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Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

June 19, 2012

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is, in its structure, a survey of how various types of punctuation came to be, and are correctly used. In its tone, it is a rather classist book, an unrelenting scold’s attempt to come off as breezy and witty while attempting to lay out the history and rules of punctuation. What she actually does is make it clear how people who make punctuation mistakes are the worst people in the world. It is rather amusing to read Truss go completely over the top, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Here’s the thing about correct grammar and punctuation: if you are pointing out mistakes but can still easily grasp the meaning of what someone is saying – barring the fact that you are, in fact, leading a class, editing a book, or have otherwise been asked to correct what is being said – you’re really not doing it for any reason other than to feel superior. Sometimes it may feel like bad grammar, spelling, or punctuation causes you physical pain. You feel a twitch behind your eye seeing a sign that reads:

Please wash your dishes “by hand”.

Or, like Truss, seeing a poster for a movie called Two Weeks Notice when there should be an apostrophe in it drives you into a frenzy. Perhaps you froth at the mouth when you see an Oxford comma, or when you don’t see it.

But do you know what happens if you just ignore these things and move on? Nothing.

(Sidenote: yes, the use of blockquotes up there is technically incorrect. It is easier to read and understand than putting it in regular quotes, only to then put quotes within the quotes. That is just one example of how incorrect English can sometimes make more intuitive sense.)

Of course, there are those that feel that this only leads to an erosion of the language, that somehow leaving an apostrophe out is the first step towards the whole of society communicating only through grunts and feces-throwing. This view ignores the fact that all languages are constantly evolving, and the attempt to write down and codify language rules started as a descriptive, rather than prescriptive practice.

There’s nothing wrong with you if your pet peeve is bad punctuation. But if you think it’s more than a peeve, and actually makes someone a bad or a stupid person, than there is something wrong and you need to get over yourself.

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