In one part of my life, I am an editor (no pulse quickening, pleaseâ€”not for children’s literature). Punctuation makes me happy. I cannot read a book without noticing the punctuation: how it’s used, how it’s misused, and how I would have done it differently. I have New Yorker cartoons about punctuation hanging over my desk. They make me laugh out loud. My favorite is “Me and Wallys Produce.” Among our prodigious bounty of bookshelves, two shelves are dedicatedÂ to books about usage and abusage of the English language.
I understand the problem. Whether anyone admits it or not, there are as many ways to punctuate as there are books on those two bookshelves … and more. Punctuation moves in phases. Business people sway punctuation one way, academics move it in another direction, and journalists nudge a little harder from their perspective on the comma, semi-colon, and ellipsis. Educators give a Mighty Try in school to teach punctuation, but readers see different methods everywhere they look. Eventually only the most persistent pursue punctuation because it pleases them.
From my viewpoint, the most recent trend is to leave out as many types of punctuation as possible in case it isn’t correct. Somewhere, sometime, someone will puzzle through what the writer meant.
I found myself giggling this week over three books by the punctuation maven Lynne Truss, who first received notoriety for Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham). The picture book version for children came out four years ago in three separate volumes, illustrated by Bonnie Timmons, and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (themselves in proud possession of an apostrophe, so it is fitting that they have championed the cause).
Each of these three books are ideal for guided reading in small groups or for overall classroom artwork projects linking punctuation for visual learners (e.g., find a sign, sentence, or photo caption that can be punctuated in two ways and create drawings just as Bonnie Timmons did).
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! was published in 2006, proving to one and all the difference between “Go, get him doctors!” and “Go get him, doctors!” Turning the pages, the reader also finds the irresistibly illustrated “Eat here, and get gas,” set at a gas station on the opposite page from “Eat here and get gas,” set at the restaurant with the high-flung diner (draw your own conclusions).
The following year this was followed by The Girl’s Like Spaghetti, written, illustrated, and published by the same team, featuring my favorite punctuation mark. If you haven’t tried the hobby of apostrophe collection, there’s no time like the present. It’s an economical hobby, eminently satisfying because apostrophes are everywhere. In fact, this is even more satisfying than finding Hidden Mickeys because there are Missing Apostrophes everywhere!!
I find the real gem in the third volume, Twenty-Odd Ducks: Why, Every Punctuation Mark Counts!” Here Ms. Truss tackles hyphens, quotation marks, parentheses, questions marks, and the like, with the pertinent punctuation marked in red. My favorite here is “ ‘Do you know who came last night? Santa Claus,’ said my mom.” on the page opposite “ ‘Do you know who came last night?’ Santa Claus said. “My mom.” The gem, however, is the two letters at the back of the book. They each have the same words but the punctuation is different, changing the meaning entirely. Point taken. Think how effective an exercise like this would be in the classroom.
Punctuation is not scary. Punctuation is, in fact, hilarious.