Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Punctuation Pastiche

In one part of my life, I am an edi­tor (no pulse quick­en­ing, please—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 ded­i­cat­ed  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 & LeavesEats, 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 Girl's Like SpaghettiThe 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!!

Twenty-Odd DucksI 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.

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