- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

No book on punctuation and grammar could ever possibly reach the top of the Christmas best-seller list — or could it? “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” so far has sold 140,000 copies in Britain by taking a lighthearted approach to the use — and misuse — of commas, periods, semicolons and dashes.

The success of the 209-page book is the surprise of the British publishing industry — and its author, Lynne Truss, a London theater critic and columnist with an obvious passion for the proper use of English punctuation but fortunately also a wry sense of humor. As reviewers have pointed out, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is actually very funny. The London Observer, for example, called it “a witty, elegant and passionate book.”

The humor not only improves its sales prospects, but also softens the impact of receiving it as a Christmas gift. The title derives from one of the book’s numerous jokes. A panda goes into a bar, orders a sandwich, fires a gun and heads for the door. Why did he do that? The barman calls after him. The panda tosses him a badly punctuated wildlife manual. “I’m a panda,” he says. “Look me up.” The barman finds the relevant page, which says: “Panda. Large black-and-white, bearlike mammal native of China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Miss Truss complains that standards of punctuation have sunk so low that a notice that says, “No dogs please,” goes unchallenged, “even though many dogs please,” she says. “They rather make a point of it.”

The author, whose numerous books include a study of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and his circle, recently told the Guardian that the book’s success was due partly to “people who have been trained to use punctuation properly [and] are upset to see it badly used, and partly, perhaps, that some people genuinely want to learn what punctuation can do for them.”

Perhaps. The British have a tradition of poking fun at basically serious topics. “1066 And All That,” is a classic that deflates several centuries of English history. The authors Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon wrote a series of very funny novels on historic subjects ranging from the 19th-century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Shakespeare.

Miss Truss is a little undecided about the dash but otherwise has definite likes and dislikes. She calls semicolons and colons “old-fashioned, middle-class, and dangerously addictive,” and says exclamation marks are like laughing at your own jokes. But she is making a serious point that punctuation matters. Her purpose, she writes, is to “tango the reader into the pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken word could convey.”

En route, she includes such gems as the fact that, “Gertrude Stein called the comma servile and refused to have anything to do with it,” and the anecdote about the actor playing King Duncan in Macbeth who calls out, “Go get him, surgeons,” when the line should have read, “Go, get him surgeons.” She even recycles the old joke about the damage a misplaced comma can do to a romantic song, as in “What is this thing called, love?”

Miss Truss clearly has fun with her subject, and is contracted to have even more fun next year giving Americans the same treatment — for a $110,000 advance.

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