Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Half-baked Idea and A Good Book

I have had a half-baked idea wandering through my mind recently. It has to do with a family tree of punctuation marks. It is still incomplete but new ideas have not flashed in my mind for quite awhile. I'll just dash off what I have so far -

The parenthesis must be the seed from which all punctuation marks came - this is discussed further in my "Parent Thesis Of Punctuation". This thesis is available at the imaginary research site of your choice. The parenthesis are named "left" and "right" with Dad being left and Mom being right because Mom is always right. Right?

Three of the offspring were known as the Marks Brothers - Exclamation, Question and Quotation. They were affectionately known to Mom and Dad as "My Three Signs" and formed, among other things, an advertising agency that tried to further the family. For example, they used slogans such as "Keep your paws off of my pauses!" and "The pauses that refresh!" to help out the commas.

The Marks Brothers even tried awarding prizes for good punctuation - Apo's Trophy being the most noteworthy.

There is some evidence of evolution in the punctuation family, most notably in the semicolon and the colon. Grammarians argue to this day which lead to the other. Each camp dashes off new news releases supporting their point of view regularly.

But there was a spoilsport in the clan and the period put a stop to all of it.


This half-baked effort was inspired by the book EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES By Lynne Truss. Here is more information on that book.

To much surprise, this book from a small publisher on the unsexy subject of commas, colons and dashes is proving the UK publishing success of Christmas 2003. There’s good reason for this: it’s witty, thought-provoking, and brief.

Lynne Truss is passionate about punctuation. She confesses to an urgent desire to be the militant wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society, to the extent that she once attempted to demonstrate to the cinema-going public with the aid of an apostrophe on a stick how easy it would be to make the film title “Two Weeks Notice” grammatical.

It is all too obvious that many people do not know how to use this little mark: “Why else,” Ms Truss argues, “would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying ‘Giant Kid’s Playground’, and then wonder why everybody stays away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.)”

Her internal anguish sometimes boils over. “No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best’, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” A little extreme, I feel: boiling in oil would be quite sufficient.

She says in her introduction, “You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation.” Her own love of the subject turns what might be a dry exposition into a romp. She regrets that marks such as the colon and semi-colon are now much less used than they once were, though she is sure they aren’t necessarily doomed to fade into obscurity. She also regrets that books are losing their value as the main medium of communication in our society and that newer and more egalitarian media may let the barbarians determine the fate of our punctuation systems. (She remarks sadly about the Internet and texting: “By tragic historical coincidence a period of abysmal under-educating in literacy has coincided with this unexpected explosion of global self-publishing”.)

The title comes from a story about a panda in a cafe (so written on the back cover; what a pity she never gets around to discussing accents), which I am told is a cleaned-up version of an old raunchy joke. The panda eats a sandwich, fires a gun in the air and walks towards the door. When the waiter asks in confusion what he thinks he’s doing, the panda throws him a badly punctuated book on wildlife: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.

Some critics have taken great pleasure in pointing out Eats, Shoots & Leaves own grammatical errors. However, Truss is careful to warn readers that she is “not a grammarian” (nor is she her own copyeditor). Whether or not the author has made mistakes is irrelevant; what truly matters is that Truss’s instructions are correct, comprehensible, and wonderfully comical.

Feel free to add your thoughts...

And don't forget! Celebrate the seventh annual National Punctuation Day®!

September 24, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Your half-baked idea was a full-on joy to read. Thanks also for the review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I've heard a lot about this book, and have always wanted to read it. Sadly, I am a poor lad (after necessary expenditures such as internet access and whisky), and my local library doesn't carry it.