Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Day’s Verse:
Keep me safe, O God, I’ve run for dear life to you.
I say to God, “Be my Lord!”
Without you, nothing makes sense.

Psalm 16:1-2

I just read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, courtesy of Rachel Klas. The book opens:

Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s, and BOOK’s.”

If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don’t bother to go any further. For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker. (1-2)

When I read this, I laughed aloud; then I snuggled down in my fluffy chair and settled in for a good read, because I’d found a book clearly written just for me. A bit further on, Truss describes the grammar stickler beautifully:

Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we see dead punctuation. Whisper it in petrified little-boy tones: dead punctuation is invisible to everyone else — yet we see it all the time. (3)

Partway through the apostrophe section, I had to laugh again. Truss describes my feelings exactly:

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. (43)

SO TRUE. I have to almost physically restrain myself from saying something when I see this grammar error — and I see it all the time, alas and alack.

I finished the book in an afternoon of reading: What a delightful, unexpected, and clever approach to typically dusty and dry subject. A number of time Truss alludes to furious disagreements between grammar sticklers over such issues as whether to include a comma before the “and” in a list (called an Oxford comma; example: red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue), and here’s the thing: I completely understand what she’s talking about.

When I worked at Charles River, I kid you not, we in the medical writing department had bitter arguments over style guide minutiae. Commas, semicolons, n- versus m-dashes, number of spaces following a period, hyphenation of specific words — these things comprised my world. I adamantly fought for my way, which I always backed up with the appropriate style guide. This predilection for sticklerism, however, is something innate in me that my scientific writing job simply allowed out to romp around for a bit. When I switched to the AmeriCorps position, I had to bottle the stickler up again, but it’s still there, twitching and tingeing at every comma splice and misplaced apostrophe.

I would probably be very happy as a copy editor.