Friday, January 30, 2009

"Eats, Shoots & Leaves"

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter dead. As the panda stands up to go, the bartender shouts, "Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn't pay for your sandwich!" The panda tosses a dictionary to the bartender and yells, "Dude, I'm a PANDA! Look it up!" The bartender opens the dictionary and sees the following definition for panda: "A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white coloring. Eats, shoots and leaves."

If only the dictionary had left out the unnecessary comma, that waiter would be alive today and the panda would be happily munching on bamboo. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a book about punctuation: commas, apostrophes, exclamation marks, colons, semi-colons, and dashes. As the panda joke illustrates, improperly used punctuation marks can alter the meaning of sentences in surprising, and sometimes unhappy, ways. Author, Lynne Truss, has made it her mission in life to prevent any more punctuation-related deaths, accidents, or misunderstandings.

English is the most useful language in the world because with it we can describe and explain almost anything, in precise detail and with great clarity. It developed as a result of a series of conquests of the island nation we now call England. The Romans conquered the Celts; the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes conquered the Romans; and the Normans conquered the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Each of these conquests resulted in the vanquished having to learn to communicate with the victors. Over the centuries, the various languages merged and evolved into Old and Middle English. During the 15th century, the printing press led to a more standardized form of written and, as a result, spoken English. But it was during the Elizabethan period that an early version of Modern English emerged when great value was placed on the proper use of speech in Court. With the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, Modern English made its debut.

In the English language there are words, of course, paragraphs, and punctuation marks. Punctuation marks were invented to help readers know when to pause and take a breath, as well as to clear up ambiguities. Modern punctuation marks got their start following the invention of the printing press with movable type. Italian printers Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) and his grandson developed a system of punctuation marks which became standard for the literate people of Europe. Many of these conventions are in use today.

Linguists like to get depressed about how electronic mail and instant messaging are destroying what is left of the English language. Lynne Truss decided that rather than complaining, she was going to ignite a revolution: bad grammar and incorrect punctuation would no longer be tolerated! She envisioned an army of English language deputies armed with red pens and white-out, ridding the world of grammatical and typographical errors. Ms. Truss’ dream has not yet come true, but she did succeed in sparking discussions and debates about proper punctuation and the differences between American English and British English. Louis Menand wrote a review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves for The New Yorker in which he points out a punctuation error in the author’s dedication! Who knew English could be so fun?

Ms. Truss begins the book with a joke and never stops. Some of her examples of misunderstandings caused by improper punctuation are hilarious. She uses them to illustrate how the humble comma can make an ambiguous sentence clear:

- I know a man with a dog named Scotty. (Is the dog or the man named Scotty?)
- I know a man, with a dog, named Scotty.

Ms. Truss uses the following example to show how properly placed periods and semi-colons take a nonsense rhyme and make it sensible:

- Every lady in this land has twenty nails on each hand; five and twenty on hands and feet; and this is true without deceit.
- Every lady in this land has twenty nails. On each hand, five; and twenty on hands and feet.

Other examples in the book show tragic consequences of poorly written communications. An improperly punctuated telegram sparked a raid on British and other Transvaal settlers by the Boers. This raid, called the Jameson Raid, is referred to by historians as a “fiasco” because the settlers meant only to ask Mr. Jameson to come to their aid if they came under siege. The way the telegram was written, it sounded like the settlers were asking Jameson to defend them from a siege by the Boers.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a book for everyone who uses the English language. It is informative, thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. Even if diagramming sentences in middle school gave you hives, you will love this book; likewise, if you were an English geek. Studying English was, for many of us, tedious and confusing, but that is the fault of the teaching, not the subject matter. English is the language of business, trade, and science, and it is becoming the global language for making connections. With more and more people learning English, the language continues to evolve. Our responsibility, therefore, is to care for it by using it properly. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using IMs, but it does mean that when you send out a written message, you think before you click “send”. We live in a time when failure to communicate is epidemic, so anything we can do to listen, speak, and write more effectively is all for the good.

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