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The well-tempered sentence

Humorous guide to punctuation gets to the point

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
By Lynne Truss
Gotham, 209 pp., $17.50

Lynne Truss has a winner in "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," and I don't say this simply because it has topped the bestseller lists in the United Kingdom for months and is the British publishing phenomenon of the year, or even because Frank McCourt says in the foreword to the US edition that Truss should be beatified for writing it. Really, none of that has swayed me. I believe that this book is a winner because it made me smile, it made me laugh, I learned things from it, and I enjoyed reading it. That it was all about punctuation makes it a hole in one.

The title says it all. "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" is from a punctuation joke. A panda goes into a cafe, has a sandwich, pulls out a pistol, shoots into the air, and then leaves. As he walks toward the exit a waiter asks him why he did it. The panda tosses him a badly punctuated wildlife manual and says, "I'm a panda. . . . Look it up." He does and finds: "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves." We all know people who would love that joke, and this book is for them. And it turns out they're buying it for everyone else.

Truss is a journalist, novelist, and scriptwriter, not a teacher, and it shows. As a narrator she doesn't have her finger wagging at you throughout. Rather, she's a companionable guide down an unfamiliar or unexamined trail. She discusses the plants, points out the flowers, tells you their Latin names, and puts you at greater ease in your writing and reading.

I admit that the information paralyzed me on occasion, like watching your feet on the pedals while riding a bike. However, I appreciate that my discomfort is guilt. (I clearly need to hyphenate a lot more words.) Anyone who loves books wants to be grammatically impeccable. So Truss can help if you're a little wobbly on your use of the colon: It " delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words." Or you're not sure about the comma: It's used to separate modifying words "where the modifying words are all modifying the same thing to the same degree." So the phrase "a dark, stormy night" requires a comma. "Australian red wines" does not.

Any good grammar book can dictate rules, but you can't help but be seduced by Truss's passion. She argues that grammar is like good manners. (Something highly valued by the English. No wonder the book is so popular there; she is singing their tune.) She reminds us that it comes from the word "punctilious," meaning attentive to formality or etiquette. But there's more; "on the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune." And as the joke of the title suggests, the song can change entirely when the punctuation errs or differs.

One that's always rankled both Truss and me is the sign "No dogs please." Without the comma between "dogs" and "please" it becomes, as Truss puts it, "an indefensible generalization, since many dogs do please, as a matter of fact; they rather make a point of it."

Truss refers to the famous punctuation punch-ups between editor Harold Ross and writer James Thurber at The New Yorker magazine in the '30s and '40s. Thurber saw commas as "upturned office chairs unhelpfully hurled down the wide-open corridor of readability." Ross disagreed and sprinkled them through Thurber's work. When Thurber was asked why he had a comma in the sentence "After dinner, the men went into the living-room," Truss quotes him as saying, "This particular comma was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up."

And there are -- even Truss admits -- those who obsess about punctuation to the point of madness. George Bernard Shaw, a sensible man if you read his plays, wanted to reform English and during World War II wrote to The Times suggesting the second "b" in the word "bomb" was superfluous and 25 percent of a minute was wasted every time it was written. Gertrude Stein called the comma "servile," and Truss says, "Lawyers eschew it as a troublemaker."

Unfortunately Truss can't resist giving in to her own language obsession. In the last chapter she touches on subjects that chill my blood: The Future of Books, The Effect of Computers on Reading, and, of course, The Impact of Computer Use on the Future of Punctuation. (Conscious, erroneous use of capitals for emphasis.) They're topics we've discussed too often. They have no clear answers and are simply an opportunity for Truss to speculate on a topic she cares deeply about. In a book lovingly filled with facts and anecdotes, it doesn't work.

Yet like a joyful balloon, Truss can't stay down for long. She ends with good cheer and good facts. "I know that language moves on. It has to," she admits. "Not once have I ever stopped to feel sorry for those Egyptian hieroglyph artists tossed on the scrapheap during a former linguistic transition ('Birds' heads in profile, mate? You having a laugh?')." And did you know that Dudley Moore and his comic partner Peter Cook discussed the ellipsis? (The three dots . . .) This is what you learn from Truss.

This book changed my life in small, perfect ways, like learning how to make better coffee or fold an omelet. It's the perfect gift for anyone who cares about grammar and a gentle introduction for those who don't care enough.

Mary Ambrose is a Canadian writer who lives in London.

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