Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

The law is perhaps the only profession in which you can be fired for making a punctuation error. Journalists have sub editors to proof their work. Novelists have copy editors. As an attorney, when you make a punctuation error (or any mistake of the written word), this is taken to be not only dangerous, but a kind of grave moral error. Law firms do not hate the sin, but love the sinner. They hold both in equal contempt. If unlucky, you could be branded a schismatic, declared ex cathedra, cast off into the outer darkness, or trussed up like a heretic ripe for the stake. Worst of all, you could be denied your bonus. So Eats, Shoots & Leaves should be read by every attorney who wishes to prevent a punctuation-kindled auto-da-fe by having a fire extinguisher close to hand.

Lynn Truss, the now wealthy author of this improbable bestseller, describes her rallying cry as "Sticklers unite!" The sticklers, herself included, suffer something like physical pain when they see a misplaced comma. She is probably blissfully unaware that a large number of law firm partners fall into this category. Truss describes the activities of the Apostrophe Protection Society (yes, there is such a thing) as too mild-mannered for her taste; the society members write letters, like Amnesty International, to abusers. She wanted to take more direct action, so she wrote a book.

So far, this tale calls to mind a number of other eccentric, and inevitably futile, campaigns to save the language by "harmless drudges," to borrow Samuel Johnson's phrase. What separates this book from the others is that for a stickler, Truss can write. She writes droll, lucid prose that entertains as much as it instructs. By the standards of its genre - style guides and usage guides and the like - this book is almost voluptuous. It is jam-packed with amusing stories, such as Milan Kundera's firing of a publisher for insisting on replacing one of his semicolons with a period. Like Mary Poppins, the author seems to feel that with a spoon full of sugar, the medicine will go down. She may well be right.

The other major point of departure with the classics, which emphasize the avoidance of sin, is that Truss actually wants you to develop a love for punctuation. This is a tall order. In our anarchic, glorious language, which seems to lose structure even as it adds words, like a morbidly obese hippopotamus with terminal osteoporosis, punctuation is not the only joint that's giving. Teaching English-speakers to love punctuation is a quixotic task to say the least; it calls to mind Woody Allen's mission, as a tinpot dictator in Bananas, to inculcate a love in his people for clean underwear. You either do or you don't. Even those who get teary-eyed with admiration after reading a few pages of Fowler, or strain their backs and eyes with the thousand pound single edition of the OED, may hesitate before feeling any sort of emotional charge from the correct placement of an inverted comma. It's like asking a gourmand to care more about the ordering and presentation of a meal than the food itself. It matters, yes, but does it move you?

If the book's sales are any guide, the answer is yes. Punctilious punctuationists are not the endangered species they were feared to be, writing correctly punctuated sentences to one another like Illuminati trading secret handshakes. While not everyone cares, many people evidently do.

The book is divided into chapters lovingly devoted to the sundry punctuation marks and their histories and quarrels running down the ages. It brims with conflict, which is why it is such a good read. You could be forgiven for being unaware of these decades-, indeed centuries-old dramas, such as the internecine warfare among grammarians about the uses and misuses of the colon. One thing that all sticklers can agree on, however, is that they (we?) are a fractious bunch, constantly at each other's throats about something as obscure as it is seemingly trivial. And so, perhaps predictably given her success, Truss has been subjected to a few scathing reviews, each one attempting to strike her with the unkindest cut of all: her alleged misuse of English. Sour grapes, I say.

This reviewer comes not to bury Ms. Truss, but to praise her. She has embarked on a thankless task with brio, and she deserves ever penny she has earned for it. Her achievement is of particular relevance to lawyers. Punctuation mistakes made by attorneys are legion. As someone who is constantly exposed to these errors on resumes and cover letters, which presumably are given more than a once-over by their authors, I am convinced that this book should be handed out on the very first day of law school. Witnessing a punctuation debacle is like watching someone walk into a legal interview naked, sporting unbecoming tufts of hair and a variety of tattoos, and thinking - there goes nothing. Literally.

Much of the blame undoubtedly lies with Microsoft's Word® program, which has become, for many, the last best hope for catching errors. If practicing law is like being a trapeze artist without a safety harness, relying on Microsoft is like packing your parachute bag with dirty laundry. One of the most dangerous ways to remedy a deficiency in one's grasp of punctuation is to rely on this program. Its frivolity is matched only by its incompetence. True, it can pick up the odd surplus period. But it gives you a false sense of security. Moreover, as with any overused crutch, your own punctuation muscles begin to atrophy and eventually you soon become helpless without it (which is no doubt the company's intention).

There's a deeper meaning in all of this than just getting it right and, in so doing, pleasing your partner, your client, or the judge. If a pedant cares too deeply about mistakes, and takes grim joy in noticing them and pointing them out, the reckless user of English cares not a whit about his own words and the power that they have when chosen with care and punctuated properly. To become an initiate in this arcane world is to have the scales fall from one's eyes and to see the most delicate meaning where others see only marks on a page. At school, punctuation errors trigger red marks from the teacher: something to be avoided, but not something to become excited about. We are not taught the emotional calculus behind punctuation, or its rich history. I must confess that someone offered me this book as a Christmas present, and I turned it down flat, not realizing that question marks were things I wanted to learn more about. After all, life is short, and there is always more TV to watch. My ignorance, and worse, apathy, about the history of the semi-colon, and the great Aldus Manutius the Elder, were almost perfect. No longer.

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