Ridge Reviews & Reflections  
LTSG Home Page
R&R Index

Book Corner                                                                     May 20, 2004

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

                        By   Lynne Truss

                                    Publisher:  Gotham Books.  Penguin Group, 2003
                                              Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl

            This book is small in size.  Its improbable title is based on the joke, which begins "A panda went into a bar..."  (The joke is explained on the back cover).  In an e-mail age of spare punctuation, audio books, the inadequacies of Spell Check and battles over different writing style manuals, Truss' work is a romp!  If you are not convinced that punctuation is crucial to life, your theology and personal well being -- read this book and you will learn otherwise. 

The author, a British editor and writer, is witty.  She is also historically and culturally on target.  Her work will inadvertently prompt a self-conscious attitude towards personal punctuation use.   The book raises additional questions many never stop to consider:  What is the relationship between reading and punctuation? How are grammar and punctuation connected?  Who decided which marks are used in any given language?  How have typewriter and computer keyboards been set up over the decades in relationship to including or excluding certain punctuation marks?

              While Truss is British, the American edition will clue you in on the differences with no problem.  Truss states her goal in initially writing this book as "My book was aimed at the tiny minority of British people who "love punctuation and don't like to see it mucked about with."" (p.xvii) And goes on to admit that if you are reading the book and enjoying it, you should also know that:  "Grammatical sticklers are the worst people for finding common cause because it is in their nature (obviously) to pick holes in everyone, even their best friends."  (p. xix)

            I was completely entranced with her definitions for punctuation marks.

Truss not only defines them in their utilitarian sense but also in their visual and aesthetic sense.  Who cannot adore the question mark, defined as "its elegant seahorse profile..." (p. 139) or the comma defined as "the friendly little tadpoley number-nine dot-with-a-tail..." (p. 72). 

Don't let the playfulness fool you --this author means business and will demonstrate, for example, the high stakes theological issues found between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies with this invitation: punctuate the following and see what differences in interpretation you might find:  Truly I say to you today you will be in Paradise with me. Where would you place the punctuation and what difference would it make?

            One of the strong points of an altogether strong book is her reference to the

different printers and authors of grammars who made changes in punctuation.  Out of this centuries-long process of debates and printing changes emerges the fascinating but mercurial land of 'punctuation.' 

            The book details any number of arguments over punctuation, including a lifelong disagreement between James Thurber and his New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, over the use of (all things) commas!  While Ross was 'for' them, Thurber understood them as "many upturned office chairs unhelpfully hurled down the wide-open corridor of readability." (p. 68).

            One of the most lucid and lovely tributes to the act and art of reading is found near the end of the book and answers the question, "Why read a book and what role does punctuation play in that?"   This section of the book could be profitably inserted into all course syllabi everywhere.

            Yes, I admit it.  I was one of those kids who adored diagramming sentences in eight grade English and learning the differences between a semi-colon and a colon.  This book

not only vindicates my early love of grammar and punctuation, but was a delight to read because it revealed an author who is a true lover of words and the marks that enhance them!