Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

According to a well-known Puritan adage from Joseph Hall, “God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well.” It may well be true that the Almighty loves adverbs, but if Lynne Truss is to be believed, then God would have to be passionate also about proper punctuation. In her surprise bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves, British author Truss launches a frontal assault on the English world’s increasing sloppiness when it comes to precision of linguistic expression. Eats, Shoots, Leaves The book’s title comes from a joke: A panda walks into a restaurant and orders some food. Upon finishing his meal, the panda stands up, pulls out a pistol, fires several shots into the back wall of the restaurant, and then walks out. Bewildered, the customers ask the restaurant manager what is going on. He hands them a (poorly punctuated) dictionary and encourages them to look it up for themselves. Turning to the entry for “panda,” they read, “Panda: large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots, and leaves.”

Now, it must be noted, I punctuated that joke in the American fashion that includes a comma (technically known as either the “Oxford comma” or the “serial comma”) prior to the final “and” in a serial list. The British tend to leave it out (as in this book’s title). That aside, the point of the joke is obvious: poorly punctuated sentences can lead to hilarious, but sometimes also to dire, confusion. Indeed, in her chapter on the comma, Truss even quotes Scripture to make the point. Just what did Jesus say to the thief on the cross? Did he promise, “I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise” or was it, “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”? Granted the bottom line for the thief would be eternally the same, but inquiring minds might like to know how long the hapless man would have to wait.

For Perspectives readers who are tempted to deem a book about punctuation as among the last volumes they would ever bother to pick up, let me assure all concerned that Eats, Shoots and Leaves is as delightful a read as it is an informative one. Truss possesses a singular wit that will keep the reader chuckling throughout these pages. But especially for those of us who are sensitive to the need for good punctuation, Truss is a breath of fresh air in our increasingly sloppy world of hastily written emails (why do people use ellipses so often in emails?), ridiculously inaccurate signs (just what is a “Mens Room” anyway?), and badly punctuated movie titles. What was Warner Brothers thinking when they let the film Two Weeks Notice [sic] go all the way from production through to release without anyone’s catching the error?

In this devil-may-care environment regarding punctuation, Truss says that those of us who remain sensitive to precision of expression possess “the seventh sense.” In the movie The Sixth Sense, the little boy at the center of the story would often whisper, “I see dead people.” Those of us with the seventh sense must now and again whisper, “I see bad punctuation.” Like the ghosts in the movie, so bad punctuation is everywhere, but most people just can’t seem to see it. When dropping off our daughter for a week at a Christian camp this past July, my wife and I were startled to read one of the camp’s signs posted along the dirt road leading into the campground: “Caution: Gods’ Children at Play.” Did we really want to leave our daughter in the hands of these polytheists?

Truss aims to heighten this kind of grammatical awareness in all people and so has in this volume essays that cover the proper uses of apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks, dashes, italics, and hyphens. Those who are already familiar with good grammar will find her listing of rules a marvelous review. Those who sense they are punctuation-challenged can use this book as a fine primer on both the basics and a few more advanced matters as well.

However, it should be noted that this book is not without its critics. One common criticism stems from the fact that for some reason, this volume’s American publisher chose not to edit the text according to American grammatical standards. Thus, there are any number of instances that are technically incorrect for this country. A second area of concern for some is the British “casualness” about certain aspects of punctuation. Since the book was left in its original form, evidence of this less-rigorous approach is frequently on display. Finally, there are (according to a grammarian friend who shall remain Anonymous) some flat-out punctuation errors scattered about as well. This latter fact is admittedly upsetting given the book’s subtitle. So I will simply note that this ought not to have happened but will still recommend this book, particularly because it is designed not to be a technical manual but more a humor-laden, breezy tome intended to make readers more sensitive to punctuation. Ironically, the more Truss succeeds in this venture, the more criticism she is likely to get for her own lapses! It may seem odd in this case to employ the old adage, “Do as she says, not as she does,” but I think this is a book whose potential merits do indeed outweigh its own shortcomings.

But why review a book like this in a religious journal such as Perspectives (I hear you asking)? In a world as troubled and as troubling as ours–and at a time when the church in particular needs to countenance a whole battery of social and even global crises–suggesting that preachers, teachers, and others in the church pay careful attention to good grammar may seem to be the proverbial straining at a gnat.

Yet consider: the Reformed community in particular has long insisted on the centrality of God’s verbal revelation to us in Scripture. We are people of the Word. The definitive, ultimate Word of God is, of course, Christ Jesus himself. But the truths of Jesus are mediated to us through the written Word, which is precisely why close study of Scripture has long been a hallmark of the Reformed tradition. Closely and naturally related to this rootedness in the Word is the Reformed emphasis on preaching as a means of grace. If all that is so, then preachers who are careless about the precision of their verbal expressions could be accused of a kind of dereliction of duty. Words matter, we say, because the Word matters.

In a recent lecture about preaching, Frederick Buechner pleaded with the pastors in attendance. “For God’s sake,” he said, “think about the words you use. Choose them well.” Indeed, but a natural extension of such a concern is to express those words well through the discipline of using good grammar and accurate punctuation. Make no mistake: employing good grammar truly is a discipline. It does require a bit of work and thought, some double-checking, and even the occasional need to look something up (or, if you are blessed enough to know one, to email a grammarian for advice). But we’ve grown as impatient as we have sloppy. Reading the emails my daughter sends to her friends could lead to despair. Why is it that the faster the mode of communication we achieve, the still-faster we try to utilize the medium? So my daughter will not take the extra few keystrokes it would require to write, “Well, got to go.” Instead her emails are filled with latter-day hieroglyphics like “g2g” (“got to go”), “LYLAS” (“love you like a sister”), “c u later” (“see you later”), and the many variants on the email smiley :-). (The latter wreaks the double evil of using perfectly good punctuation marks for a totally non-grammatical expression.) Along with Lynne Truss, I fantasize sometimes about creating an email filter that will refuse to send (or receive) any message that contains such nonsense. But it goes without saying that in a “g2g” linguistic environment, the finer points of hyphen usage teeter on the brink of being a lost cause.

So let me join my voice to
that of Ms. Truss–or maybe it’s joining my voice to that of Ms. Truss’s. Or perhaps to that of Ms. Truss’. In any event, let me join my voice to hers in making a plea for paying attention to grammar, punctuation, and precision of expression. But unlike Ms. Truss, let me spin it theologically and homiletically by claiming that those of us committed to the belief that gospel proclamation is a means of grace should have a concomitant commitment to conveying that gospel as carefully as possible. Having the discipline required to check our own grammar will almost certainly bear fruit in the rest of our work as well. As part of that enterprise, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a delightful partner and guide.

When one day many people from among Jesus’ larger crowd of followers left him, Jesus mournfully asked the twelve, “Are you going to leave me as well?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Yes, he does. They deserve all the care we can give them.

Scott Hoezee is Minister of Preaching and Administration at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Book Review Editor of Perspectives.