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Bewildering Stories

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Author: Lynne Truss
Publisher: Gotham Books, 2004
Hardcover: $13.95
Length: 208 pages
ISBN: 1-592-40087-6
A few more years ago than I am prepared to admit, I found myself the only student who survived to take twelfth grade German on the chin. Given that it was a class of one, the putative German teacher, Herr Lubeck, took on other duties and more or less left me on my own with a German grammar book that I still own. Day after day I struggled with convoluted sentence constructions and the accusative and the genitive and the dative cases and whether the wonderfully simple word the should actually show up as der die das dem or damn! before of the noun. I went on to write my high school scholarship exam in German and pass but was hard put not to celebrate the event by torching that yellow grammar book. Years later I met a native speaker and told him of my grammatical agonies. I failed to elicit the expected sympathy. Why, it was simple, he replied. He had never bothered to learn any of those maddening rules himself. He just learned the whole sentence.

The point of this little tale (my Germanic acquaintance survived his heartless confession, by the way, although for an instant, as I remembered the agony of those an auf hinter neben lists, I thought of braining him with the nearest heavy object) is that native speakers rarely approach their own language with the same attention to grammar and punctuation that they would apply to learning a foreign language. We native speakers learn through a process of osmosis more than anything else. Starting out as baby parrots imitating noises, we absorb the rules, and unless we make a career of teaching or writing, we probably never apply the same care to understanding our own language as we would to another.

But we here at Bewildering Stories are writers, of course, though no doubt we should all hold on to our day jobs. Writers should care about the correct or at least the deliberate use of language just as a painter should care about perspective and color. The language is the tool of our trade, and if we want to graduate from finger-painting to Da Vinci imitations, we need to know how to use our tool.

So how to learn the fine points of the English language without resorting to something like that yellow grammar book that still incites a flash of hatred in me? Have I got the book for you. Since the cover of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves tells me the book is The Runaway #1 British Bestseller, readers across the pond may be nodding their heads in familiarity already. But for the rest of you, keep reading. Confused about how to use the apostrophe? When should a colon or semi-colon be used instead of a comma? What’s the difference between hyphens and dashes? It’s all here.

Lynne Truss reminds me strongly of the history teacher I had in the same school who managed to make history really interesting for a class of thirty initially ho-hum students. Mr. Steinson approached history like it was the world’s most lurid gossip. Napoleon conquered the continent? Far more interesting if you knew how, when the short guy was about to come home, he wrote Josephine to beg her not to bathe because he just loved that natural aroma. So too does Lynne Truss liven up the apostrophe with its lurid history and the sidesplitting misuse it’s been put to and the tale of the Apostropher Royal. The comma gets its due with a side-tour into the contributions of Aldus Manutius and how Lynne Truss would have loved to have his babies. Famous writers and editors from Shaw to Harold Pinter are quoted for the uses famous or infamous they’ve made of punctuation, and some of those, believe me, are sidesplitting too.

And I can’t resist quoting the book’s most famous joke. If someone in the British House of Lords couldn’t resist it, neither can I, so there, so those of you who have heard it before, groan and get it over with and shut up. Here it is, word-for-word:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

So beware, Ye Who Mangle Commas and Apostrophes. Next time this humble review editor sees a horribly punctuated submission come my way, I shall write you back and ask if you have yet read that punctuation stickler and world-class authority, Ms. Lynne Truss. There is no excuse. Read it and learn, or I shall stickle at you.

P. S. Here’s a challenge for you. Quick! Tell me what characteristic punctuation styles the following authors are quoted for?

  1. Harold Pinter
  2. George Bernard Shaw
  3. Gertrude Stein
  4. James Thurber
  5. Charles Dickens

and adding a few of my own, here!

  1. E. E. Cummings
  2. Ernest Hemingway
  3. and, last and sure least, tongue-in-cheek, Barbara Cartland?

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

Like many, I thought “E. E. Cummings” was spelled “ e e cummings.” A kind reader, Mr. Martin DeMello, has set the record straight by sending a reference to an article on that very subject.

I suppose the only way to settle the question once and for all would be to dig up Mr. Cummings (or cummings) and ask him how we’re supposed to write his name. He might be irritated at an utimely arousal, pleased that we’re interested, or disappointed that we don’t ask him about his poetry. One out of three isn’t good; let’s just take our chances.

In any event, the article confirms one of Bewildering Stories’ unofficial mottoes: “There is no story so truly bewildering as reality.”


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