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Mind Your Commas: Book Offers Proper Grammar With a (Correctly Used) Dash of Humor

Posted on April 07, 2005 by Sarah Eaton.

Review by Susan E. Fisher

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss is a grammar.   It discusses in great, but not excruciating, detail the proper use of commas, semicolons, apostrophes, dashes and those other particular, little companions of the English language. If these facts alone are not enough for you to stop reading, do read on. You may be the ideal candidate to become a fan of this witty, best-selling book.

Here are three quick takeaways:

1. “Its” vs. “it’s.”  Know your apostrophes of omission.

Do you know the difference between “it’s” and “its”? (Answer: The punctuation mark in “it’s” is the apostrophe of omission. You use the apostrophe to replace the “i.” “It’s” means “it is.”)

2. Be consistent with commas in a series.

Which sentence has the correct punctuation?
• The colours of the Union Jack are red, white, and blue.
• The colours of the Union Jack are red, white and blue.
The answer will vary depending on your adopted model of punctuation. The most important thing is to be consistent. Inconsistencies suggest you don’t know what you are doing.

3. Be particularly sensitive with electronic communications.

The dangers of disregarding or abusing grammar are particularly great in the Internet age. With the ready combination of word processing software, email and the Web at our fingertips, everyone has become an author. This is one of Truss’ insights. Top managers, including CEOs, who once were shielded by their own lack of grammatical know-how by in-house editors, PR managers and other handlers, are now free to dash off ill-conceived messages to customers and business partners at lightning speed.

The blogging environment is even worse for sticklers, a label Truss gives the lovers of language who both lovingly and doggedly stick by the rules. The bulk of bloggers are cavalier with language, showing little regard for the fine points of grammar, punctuation or even spelling. Once out on the wild, untamed Web, ill-constructed sentences and typos can have the shelf life of Twinkies; they may never completely disappear.

A CEO with an Ivy League pedigree can come off like a dimwit. A CEO, who recently wrote our company, thanked us for the “priveledge” of reading our newsletter. One of our competitors blasted this message to a potential customer: “For more inforamtion on our e-newsletter services, please see….” (Just in case you missed it, “priveledge” should be “privilege” and “inforamtion” should be “information.”)

The Impact of Errors

Do you realize the impact you are making when you introduce errors in your electronic messages? Do you even realize the errors you make? Of course, there’s a difference between simply slipping up with a typo and making a grammatical error out of ignorance. Those typos can be forgiven, but ignorance is unacceptable.

Still, the prospect of reading a grammar book may sound as appealing as drinking cod liver oil. It’s something we know is good for us but seems a bit old fashioned, and we fear it may leave a bad taste in the mouth. Truss serves grammar to us with a spoon full of sugar (much like that upright symbol of British civility, Mary Poppins.) "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" opens with a title that is a reference to a joke and keeps you amused along the tidy, 204-page way.

(You see, there's this gun-totting panda that enters a bar and "eats, shoots and leaves." The bear, it turns out, is merely fulfilling his destiny as defined by a punctuation-challenged wildlife guide. The guide reads: "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.")

Truss Makes It Fun

Get it? Okay. If that joke does not quite elicit a hardy belly laugh, hang on for a few giggles. Truss manages a mean feat, something your third or fourth or fifth or sixth grade teacher may have failed to accomplish: She makes learning about grammar actually fun. Fortunately for us Yankees, Truss is British. She has that dry wit we've come to love in those clever British sitcoms broadcast on PBS.

By the way, nothing is Americanized in the American-version of the book. We get it in full “colour” without any superimposed U.S. laugh track in the edition by Penguin Group (USA). In the latest edition, Truss offers us a little update, explaining how she is struck by her own heady success with the book. Much to her surprise and delight, “Eats” was the “runaway No. 1 British bestseller,” and it quickly climbed the U.S. bestseller charts.    

Don't mistake Truss' humor for a lack of seriousness. The writer is passionate about her subject. She confesses a desire to join the militant wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society and blasts the careless individuals who ignore the gods of grammar. She writes, “No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Caring About Grammar

More important than tickling our funny bone about seemingly obscure points, Truss makes us truly care about grammar. Mispunctuation can lead to dangerous misunderstanding. Consider the impact of a misplaced comma in this example cited by Truss:  “A woman, without her man, is nothing” versus “A woman, without her, man is nothing.” See the difference one swift keystroke can make?

As a child of the free-wheeling, open-classroom 1970s, I must confess to never having had a formal lesson in such niceties as proper placement of the semicolon.  Actually, I don’t recall cracking open a grammar book until a rather stern editor at my first newspaper job handed me a basic text. It was more than a hint; it was a lifeline.

When is the last time you had a grammar lesson? Perhaps it’s time to go back to school on this important subject, for your own sake and for the sake of your business. You can start by cracking open “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.”  At the very least, it may crack you up. At best, it may save you a client or two.

Gaudere's Law: any post made to point out a spelling or grammar error will invariably contain a spelling or grammar error. 

April 7, 2005 in award winning magazine, award winning newsletter, Award winning publications, Blog Outsourcing, blog publish, build credibility, Business editorial, Business newsletter, Business relationships, Corporate newsletter, Corporate publications, create a newsletter | Permalink


Susan Fisher's review of Lynne Truss' book on punctuation and grammar contained the word email, which is not in the Mirram-Webster Online Dictionary I frequently use. I see many Web site articles and links that misspell e-mail without the hyphen. Is that now acceptable or is Mirriam-Webster wrong?

Posted by: Ronell Crossley | Apr 7, 2005 2:49:07 PM

Yes, the e-mail vs. email debate is an interesting one. At least, it is interesting for sticklers. Whether or not you use the hyphen has a lot to do with how well accepted and understood you believe the term to be. “Email” evolved from the “electronic mail.” “E-mail” came next. Wired and other magazines still use “e-mail” but many other reputable sources, including the Associated Press (AP), have turned to “email” because the term is so commonly used.

Here are two points we consider when deciding how to render a word:

1. Are we sensitive to our readers? Do they recognize the term and is it meaningful to them?

2. Are we consistent? To stay consistent, we have a company style guide. Generally, our default is AP style. Everyone in our organization can turn to the guide to follow the same approach to rendering such words.

Note: We do use a hyphen in “e-newsletter.” Perhaps, “e-newsletter” will evolve to the point at which we drop the hyphen.

Source: http://alt-usage-english.org/e-mail-vs-email.html

Posted by: Susan Fisher | Apr 11, 2005 10:43:36 AM

I love the book club idea. I just ordered a copy of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.”

Here's another classic...
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, Roger Angell


Posted by: Brian Carroll | Apr 11, 2005 1:58:55 PM

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