The middle of the semester is, along with the last few weeks, the toughest time of the year for a college professor. This is mainly because it is the time of year when we get swamped–no, not swamped—drowned in work to grade and evaluate. At times this can be both a joyful and painful endeavor. You always hope that one’s students learn what you want them to in class, and often they do, but sometimes, even a paper with beautiful ideas can be scarred by an errant apostrophe.

That brings us to today’s book Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss.  Now I am not a grammar stickler. In fact I was one of those kids who was never taught grammar. Frankly, I learned more grammar in my Spanish and German language classes as an adult than I did in the English language. Some years ago I asked my mom why they no longer taught grammar in school and she said “Because it is now expected that you will pick it up.” Right. I wasn’t taught it and then I got to college and graduate school, and all those little rules I did not learn as a child–well guess what– I had to memorize them. And I cursed the fact that no one had bothered to teach me the details when I was younger.

Truss’s book is about the intricacies of  punctuation. She is, clearly, a grammar-lover. Well, lover may not be strong enough a word. Perhaps enforcer is better.  Truss wrote the book to take a humorous look at punctuation and all the painful ways that people misuse it, and she does this with a sparkling wit, and often snide (and funny comments.)

The book is set up with each chapter dedicated to a specific punctuation mark– the period, the comma, the colon, semi-colon– you are beginning to get the picture. She starts each chapter with a hysterical incident involving the particular mark, and then proceeds to simply (and with a great deal of humor) explain the particular rules of usage around the mark.

This sounds boring- I know it does, but it is not.  There is a reason why the book is a bestseller. One of my favorite passages in the book deals with the difference between “its” and”it’s.” I was reading this while at the dentist’s office, waiting for him to complete my root canal and would have howled in laughter if it wasn’t for all the gear still in my mouth at the moment.

“The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. 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.”

Okay, so that reads a bit harsh out of the context of the book, but it’s one example of her very sharp sense of humor and no-tolerance approach to punctuation mistakes. And frankly it is also a very simple explanation of a common mistake. Trust me, after reading that, you will not forget how to properly shorten “it is” (it’s.) And one of the reasons why I laughed so hard is because no one taught me this rule until graduate school. A rather incredulous professor explained it to me, and I rather red-faced, slunk away to correct all those wayward errors.

I like biting humor, and I appreciate Truss’s effort to fight the good fight. Lord knows, I find myself trying to fight the fight with my own red pen on student’s papers these days. I am determined to not leave them in the dark like I was.  I  loved this book, found it to be sparkling, funny and memorable, and I am going to give a copy to all of my major advisees.

Can’t let all them get the “its” mixed up with the “it’s” can I?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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