This opening line is found on the back cover of the delightful book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. In an age of text messages and short emails, who would ever guess that a book on the correct use of punctuation and grammar would become an international best seller?
For the many years I have done editorial work, I still sometimes struggle with comma placement, especially since beginning graduate work in the UK (where the rules are different than in the US) – now, with most writing that I am preparing for publication, I have to sit and check through the material carefully, with a grammar guide in hand. And then wait to hear back from an editor who lets me know what I missed! Truss writes that
“Punctuation has been defined in many ways. Some grammarians use the analogy of stitching: punctuation as the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape. Another writer tells us that punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop. I have even seen a rather fanciful reference to the full stop and comma as “the invisible servants in fairy tales – the ones who bring glasses of water and pillows, not storms of weathers or love”. But best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling”(7).
Truss utilizes humorous examples from shop signs, newspaper articles, and advertising to show poor and proper use of punctuation basics like apostrophes, commas, colons and semi-colons, use of dashes and ellipses and expressive grammar like question marks and exclamations. She writes of Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, who wanted to know how the book was doing and sent his publisher a telegram with the simple inquiry “?”. His publisher responded “!” (136).
The book can be quickly read and you might learn a thing or two about punctuation along the way. I learned about “Oxford commas” (30) and that the “O” in Irish names (like O’Grady and at one time, O’Leahy) is an Anglicization of “ua”, meaning grandson (45). She readily admits that in being punctuation sticklers that “Maybe we won’t change the world, but at least we’ll feel better” (28).
So…what about the panda? Here is her story:
“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 towards 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 writer 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.”
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books/Penguin Books, 2004.