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On "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"

Edited by chromatic
May 2004

To keep everyone on the same page, publishers have style guides that spell out matters of punctuation, abbreviation, and good sense. There are, however, occasionally matters of contention between writers and editors, just as brace placement and tabs-versus-spaces can be contentious between developers. A recent thread From the Editors List brought out some well suppressed grammar geeks.

Mike Hendrickson:

Before I get snowed under with digging out from a week of email, I thought I would pass this along. While on vacation, one of the books I read was Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss.

I found this useful and entertaining, although it is written in British-English and punctuated accordingly. Many of us will enjoy knowing that we aren't too odd for having an "inner stickler."

Here is a ditty from the back cover.

A panda walked into a cafe. He ordered a sandwich, ate it, then pulled out a gun and shot the waiter. "Why?" groaned the injured man. The panda shrugged, tossed him a badly punctuated wildlife manual and walked out. And sure enough, when the waiter consulted the book, he found an explanation. "Panda," ran the entry for his assailant. "Large black and white mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves." We see signs in shops every day for "Banana's" and even "Gateaux's". Competition rules. . . .

It is definitely a fun read.

Robert Eckstein:

It has one hell of a sales ranking.

Simon Chappell:

BookScan U.K. has total sales of 607K for this title since publication in November. Incredible. It was the number 1 book in the U.K. at Christmas time.

Rael Dornfest:

Brian Sawyer and I have been drooling over it since he first mentioned it to me. I now have it in my grubby little paws (finally started it last night) and am loving every paragraph. I mentioned it on my blog and got a more than pedantic (lovingly so) set of responses.

Sarah Milstein:

I read it last month and loved it. As you note, the Brit version is peculiar in punctuation, but bloody entertaining.

I'm now reading Thinking Like Your Editor in order to learn how to, like, think.

Jonathan Gennick:

Yes, that's an excellent book, with lots of good info on how the publishing industry works.

Edd Dumbill:

This Brit is chuckling a little, the "Brit version" being the original.

Then again, I can easily live with the soubriquet "peculiar, but bloody entertaining."

The book was a bestseller here last year and topped the Christmas present lists. It caused quite a storm in the columns of various broadsheet newspapers. Ms. Truss's attitude to punctuation is by no means universally endorsed.

The best response was from Simon Jenkins in the Times. He contended that the full stop was the only necessary punctuation mark. There's a lot to be said for this point of view. Although I have not embraced it wholeheartedly, I found that as an ideal it tightened up my word choice.

As a parting shot I will observe that the most irritating thing about U.S. punctuation for me is that it seems to require a capital letter after a colon. Madness!

(At least semi-conditioned after editing in U.S. English for four years, but never quite shaking the idiom of the mother tongue.)

Simon St. Laurent:

That, and our placing punctuation inside of quotes. On both scores I vastly prefer the U.K. version, though I still find myself typing the U.S. version.

Jonathan Gennick:

You'll be happy to know then, maybe, that in my own writing I always put my punctuation *outside* my quotation marks, following the British convention (or so I'm told). It probably drives my copyeditors mad, but oh well. . . .

Robert Eckstein:

Depends on the context for me. If it's a spoken quote, I'll follow form. If it's something that can easily be confused, such as . . .

The compiler correctly interpreted the line "A=B(1,2,3)", even though it wasn't programmed to handle functions yet.

. . . then I'll place it outside.

Sarah Milstein:

As it's now available in a U.S. version (a la the Harry Potter series), I thought it worth specifying. (Actually, I think the grammatically correct phrase is: "I thought it's worth specifying." But that sounds stodgy.)

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