EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

By Lynne Truss. Gotham. 209 pp. $17.50

Such a brilliant title! You might have almost predicted the success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss's guide to punctuation. Even the most junior publicist could have charted the book's various psychological appeals: classroom memories of Strunk and White's dryly humorous and incisive Elements of Style; the ongoing vogue for concise palm-sized volumes about arcane subjects (Longitude being the fons et origo of the subgenre); the public's insatiable hunger for every kind of self-improvement; and -- perhaps most important of all -- the giddy bestseller list's notorious penchant for attracting the least likely titles, ranging from collections of kindergarten wisdom and accounts of alien visitations in Peru to volumes of soup-based advice, books with titles like What Color is Your Parachute?, those children's stories by over-the-hill pop stars and. . . . Well, just look for yourself.

Punctuation is fundamental to clear writing and quietly allows us to organize and orchestrate our most complex sentences. Note that the paragraph above employs virtually all the printers' marks discussed in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: exclamation point, comma, apostrophe, period, colon, semicolon, hyphen, parentheses, italics, dash, question mark, ellipsis. The main sentence may be over-long, but syntactically everything is (I hope) clear and the various little squigglies relatively unobtrusive. That's the great triumph of proper punctuation -- it does its job like some grammatical Jeeves, making sure that the most far-fetched prose presents itself to the world without syntactic embarrassment.

But the barbarians are at the gates! (I must calm down here -- once you start thinking consciously about punctuation, you can get carried away.) Lynne Truss, a British journalist, noticed that greengrocers were selling banana's and lemon's, a movie was titled "Two Weeks Notice" and shops offered CD's and video's. When sending e-mail, she remarked that more and more correspondents were dropping capitals, leaving out commas and sullying already banal prose with typographical smudges called emoticons, e.g., :--), a kind of sideways face, with the closed parenthesis representing an upturned mouth. And so Truss soon galloped to the rescue, first riding her hobbyhorse in a newspaper column about punctuation, then on a radio show called "Cutting a Dash," and finally for this book. Which, to her astonishment, became a "runaway" bestseller in Britain and is doing almost as well in the United States.

The title really is perfect: A panda walks into a cafe, orders and devours a sandwich, draws a gun, fires off a couple of rounds, then waddles off. "Why?" asks the bewildered waiter. "I'm a panda. Look it up." When the waiter checks out "Panda" in a reference book, he reads: "Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves." In the course of her book, Truss points out how other misplaced or missing commas have contributed to a bloody disaster during the Boer War, the hanging of traitor Roger Casement, and serious wrangling about novelist Graham Greene's will. To this day, vociferous arguments rage over the serial comma (known in England as the Oxford comma). Most style books maintain that you need only write "The red, white and blue flag" while the serialists insist on "The red, white, and blue flag." Truss sensibly maintains that "one shouldn't be too rigid about the Oxford comma." She goes on to say:

"For example, in the introduction to this book . . . I allude to punctuation marks as the traffic signals of language: 'they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop.' And, well, I argued for that Oxford comma. It seemed to me that without the comma after 'detour,' this was a list of three instructions (the last a double one), not four. And here was a case where the stylistic reasons for its inclusion clearly outweighed the grammatical ones for taking it out. This was a decelerating sentence. The commas were incrementally applying the brakes. To omit the comma after 'detour' would have the sentence suddenly coasting at speed again instead of slowing down to the final halt."

Punctuation, as Truss repeatedly shows, calls forth violent emotions, and so please allow me to inject a personal note here. For years I have been making this very same argument and have judiciously employed serial commas in my carefully wrought, ever-euphonious, and possibly deathless prose. (See?) Yet my colleagues at Book World have scarcely waited for me to leave the building before they have swooped down on my sentences like grammatical comma-kazes. Triads became doublets. An extra pause for dramatic effect near a sentence's close -- lost to the world. Alas, the ordinary citizen little appreciates how such weekly heartbreaks mount up, how a once vigorous, optimistic soul may grow broken, cankered, and bitter. As Raymond Chandler once said, and truly: "I live for syntax."

Readers will find Eats, Shoots & Leaves a reliable guide. One would expect no less, after all. And yet it isn't a wholly satisfying book. For anyone seeking a punctuation reference for the desk, this one is overly padded with narrative and anecdote; what's more, it presents the English system, which differs slightly from the American (periods and commas are often outside quotation marks on the other side of the Atlantic). And there's no index. Truss certainly writes clearly and often with a pretty wit: "As a statement, 'no dogs please' is an indefensible generalisation, since many dogs do please, as a matter of fact; they make a point of it." Her diction neatly draws on British slang, technical terminology, and some appealingly unexpected adjectives and nouns (inglenook, palaver).

The problem lies in the book's tone. Its pitch strikes me as a little shrill, over bright. Truss often sounds like a journalist exaggerating both her feelings and her prose for cutesy effect. As a result, the humorous flourishes sometimes come across as forced, brittle, even slightly condescending: "I hear there are now Knightsbridge clinics offering semicolonic irrigation. . . . That imaginative chap Charlemagne (forward-looking Holy Roman Emperor). " She asserts, twice, that she would like to have carried the babies of the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius (reputed inventor of the semicolon).

Oh well. People don't like all my jokes either, and it's hard to argue against the evidence of huge sales. Still, I think Karen Elizabeth Gordon's several books about grammar and punctuation (e.g., The Deluxe Transitive Vampire) offer a more delicious, raffine wit, while also being efficiently organized for practical use. But Eats, Shoots & Leaves deserves your attention, if only for its final plea to preserve the rudiments of correct punctuation against the onslaught of e-mail netspeak. Let Truss have the final, telling word:

"Remember that thing Truman Capote said years ago about Jack Kerouac. 'That's not writing, it's typing.' I keep thinking that what we do now, with this medium of instant delivery, isn't writing, and doesn't even qualify as typing either: it's just sending." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.