Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Lynne Truss
Profile Books

A book about punctuation, reviewed on a theatre website? Why, for goodness' sake?

Apart from the fact that, as defined by the book, I am a pedant (Ms Truss prefers a "stickler"), there are not many things more important to drama than the language in which it is written. It's also important to you, the readers of sites like the BTG, for if we get the language wrong, you don't understand what we say or even get hold of entirely the wrong end of the stick. Punctuation is as much a guide to meaning as syntax and grammar: to ignore it leads to confusion.

Ms Truss uses the perfect example. In the Book of Isaiah, God says, "Comfort ye my people": that is, "Give comfort to my people". Or does He? (Notice the capitalisation of He: now there's pedantry for you!) Did he not say, "Comfort ye, my people" - "My people, be comforted"? That little tadpole makes one hell of a difference!

And in the previous sentence, notice the placing of the punctuation marks at the end of the quotations: they're all outside the quotation marks. Why? Because they aren't part of the quotation itself, but are part of the whole sentence, which includes the quotation. Is that subtle or what?

What, you think it's too subtle? Of course it isn't! That particular rule adds a little extra nicety of meaning, giving us a tad more clarity.

Lynne Truss' (or should that be Lynne Truss's?) book is a joy for those who, like me, take delight in the precise placement of commas, semi-colons and colons; who get annoyed by omitted - or, worse, misplaced - apostrophes; and who agonise over whether to use brackets or dashes in particular situation; who even make a conscious decision about the use of the Oxford comma (i.e. after the word "and" in a list, either of nouns, verbs or clauses) in each individual case. (And, incidentally, who changed back and forth from comma to semi-colon numerous times before finally settling on a semi-colon before the final clause of the last sentence!)

It reinforces all our punctuational prejudices, thus imparting a warm glow of self-righteousness!

It is also a very readable book: her enthusiasm and easy style carries the reader along when so many books on the topic are so dry that reading them is like sifting dust.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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