Lynne Truss · 209 pages
Rating: (87.9K votes)
“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
“Thurber was asked by a correspondent: "Why did you have a comma in the sentence, 'After dinner, the men went into the living-room'?" And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. "This particular comma," Thurber explained, "was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
“The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it.”
“Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”
“The rule is: the word 'it's' (with apostrophe) stands for 'it is' or 'it has'. If the word does not stand for 'it is' or 'it has' then what you require is 'its'. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, 'Good food at it's best', you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”
“Part of one's despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation. Whisper it in petrified little-boy tones: dead punctuation is invisible to everyone else -- yet we see it all the time. No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to "get a life" by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves. Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions. Being burned as a witch is not safely enough off the agenda.”
“The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation is not that it's an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”
“To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as "Thank God its Friday" (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive "its" (no apostrophe) with the contractive "it's" (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a Pavlovian "kill" response in the average stickler.”
“For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.”
“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
“If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”
“What the semicolon's anxious supporters fret about is the tendency of contemporary writers to use a dash instead of a semicolon and thus precipitate the end of the world. Are they being alarmist?”
“In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.”
“We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”
“Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves. It is no accident that the word "punctilious" ("attentive to formality or etiquette") comes from the same original root as punctuation.”
“We read privately, mentally listening to the author's voice and translating the writer's thoughts. The book remains static and fixed; the reader journeys through it.”
“Why did the Apostrophe Protection Society not have a militant wing? Could I start one? Where do you get balaclavas?”
“No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”
“I recently heard of someone studying the ellipsis (or three dots) for a PhD. And, I have to say, I was horrified. The ellipsis is the black hole of the punctuation universe, surely, into which no right-minded person would willingly be sucked, for three years, with no guarantee of a job at the end. ”
“Evidently an A level in English is a sacred trust, like something out of "The Lord of the Rings". You must go forth with your A level and protect the English language with your bow of elfin gold.”
“...punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop.”
“I apologise if you all know this, but the point is many, many people do not. Why else would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying "Giant Kid's Playground", and then wonder why everyone says away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.)”
“So what happened to the comma in this process? Well, between the 16th century and the present day, it became a kind of scary grammatical sheepdog. As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a 'separator' (punctuation marks are traditionally either 'separators' or 'terminators') that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory 'woof' to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don't whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic at this job. Luckily the trend in the 20th century (starting with H. W. Fowler's The King's English in 1906) has been towards ever-simpler punctuation, with fewer and fewer commas; but take any passage from a non-contemporary writer and you can't help seeing the constituent words as so many defeated sheep that have been successfully corralled with the gate slammed shut by good old Comma the Sheepdog.”
“If we value the way we have been trained to think by centuries of absorbing the culture of the printed word, we must not allow the language to return to the chaotic scriptio continua swamp from which it so bravely crawled less than two thousand years ago. We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”
“No one else understands us 7th sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes, we are often aggressively instructed to 'get a life' by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.”
“Brackets come in various shapes, types and names:
1 round brackets (which we call brackets, and the Americans call parentheses)
2 square brackets [which we call square brackets, and the Americans call brackets]”
“Yet there will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: if it's not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts. Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens. Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party would all be lost without it.”
“It hurts, though. It hurts like hell. Even in the knowledge that our punctuation has arrived at its present state by a series of accidents; even in the knowledge that there are at least seventeen rules for the comma, some of which are beyond explanation by top grammarians — it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don't know the difference between who's and whose and whose bloody automatic 'grammar checker' can't tell the difference either. And despair was the initial impetus for this book. I saw a sign for 'Book's' with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped; snapped with that melancholy sound you hear in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, like a far-off cable breaking in a mine-shaft. I know that language moves on. It has to. Not once have I ever stopped to feel sorry for those Egyptian hieroglyph artists tossed on the scrapheap during a former linguistic transition ('Birds' heads in profile, mate? You having a laugh?'). But I can't help feeling that our punctuation system, which has served the written word with grace and ingenuity for centuries, must not be allowed to disappear without a fight.”
“As with other paired bracketing devices (such as parentheses, dashes and quotation marks), there is actual mental cruelty involved , incidentally, in opening up a pair of commas and then neglecting to deliver the closing one. The reader hears the first shoe drop and then strains in agony to hear the second. In dramatic terms, it's like putting a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I and then having the heroine drown herself quietly offstage in the bath during the interval. It's just not cricket. Take the example, 'The Highland Terrier is the cutest, and perhaps the best of all dog species.' Sensitive people trained to listen for the second comma (after 'best') find themselves quite stranded by that kind of thing. They feel cheated and giddy. In very bad cases, they fall over.”
“Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, UP like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots . . . you stop. But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes — that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity — well, they are the colons and semicolons.”
“I'm consumed with curiosity because if I know Dirk, he probably sent his family a two-tine note—"I'm getting married. I'll be there in a week,"—and no further explanation whatsoever."
Skif laughed, and admitted that that was just about what Dirk had written, word for word.”
“Taking on someone else’s monsters will kill you.” He”
“There is an abandonment, an escape, that physical labor bestows.”
“The bravest person I know is afraid of the dark. She sleeps with a night lamp always, but if her friends are threatened? She suddenly thinks she's a bear twelve feet tall and attacks whoever scared her friends.”
“Real love should draw no blood from the loved and buckets from the lover.”
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