In the preface to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerence Approach to Punctuation, (Gothem, 2004) Lynn Truss relates that at a booksigning in the U.K. before the book was published in the U.S. a school teacher tells Ms. Truss about her frustrations with punctuation, lamenting that there is no place to get a good guide to help her with its problems. Ms. Truss repeatedly offers to autograph her book. The woman wanders away, unsatisfied, without buying the book, still seeking a guide through the wilds of punctuation. Ms. Truss sees this as an example of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
After reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, I wondered whether Ms. Truss just didn’t get it. I wondered if the woman was trying to tell Ms. Truss in the subtlest possible way that she hadn’t written a very good book about punctuation.
Ah, the British, so polite.
Lynn Truss rants about missing or misplaced apostrophes and threatens acts of vandalism to teach people “the right way to punctuate.” The problem is she doesn’t know quite as much as she thinks she does. She sets herself up as an expert. Then she makes a boneheaded error.
The book is funny. Ms. Truss’s ravings made me laugh, but the truth is she doesn’t know much about grammar. There is more to punctuation than putting marks in the proper place on the page. Grammar counts.
Someone wrote to Ann Landers or Abigail Van Buren a long time ago complaining about the use of “flammable” on trucks carrying volatile materials. The correct word is, of course, “inflammable.” However, the prefix “in-“ generally means “not.” That led some people to assume that the contents would not burst into fire at the least provocation when, in fact, the opposite is true. The columnist’s reply was a model for me to judge all such quibbles. She said something to the effect that you are no doubt correct, but if the incorrect “flammable” will save even one life, let us, by all means, have “flammable.”
Clarity is more important than custom.
A lot of punctuation problems can be cleared up with some basic knowledge of grammar and an emphasis on clarity. There are sentences that I can not punctuate. My response is not to haul out all the books on grammar and punctuation in my library searching for the answer but to consider how to rewrite the sentence so that it is clear.
The sentence that set me off on this tirade was “Stop, or I’ll scream.” I asked two other women, both of whom are college educated, what they thought of this sentence. We all agreed that an exclamation mark was needed. The punctuation may be technically correct in Britain, if not the United States, but Ms. Truss claimed that “Stop” is an interjection. It is not. It is the command form of the verb “to stop.” It is an order. The punctuation is right for the wrong reason. As punctuated, it is correct because it is a compound sentence – two independent clauses joined by a conjunction. Ms. Truss is wrong because she doesn't know what part of speech she is punctuating.
Most American punctuation manuals direct that an exclamation mark follows a command. I looked through Ms. Truss’s book for directions on the use of exclamation marks. She does not mention this use.
One of the problems here is that when the authors of grammar books are discussing “a compound sentence: two independent clauses joined by a conjunction,” they forget that “or” and “nor” are members in good standing of the conjunction group; their dues have not lapsed and they have been active enough not to be dropped for nonparticipation. Some books only specifically mention “and” and “but” or only give examples using these two most commonly used conjunctions. “Or" is relatively uncommon and “nor” rare, but both are conjunction and may be used correctly in this situation.
As written, the sentence “Stop, or I’ll scream” is rather coy – “I’ll give you an hour to stop doing that.”
I wondered if Ms. Truss would have had the same problem identifying the command form of the verb if the sentence had been “Stop, or I’ll shoot” or "Halt, who goes there." In the United States, we would put an exclamation point after “shoot” at the very least. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” I could also write the original sentence "Stop! Or I'll scream!"
That is if I wanted whoever it was to stop.
Guessing from Ms. Truss’s book, the exclamation mark is not used in commands in Britain as it is in the U.S. , or if it is, she doesn't know about it. I will therefore allow her punctuation to be correct.
Even conceding the difference in British usage, Ms. Truss still had the part of speech wrong.
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is a funny book. Read it for a laugh, but don’t take it too seriously. It is humor, not instruction.