November 6:  Punctuation Day

On this date in 2003, one of the all time best selling books on writing was published by British columnist and radio personality Lynne Truss.  The book was entitled Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  

As her book’s title indicates, Truss takes punctuation quite seriously.  After all, in the old joke about the panda, one comma made all the difference:

A panda walks into a cafe, sits down, and orders a sandwich. After he finishes eating the sandwich, the panda pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter, and then stands up to go.

“Hey!” shouts the manager. “Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!”

The panda yells back at the manager, “Hey man, I am a PANDA! Look it up!”

The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition: “Panda. A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterised by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”

For Truss and other sticklers like her, one missing or one misplaced comma, semicolon, or apostrophe can be a matter of life or death:

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.  The confusion of [its and it’s] is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.

Clearly Truss is serious about punctuation.  In the course of the 200-plus pages of her book, she reviews the history and the rules of punctuations.  She also provides egregious examples of the errors she has found in ads, signs, and newspapers.  

Two of the heroes of Eats, Shoots & Leaves are the historical figures Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515).

Aristophanes, a librarian at Alexandria around 200 BC, is the father of punctuation.  He was the first to use a three-part system of dots to assist actors in the recitation of verse.  Aristophanes’ dots are the ancestors of our modern commas, periods, colons, and semicolons.  

With the advent of printing in the 14th and 15th century, a more standard system of punctuation was required.  Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer, was the man of the hour, inventing not only the italic typeface but also the semicolon.

Although the history of punctuation is interesting, Truss’s real concern is punctuation use and misuse today.  For writers, words matter.  But, as Truss argues, punctuation is just as important:

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.

A Love Letter to Punctuation

To illustrate just how important punctuation is, Truss presents two “Dear Jack” letters with the exact same words but with different punctuation.  One of the letters reveals Jill’s undying love for Jack, while the second letter, with different punctuation but the exact same words, reveals Jill’s disdain for Jack.  Given the two letters below, see if you can, by adding only commas and periods and without changing any of the words, make the first letter a love letter and the second a break-up letter:

Version A:  Jill Loves Jack

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Jill

Version B:  Jill Dislikes Jack

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Jill

Today’s Challenge:  Abused or Confused

What is a punctuation rule that you either hate to see abused or that you are continually confused by?  Brainstorm some of the different rules for using different punctuation marks.  Then, select one error that you think is significant, either because you hate to see it broken, or because you are unclear about how to apply it.  Do a bit of research to specify the rule and to gather examples of its correct and incorrect application.  Then, write a brief Public Service Announcement (PSA) that states the rule along with correct and incorrect examples.  To give your rule added relevance, find actual examples/pictures of where you have seen it used correctly and incorrectly on signs or advertisements. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The rule is:  don’t use commas like a stupid person.  I mean it.  More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity. -Lynne Truss

Answers:

Version A:  Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, and thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you.  I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart.  I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be yours?

Jill

Version B:  Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what live is.  All about you are generous, kind, and thoughtful people, who are not like you.  Admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me.  For other men I yearn!  For you I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours,

Jill

1-Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003.

 

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