eats, shoots + leaves

When I was in ninth grade, I wrote a paper for biology class and my mother, a college reading instructor, proofread it for me. While she was reading, she kept looking at me sideways with a little smirk. What is so funny?? Finally Mom said, “Um, Kristin? Do you have something on your mind?” and showed me all the instances of the word “orgasm” throughout my paper.

Totally mortified.

“Oh my God!! ORGANISM!!!” It was this moment I realized I couldn’t blindly trust a computer to catch every mistake and typo, and being a better speller became important in my life.

Later, as a college student, I had to peer-review another student’s work. Her paper was written in a conversational style, for example (with very little exaggeration here): “The teacher was like tall and talked with like a strong accent.” Wow. I was kind to her in my comments, but it was another wake-up moment for me. Saying “like” in conversation this way is one thing, but on paper… not so cute or forgivable. This was the time I remember realizing that writing at a certain level doesn’t come easily to everyone. While I felt pretty lucky with my natural writing ability, I still wanted to have highly developed skills, just in general as a well-rounded, educated person.

In 2010, a year and a half out of grad school, I started reviewing for KCMetropolis.org. It was so much fun, and I learned a lot about writing—being descriptive yet readable, fluid phrasing, attention to relevant details, appropriate constructive criticism, and having a clear personal “voice.” I was promoted to executive editor the next year, but I do most of my applied editing at my Conservatory job, fixing up and formatting program notes and bios for concert programs. Here I learned even more about punctuation rules—I am a big fan of the em-dash and the Chicago Manual of Style—and this has turned me into a punctuation stickler right after Lynne Truss’s heart.

My mom loaned me Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves this month, and it was more thorough on its subject matter than I expected. I loved reading about the origins of each punctuation mark, and how they’ve evolved to our current usage today. Truss’s droll humor and historical anecdotes give life and personalities to the punctuation marks. I found the comparisons of British and American practices very interesting, especially the British rules for terminal punctuation and quotation marks. Truss gives proper instances and examples for the terminal mark inside and outside the quotes, while Americans typically put all terminal punctuation inside the quotes. I actually like the British way better for these situations—it’s more logical. I had completely forgotten about the interrobang, too!

It is hard out there for a stickler. I find myself biting my tongue about some typo or oddly placed punctuation mark nearly every day. But I really hate it when grammarians are snotty about their knowledge of the area (and on the internet, everyone is an expert…). There is a polite way to correct writing mistakes and teach people these rules without making them feel like idiots. All the different styles can be opposing and confusing, too. One format might not be wrong, just a different way. Not everyone in this world has to be an expert—that’s why we have editors. So I let it go much of the time, especially in casual settings. I’m not immune to typos, either! I appreciate that Truss acknowledges her persnickety nature when it comes to punctuation, although I think she takes her desire for correctness too seriously when it comes to the corruption of punctuation in modern times. Perhaps this was played up for entertainment’s sake in the book. Yes, people can be careless in emails and text messaging, but doesn’t your level of informality depend on your recipient? I wouldn’t put a smiley face on a job application cover letter :p or use abbreviated text-speak in a review (LOL!), but it’s fun and plenty harmless in a text to a friend! Who wants to spend time typing out complete, correctly punctuated sentences on those tiny keyboards anyway? Life’s too short.

I wonder what Truss would think of Gadsby, the book with no occurrence of the letter “e,” or Lord Timothy Dexter’s tome which is totally devoid of all punctuation. (The copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves I read was a US hardcover edition published in 2004; I think there may be newer editions in which she mentions Dexter.) I did enjoy Eats, Shoots & Leaves and would recommend it to any word-nerd interested in cultural differences in our language and the history of punctuation, exclamation point!

Read from August 12 to 19, 2012.