By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
For the Sunday Gazette
-Dedication to Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the best-selling book cited above at our Monday noon “Books Sandwiched In” program sponsored by the Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library. The program is coordinated by Linda Witkowski, whom several of my children fondly remember as their English teacher at Niskayuna High School.
Shoots & Leaves” is about the use and misuse of punctuation,
those pesky apostrophes that keep cropping up where they don’t belong
are often cruelly omitted when they are clearly needed. The book’s
explained on the jacket, not inside, is supposedly derived from a badly
punctuated wildlife manual that defines a panda as being a large black
white mammal native to China that “eats, shoots and leaves.”
If you find this book in the humor section of a bookstore, then, by all means, buy it. But if you find it in the reference section, don’t; get the Chicago Manual of Style instead. In the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Louis Lapham tears the book to shreds, citing its many inconsistencies and factual errors. Much of the problem stems from the fact that Ms. Truss is British and there is no American version of her book. Just as American and English word usage is often quite different, so too are our respective rules for punctuation. And then the author compounds the problem by using a mixture of both in the book itself.
errs slightly when she says that Lands’ End is unapologetic about
apostrophe in the wrong place; actually they do apologize on their
Did a British publisher err when the famous E. M. Forster novel was
“Howards End,” without an apostrophe? Google, which knows everything,
Forster was furious, but wasn’t he asked to read proof for his own book?
The book is
unfailingly humorous and entertaining from its dedication on. Given
that I have
called your attention to it, note that the “St” in “St Petersburg” has
period (a “full stop” to the Brits). The author supports its
such common abbreviations as “Mr,” Mrs,” “Lt,” and “Dr.” I’m getting
seeing that in many recent books even though it will impose a pay cut
my breath until I see whether the foregoing paragraph is typeset the
intended. If you noticed that there is a dot after “Dr,” then that is
American practice is to put closing periods inside of closing quote
whereas in the UK they go outside. I have great trouble reading The Economist
because of this; those misplaced periods interrupt my chain of thought.
Furthermore, I believe in the serial comma, the one I am trying to put
“Lt” in the string of abbreviations cited in the prior paragraph. If
it’s (careful, Ed) not there,
then it means that the Gazette will
insist on its usual Associated Press (and
British) style of omitting the comma toward the end of a series
“and” or “or.”
comma is called the “Oxford comma” by Ms. Truss, and she is opposed to
that she did not use one after the ampersand in the book’s title. I
claim it is
often needed either to prevent ambiguity or to guide the reader to
give the final item coequal importance. My own concocted example is
come, one by one. In order, the cars were red, green and white, blue
How many cars, three or four? A serial comma would make it clear that
were four. Without one, we are left wondering whether the last one was
street signs that indicate names starting with “St.” are problematic.
but not all of the signs that designate St. David’s Lane are missing
apostrophe, and so is one on St. Mark’s Lane. St. Joseph Drive avoids
controversy by using the saint’s name as an adjective. None of the
saint names listed on Jimapco maps contain an apostrophe. And though he
saint, Governor Yates’s street in the stockade is rendered, as shown
below, sans apostrophe.
“sandwich’s” ever be correct? Yes, outside a shop in a certain town on
Cape Cod there is the following sign:
But signs that advertise “toy’s”
or “raffle ticket’s” hurt. And I much dislike the New York Times style that
makes a decade like the 1990s look possessive by printing it as the
One needs the apostrophes in something like “mind your p’s and q’s,”
numbers don’t need apostrophes.
not immune to carving mistakes in stone locally, either; the
cornerstone of the
library contains the names of the county representatives who authorized
construction, and the one honoring John Toppeta is erroneously rendered
double (second) T.
like punctuation, can trip us up too. An Owens-Corning roofing ad at
says that their shingles come with “complimentary shadows” and that
colors “compliment vinyl siding.” We need a new roof, so I’m glad that
shadows are free, and I can hardly wait to hear a colored shingle tell
of the house how nice it looks.
Reilly, Jr., an author and editor of several
technical books, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the
Sunday Gazette opinion page.