In the introduction to her best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves (The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation), Lynne Truss describes a "true stickler":
For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word "Book's" with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated.
Anyone who has experienced similar distress at the sight of misplaced apostrophes, redundant or missing commas and overused semi-colons, and has felt the urge to fix the errors (on restaurant menus, billboards, brochures, fliers – you name it) is bound to empathize with Truss and delight at the sight of the "Punctuation Repair Kit" so thoughtfully included in Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
Now, sticklers (and teachers and parents) have two more reasons to rejoice. Last year, Truss authored a children's edition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves and, recently, its companion book, The Girl's Like Spaghetti.
Illustrated by Bonnie Timmons (who drew the cartoons for the popular television series Caroline in the City), the two books are attractive, colorful and entertaining renditions of what happens to sentences when commas are missing or end up in the wrong places, or apostrophes appear where they shouldn't. Truss takes a sentence, punctuates it in two different ways and Timmons draws an image for each of the two variations illustrating the different meanings the sentences consequently take on.
For example, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the sentence, "Look at that huge hot dog!" appears first with no commas (accompanied by an illustration of a huge hot dog on a grill), and in the second instance, a single comma makes an appearance after the word "huge" to read, "Look at that huge, hot dog!" (and is accompanied by a drawing of a very big, white, spotted dog, panting near a kiddie pool).
This same example could have been written in prose with the consequences of the placement or omission of the comma explained in purely grammatical terms, but, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. What a delight it will be for teachers and parents to have this book, to flip to a page and be able to say to a child, "See what happens if you don't use a comma here?" or "See what happens if you put an apostrophe here instead of here?" The prospect of nipping bad punctuation habits in the bud (while the children are having a good time of it) will surely be welcome.
For those parents, teachers, curious youngsters or other readers wanting to know the grammatical explanations for the consequences of misplaced punctuation, there is a handy table at the end of the book that compares the two iterations of each sentence. To continue with the above example, in the version without the comma, "huge" modifies "hot dog", and in the version with the comma, "huge" and "hot" both modify the noun "dog". So, in the former, the sentence describes a hot dog, while in the latter, the sentence describes a dog.
The Girl's Like Spaghetti follows a similar pattern. One of the most common punctuation errors involving an apostrophe must be the use of "it's" for "its" and vice versa. As the table at the end of the book explains, "The apostrophe makes a contraction of it and is", while its (without the apostrophe) "is a possessive pronoun…" The illustration accompanying the example, "Look, it's behind" is that of a turtle falling behind in a race and "Look, its behind" is illustrated by a boy pointing to a horse's behind. Point made, and how!
As you flip through the pages and look at all the illustrations and examples, you may begin to wonder if children should be the only beneficiaries of these wonderful books, and most likely you will conclude, not. It is not unusual to come across several instances of misplaced, absent, or overused punctuation in the course of a day (even in newspapers, sometimes) where the culprits are mostly us adults. These illustrated books might, in all probability, be more successful in driving home basic punctuation rules than most grammar texts have apparently hitherto achieved, and readers are bound to have more fun in the process (my seven year-old certainly did).
Eats, Shoots & Leaves and The Girl's Like Spaghetti are must-have additions not only to elementary school libraries, but to libraries and book shelves everywhere.
Then, perhaps, sticklers the world over can give a rest to those Punctuation Repair Kits.Powered by Sidelines