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
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2004, 240 pages
    Apr 2006, 240 pages

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So what I propose is action. Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn't have a lot of that to begin with. Maybe we won't change the world, but at least we'll feel better. The important thing is to unleash your Inner Stickler, while at the same time not getting punched on the nose, or arrested for damage to private property. You know the campaign called "Pipe Down", against the use of piped music? Well, ours will be "Pipe Up". Be a nuisance. Do something. And if possible use a bright red pen. Send back emails that are badly punctuated; return letters; picket Harrods. Who cares if members of your family abhor your Inner Stickler and devoutly wish you had an Inner Scooby-Doo instead? At least if you adopt a zero tolerance approach, when you next see a banner advertising "CD's, DVD's, Video's, and Book's", you won't just stay indoors getting depressed about it. Instead you will engage in some direct-action argy-bargy! Because – here's the important thing – you won't be alone.

That's always been the problem for sticklers, you see. The feeling of isolation. The feeling of nerdishness. One solitary obsessive, feebly armed with an apostrophe on a stick, will never have the nerve to demonstrate outside Warner Brothers on the issue of Two Weeks Notice. But if enough people could pull together in a common cause, who knows what we might accomplish? There are many obstacles to overcome here, not least our national characteristics of reserve (it's impolite to tell someone they're wrong), apathy (someone else will do it) and outright cowardice (is it worth being duffed up for the sake of a terminally ailing printer's convention?). But I have faith. I do have faith. And I also have an Inner Stickler that, having been unleashed, is now roaring, salivating and clawing the air in a quite alarming manner.


There is just one final thing holding us back, then. It is that every man is his own stickler. And while I am very much in favour of forming an army of well-informed punctuation vigilantes, I can foresee problems getting everyone to pull in the same direction. There will be those, for example, who insist that the Oxford comma is an abomination (the second comma in "ham, eggs, and chips"), whereas others are unmoved by the Oxford comma but incensed by the trend towards under-hyphenation – which the Oxford comma people have quite possibly never even noticed. Yes, as Evelyn Waugh wrote: "Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic." Or, as Kingsley Amis put it less delicately in his book The King's English (1997), the world of grammar is divided into "berks and wankers" – berks being those who are outrageously slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise. Left to the berks, the English language would "die of impurity, like late Latin". Left to the wankers, it would die instead of purity, "like medieval Latin". Of course, the drawback is implicit. When you by nature subscribe to the view that everyone except yourself is a berk or a wanker, it is hard to bond with anybody in any rational common cause.

You think those thuggish chaps in movie heist gangs fall out a bit too quickly and mindlessly? Well, sticklers are worse. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once fired a publisher who insisted on replacing a semicolon with a full stop; meanwhile, full-time editors working together on the same publication, using the same style book, will put hyphens in, take them out, and put them in again – all day, if necessary. The marginal direction to printers "STET" (meaning "let it stand" and cancelling an alteration) gets used rather a lot in these conditions. At The Listener, where I was literary editor from 1986 to 1990, I discovered that any efforts I made to streamline the prose on my pages would always be challenged by one particular sub-editor, who would proof-read my book reviews and archly insert literally dozens of little commas – each one of which I felt as a dart in my flesh. Of course, I never revealed the annoyance she caused. I would thank her, glance at the blizzard of marks on the galley proof, wait for her to leave the room, and then (standing up to get a better run at it) attack the proof, feverishly crossing out everything she had added, and writing "STET'', "STET", "STET", "STET", "STET" all down the page, until my arm got tired and I was spent. And don't forget: this comma contention was not a matter of right or wrong. It was just a matter of taste.

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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