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Manifesto for clear thinking

Cheers for Truss?s rib-tickling manifesto, subtitled, ?the zero tolerance approach to punctuation?.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2004 12:13 IST

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Lynne Truss
Pages: 228
Price:Rs 195
ISBN: 1861976127

Proper punctuation helps me retain my sanity: each week, I am deluged by books. Everyone insists on immediate, lengthy reviews. Not one to judge a book by its cover, I flip through a few pages. Much of the time, the punctuation will be atrocious, and I guiltlessly reject the book.

So, three cheers for Lynn Truss’s rib-tickling, delightful manifesto, subtitled, “the zero tolerance approach to punctuation”. To those of you skeptical on how such a book could be fun, here’s the joke from where the title derives. A panda walks into a café, orders and eats a sandwich, then takes out a gun and shoots into the air. To the befuddled waiter the panda tosses a badly punctuated wildlife manual; the entry says: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

If I have to explain that the joke is in the extra comma in the last sentence, then at the very least you need this book to get your apostrophes, commas, periods, ellipses and brackets sorted out. But even otherwise, this book — which grew out of a series of radio programmes on punctuation Truss did for Radio 4, Cutting a Dash — is a goldmine of interesting anecdotes that will convert even the grumpiest of us to becoming punctuation vigilantes. No wonder it’s been atop the bestseller charts in the UK (and steadily climbing the US charts) for several weeks now.

“Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking,” Truss tells us. “If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.” But hang on, there’s also a hard news angle to the importance of punctuation. In Feb 2003, the British government’s dossier on Iraq’s WMD programme was found to be a lift from a 12-year-old doctoral thesis. The discovery came because even the punctuation mistakes had been reproduced!

But if you’ve already mastered your ‘separators’ and ‘terminators’, Truss’s book is additionally a meditation on the philosophy of language and meaning. Sample, for instance, the difference in meaning between two sentences that are worded exactly the same: “A woman, without her man, is nothing” and “A woman: without her, man is nothing”. It is this ambiguity of meaning that troubled Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others, as they attempted to strip through the layers of language to get to the core of our beliefs.

But it’s not just that “without [punctuation] there is no reliable way of communicating meaning”; punctuation also “tells the reader how to hum the tune”. And so Truss takes a detailed look at the use (and abuse) of each of the punctuation marks. But she never becomes boring: “…one might dare to say that while the full stop is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon, and succumbing to burn-out from all the thankless effort”.

Truss also debates the continuing evolution of language, that very unique human tool, in an age heralded by email and SMS. “[B]y tragic historical coincidence a period of abysmal under-educating in literacy has coincided with this unexpected explosion of global self-publishing”, she says, which does not mean she is worried that the internet and the cellphone will do harm; rather she seems happy that because of them, “reading and writing are now more a fact of everyday life than they have ever been”. Perhaps more people will be forced, by their new lifestyles, to pay more attention to punctuation, even if we follow the historical trend of cutting down on our commas and apostrophes.

Perhaps punctuation is just a changeable convention with no intrinsic worth. That doesn't mean we shouldn't get all the agreed-upon rules clear in our heads, to enrich our use of that convention. This is a simply magical manifesto for that. Truss for President of the USA (or anywhere else for that matter), that's what I say!

First Published: Feb 04, 2004 12:13 IST