New Years Resolutions and Armed Pandas

Ok, I’ll admit it; I do have a rather indifferent approach to punctuation.

Its not as if the invisible punctuation angel with the corresponding devil don’t pop in occasionally with one viciously whispering that I need a comma right there and the other responding with a mental ruler slap and a triumphant hiss “No commas!

I do have a bit of an out. I never actually speak English anymore. Living in Germany allows me to blithely spend my days in what, for some, would be a cacophony of Teutonic grunts and throat clearings. I could also claim a kind of typographic dyslexia, I read what I had planned on writing and not what I actually put to keyboard and monitor. But all-in-all, that isn’t enough.

Thus dear reader I did indeed make a New Years resolution to try to improve. (I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that the resolution wasn’t taken this year and there were neither sevens nor twos nor zeros in the year in question. *Sigh*) But due to the increase in output and the absolute horror with which I read my old posts, I think the time has come (and probably gone) to attempt to rectify this malfeasant situation.

As you might think, I couldn’t turn to a simple grammar book of which I have several. They are dry and boring, the literary equivalent of the archetypical librarian. Sometime last year my search for an appropriate tome, well pamphlet really, was successful; I found what I had been searching for, perfect in tone and size. I am the proud owner of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Ms Truss, when not scribbling grammatical revolutionary pamphlets and commenting on Radio 4, spends her time producing text for yellow journalistic rags like the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Her approach to grammar is indeed revolutionary. But unlike her more mundane predecessors, she looks to civil disobedience and the disfigurement of poorly punctuated print than dandruffy dissertations. Her book includes a set of stickers, allowing the reader to correct, not just mentally but physically, those poorly written signs and posters. It seems she is not alone; her book has sold over 3 million copies.

It is less the literary jihad and more the writing style that attracted me to this book. Mixing rules; regulations and suggestions with history and humor, the book takes us through a romp of the most important little symbols in written language. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about Ms Truss’s struggles with what she calls her ‘Inner Stickler’; that part of her that leaves her gasping on the train platform like a fish out of water staring at the newest poorly punctuated poster for a film; we see her cry for justice, and with an oddly Marxist color choice, her grasping for a large red marker.

American readers will probably have to adapt to the use of ‘Full Stop’ instead of the more Yankee ‘period’. Many of her sports references will fall flat and almost none of her discussions of popular culture will be truly understood. It is of no matter. I will support any author willing to offer themselves to historic typesetting figures. Here she waxes poetic on the wondrous history of the semicolon.

That imaginative chap Charlemagne (forward-looking [but likely illiterate] Holy Roman Emperor) stirred things up in the 9th century when Alcuin of York came up with a system of positurae at the ends of sentences (including one of the earliest question marks), but to be honest western systems of punctuation were damned unsatisfactory for the next five hundred years until one man – one fabulous Venetian printer – finally wrestled with the issue and pinned it to the mat. That man was Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450 – 1515) and I will happily admit I hadn’t heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies.

The heroic status of Aldus Manutius the Elder amoung historians of the printed word cannot be overstated. Who invented the italic typeface? Aldus Manutius! Who printed the first semicolon? Aldus Manutius! The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required, and Aldus Manutius was the man to do it. In Pause and Effect (1992), Malcolum Parkes’s magisterial account of the history of punctuation in the West, facsimile examples of Aldus’s groundbreaking work include a page from Pietros Bembo’s De Aetna (1494) which features not only a very elegant roman typeface but the actual first semicolon (and believe me, this is exciting). Of course we did not get our modern system overnight.

The entire book is a humorous collection of do’s and do-not’s interspersed with personal rage at incorrect punctuation and the cry for vigilante grammatical justice – apostrophic lynchings if you will.

And the title? It comes from one of those obscure grammar jokes. A panda goes into a café, orders a sandwich and calmly eats. After finishing he simply stands up, walks towards the door. Suddenly he pulls a gun and fires two shots into the ceiling before exiting the establishment. The waiter rushes after the panda demanding to know what he was thinking. The panda simply shrugs and tosses a poorly punctuated wildlife book to the waiter. “I’m a panda; ” he says, “look it up.” Puzzled the waiter looks and finds the offending passage. “Panda:” he reads, “Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

So dear readers, please if I severely offend the gods of punctuation in the coming year, please don’t shoot, but do correct me. But use the comments; I wouldn’t want your monitor full of stickers.

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