Civil discussion can be undermined by simple misunderstanding. A misplaced comma, an exclamation point placed without much thought, parenthesis used where none were needed: any of these prosaic foibles can change the meaning of a sentence, leading to unintended ill effect. Consider this tome on the subject from the peerless ECONOMIST.
CHRISTMAS isn't Christmas without a publishing phenomenon. This year's unexpected success, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”* is bringing cheer to booksellers and pedants all over the country.
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, draws a gun and fires. As he is on his way out, the waiter asks him why. The panda hands him a badly punctuated wildlife manual. The waiter reads, “Panda: Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
Punctuation, says the author Lynne Truss, is the track along which language runs. When it breaks down, so does meaning. She illustrates her point with countless cheerful examples. Where, for instance, would extra-marital sex be without its hyphen? In a completely different moral sphere.
The book is less instruction manual than celebration. “You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation.” Not the exclamation mark, however, which smacks of laughing at one's own joke.
Readers moved to passion by a misplaced apostrophe are not alone. Milan Kundera once sacked a publisher over a semi-colon; Harold Ross, a former New Yorker editor, and James Thurber rowed frequently over commas. Thurber, who disliked them, usually lost. He was once asked by a correspondent why there was a comma in the sentence, “After dinner, the men went into the living room.”
“His answer”, says Ms Truss, “was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation.
‘This particular comma’, Thurber explained, ‘was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.’”
The book is also a call to action. Being a punctuation stickler is, as Ms Truss points out, lonely. You are accused of nerdishness, of interfering, of —God forbid— being middle class. “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.”
Why, when other punctuation manuals are on the market, is this one a bestseller? Timing. As people worry about the white rhino only when it is nearly extinct, so they defend punctuation only when it is endangered. The threat is not so much the greengrocer's apostrophe—his tomato's have been on sale for decades—as e-mails and text messages. In the first, speed undermines precision; in the second, brevity destroys form. Worse, both use sacred marks for their profane little emoticons :-) It's enough to drive one to an exclamation mark!
* See it here