There is a joke about a panda which walks into a pub. It orders something, eats it, pulls out a gun and shoots, and goes to leave. The barman stops him, asking why it’s just done what it has. The panda chucks him a wildlife guide and answers: “I’m a panda; look it up!”
The barman finds the entry for panda. The definition says it is a bear which “Eats, shoots and leaves”.
My preferred phrase for showing the importance of punctuation is “Let’s eat, Granny!” If you aren’t very good with your commas, this can easily become “Let’s eat Granny!” Commas – saving lives since …whenever they were first invented. Which is, admittedly, in Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Some point in the 1400s, I think.
I liked that about this book. It’s one thing to know how to use punctuation, but knowing why and whence the marks exist is another, and I think it is a point in Truss’s favour that her guide to punctuation includes the history. The reasons for these printers’ marks. It makes a change, though I’m not averse to black and white rules on their use.
Unlike Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves reads like less of a rule-guide and more of a history on punctuation. Don’t let this fool you, though: it’s still a guide to English grammar. Judging by the first-year reports I helped my husband mark recently, more people could do with reading one. More than one of those reports would have been awash with red ink if they had been hard-copies, points deducted with savage delight (“How else will they learn?”). As it was, I had to content myself with viciously stabbing at the marking criteria.
But that’s another matter.
Like The Elements of Style, this is not a long book. It is reasonably light-hearted, to make it an easy, accessible sort of read. Probably a better place for most people to begin, than with Strunk and White.
Even if I prefer their approach.