Excerpt from Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Eats, Shoots and Leaves

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss X
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2004, 240 pages
    Apr 2006, 240 pages

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The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation is not that it's an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. As we shall see in the chapter on commas, it was first used by Greek dramatists two thousand years ago to guide actors between breathing points – thus leading to the modern explanation of why a cat is not a comma:

A cat has claws at the ends of its paws.
A comma's a pause at the end of a clause.

Words strung together without punctuation recall those murky murals Rolf Harris used to paint, where you kept tilting your head and wondering what it was. Then Rolf would dip a small brush into a pot of white and – to the deathless, teasing line, "Can you guess what it is yet?" – add a line here, a dot there, a curly bit, and suddenly all was clear. Good heavens, it looked like just a splodge of colours and all along it was a kangaroo in football boots having a sandwich! Similarly, take a bit of unpunctuated prose, add the dots and flourishes in the right place, stand back, and what have you got?

My dear Joe,
I hope you are quite well. I hope I shall soon be able to teach you, Joe – and then we shall be so glad. And when I am apprenticed to you, Joe: what larks! Believe me, in affection,

Every language expert from Dr Johnson onwards has accepted that it's a mistake to attempt to "embalm the language". Of course it must change and adapt. When the time comes that Pip's original text is equally readable with the one above, then our punctuation system can be declared dead and no one will mind. In the chapters that follow, we will see how it is in the nature of printers' conventions (which is all punctuation marks are) to develop over time, usually in the cause of making language less fussy on the page. It is useful to remember, however – as we struggle to preserve a system under attack – that a reader from a couple of hundred years ago would be shocked by present-day punctuation that we now regard as flawless and elegant. Why don't we use capital letters for all nouns any more? Why don't we use full stops after everyday abbreviations? Why not combine colons with dashes sometimes? Where did all the commas go? Why isn't there a hyphen in "today"? Lawks-a-mussy, what sort of punctuation chickens are we at the beginning of the 21st century?

Well, taking just the initial capital letters and the terminating full stop (the rest will come later), they have not always been there. The initial letter of a sentence was first capitalised in the 13th century, but the rule was not consistently applied until the 16th. In manuscripts of the 4th to 7th centuries, the first letter of the page was decorated, regardless of whether it was the start of a sentence – and indeed, while we are on the subject of decorated letters, who can forget the scene in Not the Nine O'Clock News in which an elderly, exhausted monk unbent himself after years of illuminating the first page of the Bible, only to see that he had written, gloriously, "Benesis"? Nowadays, the convention for starting a new sentence with a capital letter is so ingrained that word-processing software will not allow you to type a full stop and then a lower case letter; it will capitalise automatically. This is bad news, obviously, for chaps like e.e. cummings, but good news for those who have spotted the inexorable advance of lower case into book titles, television captions, company names and (of course) everything on the non-case-sensitive internet, and lie awake at night worrying about the confusion this is spreading in young minds.

Reprinted from Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Lynne Truss, 2003. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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