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“Eats, Shoots and Leaves”

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This new book, subtitled “The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” has become an instant best-seller in England. Its author is Lynne Truss, a London theater critic and columnist whose zeal for proper punctuation is tempered by a wry sense of humor.

The title derives from one of the book’s numerous jokes. A panda goes into a bar, orders a sandwich, fires a gun and heads for the door. Why did he do that? The barman calls after him. The panda tosses him a badly punctuated wildlife manual. “I’m a panda,” he says. “Look me up.” The barman finds the relevant page, which says, “Panda. Large black-and-white, bearlike mammal native of China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Truss calls semicolons and colons “old-fashioned, middle-class, and dangerously addictive,” and says exclamation points are “like laughing at your own jokes.” Ouch! I use far too many of these, and will henceforth try to cease and desist whenever possible.

She also notes that “Gertrude Stein called the comma servile and refused to have anything to do with it.” Memo, to self: fewer commas, please!

You can order the book from amazon.uk now, or wait ’til next year when it’s published in the U.S.: Truss has received a $110,000 advance! Oops, there I go again!

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  • duane

    Now that you’re an expert on punctuation, having read the book, can you tell me whether or not a comma should go after “shoots”? I say yes. What’s the official policy? I have a longstanding bet on this with someone! (oops! doh, I did it again)

  • Not in that sentence it shouldn’t. The post title is saying “[he] eats, [he] shoots and leaves.” What it’s supposed to say is that the panda “eats shoots and leaves.”

    As for the other comma-problem, where you list three times, I’m not sure. Is it “one, two, and three” or “one, two and three”?

    And for that matter, if you’re quoting and the question mark is not a part of the quote, should it go outside of the quotation marks? (I think so because it makes the quotation a question when it may not have been. I’ll continue to do it my way unless someone puts a gun to my head.)

    Where’s Mac Diva? I think she’d probably have the answer on this one.

  • Eric Olsen

    My opinion: “Eats shoots and leaves,” because shoots and leaves are what he eats – “shoots and leaves” are the same thought, they’re what he eats.

    Question mark not applying to quote goes outside the quotation marks.

    By the way, what punctuation does this person like?

  • duane

    Thanks, Tom. I was really asking about the second case in your post above, where you list three times. I think “red, white and blue” should be “red, white, and blue.” But I see so many intentional omissions that I’m wondering if the rules changed.

    As long as we’re on the topic of grammar, I note that the word “that” seems to be disappearing from newspaper articles. For example, a sentence beginning “It is fitting that these statements come at a time…” will appear as “It is fitting these statements come at a time…”, which seems wrong to me. I realize (that) this is not the most important thing going on in the world at the moment, but still….

  • Eric Olsen

    Duane, the emphasis is on reduction, leaving out whatever can be left out without changing the meaning. “That” is rarely needed and often overused. the key is to eliminate ambiguity whenever possible. The “Red, white and blue” sentence can go either way and be correct. When there are lists I tend to use the final comma just to be consistent.

  • duane

    Thanks, Eric. I guess that that makes sense…uh… I mean I guess that makes sense. Next they will be leaving out “a,” “an,” and “the.” It works in Russian.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    That last comma in a series is called the “serial comma” and is pretty much the first question every copy editor asks at a new publication. (“Is it your style to use the serial comma?”)
    Either can be correct, but almost every newspaper and magazine I’ve ever worked for has eschewed the serial comma (red, white and blue.)
    The AP Style Book (most mainstream pubs follow this) says no serial comma. However, Strunk and White, the world’s finest usage manual, says to include it. It seems that as time goes on, the “no serial comma” crowd seems to be winning easily.

    Eric, you should post a link to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, a timeless, great book on the matter.

    Yes, I am a copy editor.

  • Longtime editor and fan of the serial comma. Whether I use it depends on a particular publication and its conventions. Baltimore City Paper does; Out (and most others) does not.

  • i would say usage of the serial comma depends on each specific situation. Also, use the serial comma if there’s no “and”:
    she’s ready, he’s ready, they’re all ready
    she’s angry, he’s angry and they’re angry
    she’s angry, he’s angry, and he’s sleepy

    The serial comma in that last one seems “right” because the last bit of the sentence references the immediately previous bit (as in, on its own it would have been: he’s angry and he’s sleepy)
    that’s just my guess though. No doubt some language scholar would say this is wrong

  • nobody

    how does one go about explaining that there’s something wrong with a spate of headlines like these:..?

    US ‘rejected Iraqi concessions’
    Huntley’s hair ‘found in clothes’
    Mexico examines ‘Dirty War’ case
    Indian tea estate dispute ‘kills 19’
    Howard ‘excited’ by challenge
    Surgeons ‘grow new finger joints’
    Spanish oil spill ‘not over yet’

    The site does seem to have improved, fortunately.

  • Eric Olsen

    Great idea with the “Strunk and White’s” – so CC, why aren’t you a blogger, Miss Copy Editor?

  • Strunk and White rocks.

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