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Our friend, the comma

Eats, Shoots & Leaves The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation Lynne Truss Gotham Books: 210 pp., $17.50

June 27, 2004|John Rechy | John Rechy is the author, most recently, of "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens" and the forthcoming collection of essays "Beneath the Skin."

Not everything has gone haywire in a world that converts this haughtily subtitled book -- "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" -- into a bestseller. (I'll leave it to the reader to discover the meaning of the title, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves.") First in England, now in America, it has perched, proud and aloof, atop massive tomes about war, spies and lying presidents. Witty, smart, passionate, it gives long-overdue attention to "the traffic signals of language."

Lynne Truss (one longs to call her "Miss Truss," because she evokes the snippy teachers who eventually became our favorites) issues a rallying cry to all devotees of her just cause, "sticklers" who champion correct punctuation: "Fight like tigers."

To hearten the troops, she evokes punctuation's noble history, praising heroes, denouncing enemies. In an early English grammar, Richard Mulcaster found even a possible element of survival in the comma, "a small crooked point, which in writing followeth some small branch of the sentence, & in reading warneth vs to rest there, & to help our breth a little."

It wasn't always easy. George Bernard Shaw sought to banish the contractive apostrophe. Umberto Eco eschewed the semicolon but recanted, attributing his transgression to an absence of the mark on his typewriter. While warning against embalming the language, Truss grants no more than limited absolution for aberrant behavior: "Only do it if you're famous."

Would I be an apostate in Truss's (she insists on three s's) view because I dropped the contractive apostrophe entirely in my first novel? If so, I would explain that I did that and performed other syntactical tricks -- artfully -- to suggest the slurred rhythms of rock 'n' roll at the time of that novel, as well as the breathless speech of some of my main characters. (I did it so effectively that I was labeled "semiliterate," and I drew a stern protest from Levi Strauss & Co. for spelling "Levi's" as "levis." Promising not to do so again, I was rewarded with three new pairs of the famous pants.)

Truss celebrates even the seemingly lowly hyphen; she proffers as example of its grandeur the phrase "extra-marital sex," inviting the deduction that if the hyphen is removed, grounds for divorce become a happy sex life.

Bravely, Truss identifies villains, including some copy editors who act as saboteurs. (In one of my novels, I described "the most beautiful woman in the world" wearing a dress that "adored" her body. The sentence appeared with "adorned" substituted for my thrilling "adored.") She unmasks academics who pretend to understand each other's jargon. She lambastes the clumsy, nasty "instant reviews" that Amazon loves to attach like bubble gum to books. And cyber non-language? CU L8r (:-) LOL. (See you later smiley face laugh out loud.) Letters for words! Emoticons instead of emotion! (I once returned, unread, a term paper submitted with a one-word note: "Enjoy!" followed by a smiley face.)

Truss is so staunchly right -- most of the time -- that one exults in finding her wrong, especially since she rushes to thwart such by narrating an incident when she was thought by "gleeful" readers to be wrong but wasn't.

Gleefully I point out: She disastrously dangles participial modifiers, even, in one such instance, omitting a necessary comma. "Carved in stone (in stone, mind you) in a Florida shopping mall one may see the splendidly apt quotation from Euripides, 'Judge a tree from it's fruit: not the leaves.' " Was she so traumatized by the apostrophic abomination she was about to expose -- and subconsciously unnerved by her own missing comma after "mall" -- that she cast herself into stone in a Florida mall?

Glee overflows! She sends her beloved commas into disarray by frequently misusing "so" as a conjunction. Dear Miss Truss: "So," being an adverb (and an insecure conjunction only when coupled with an implicit or actual "that"), requires either a semicolon to precede it between independent clauses or a period followed by a capital "S" to introduce the resultant sentence. (I draw coveted stars on the margins of assignments when a student punctuates "so" correctly.)

And oh, oh, Miss Truss, how could you allow the subtitle of your very own book to flaunt the hyphenic ambiguity you rage against! Without the necessary hyphen in "zero-tolerance," one is left to wonder: What is a zero approach? Wait! Did Miss Truss slyly connive to catch lax sticklers?

Despite her dangling modifiers and misused "so's," Truss writes grand sentences that often exemplify the point she's making: "Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again.... "

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