsolete restrictions from the last century.  

Although I learned some new rules and tips about how punctuating properly can enhance the clarity and rhythm of my writing, there’s not much I can do about my envy of Ms Truss’s writing talent. There is no way I could train myself to write with such acerbic wit, such frisky spirit, such off-the-wall vocabulary.

The Wrap: Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a brisk read, casual, personal, funny, and spiced with just enough historical trivia and literary quotes to make it meaty. 

If you are a writer (and if you blog, you are) and you haven’t put your hands on Eats, Shoots & Leaves yet, please add it to your must-read list. My local library had two copies of it -– always a good sign that it’s a book worth reading. 

Even if it doesn’t change the way you punctuate, you’ll have spent a few hours (it’s only 200 cute pages) in the company of a delightful individual.

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