Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My inner stickler

Today, while I was wandering around the local bookstore, I saw this book in the used book section. I bought it years ago right after it first came out, and I was enchanted with it. So much so that I lent it to some friends, and after they read it (or bought their own copy), somehow the book didn't come back to me. I had lent it to someone and when it didn't return, I had a couple of chapters yet to read.

So today I bought it so I could enjoy the ending. Here's the reason the book has this title:
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
'Why?' asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
'Well, I'm a panda', he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'
This book has spent some time on the New York Times bestseller list, and when first printed in the UK in 2003 became a sleeper hit, which nobody expected. You may have noticed that I had a career as a writer/editor, and I have always had an "inner stickler" that cringes when I see certain grammatical errors. The Internet and email are simply filled with these things. Wikipedia has, of course, a great page with all the critiques, good and bad, about the book here.

I think the thing that gets me the most is the misuse of the possessive its. Lynn Truss actually goes a bit farther than I would, but I tend to see this grammatical error everywhere, including in newscasts, headlines, and everything else. It drives me a little crazy, but not as crazy as this (quote from p. 43 of the book):
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 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." The 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.
Like I said, okay, she's gone a little bit off the deep end here, but I get a pretty strong visceral response when I read it. And I see this particular grammatical mistake everywhere. I wish there was something I could do to lessen its frequency. Oh, wait: maybe that is what I'm doing!!

Please get the book and read it, if you want to have a thoroughly entertaining read and one that is also quite illuminating to the average person. I have enjoyed it on the second reading, probably more than on the first.


  1. I read that a few years ago and loved it! I remember reading it on a Miami-Seattle flight. My coworker and I were seated in the same row, and when I went to use the restroom I set the book on the empty middle seat. When I came back, she said "You're not really reading a book about GRAMMAR, are you?" I had to chuckle and explain how it appealed to my inner geek.

  2. I am being very careful about writing comments, I hope none of my sentences were grammatically incorrect. I totally agree with the rules of apostrophe, honestly sometimes I omit hitting the apostrophe key simply because I am just being lazy, but when I see the red line underneath the word, I get back on it and type the appropriate punctuation.

    Nice post, DJ. Very informative. I'll try to find that book here.


  3. While I am not the most grammatically correct writer in blogville there are certain errors that drive me right up the wall. At the top of my list is the misuse of then and than.

    That sounds like a great little book I'll check with our local used book store and see if they have a copy.

  4. My sister-in-law was an English professor and she raved about this book. I did not read it yet, but shall. I have to be very careful about my grammar and English usage because English was the third language I learned. I spoke French first, then studied Italian then English (in France and the UK.). I know I make mistakes so I ask my husband to read my posts to see if they are OK. It’s hard, because sometimes I think in French first, and then translate the sentence so some of my sentence constructions may sound strange. But he does not read my comments so there may be a difference between my posts and my comments. What drives my husband crazy are people pronouncing words the wrong way so that it gives them a different meaning. Now, that is way above my head because I have a French accent on all my words! My eldest daughter corrects me all the time, but sometimes it’s hard to remember because they are French words to begin with, like “menu” “café” “entrepreneur” etc.

  5. Ouch! You got me! I just noticed the other day that I was doing that! And starting sentences with and and but! And using too many explanation marks! Fragments, too!

    I did go back in my WIP and check. I don't know when I started this habit, but it's there... I'll try to be more careful. ;)

  6. OK, I'm back... I just popped over to read an agent's blog. There it was againg! T-H-E-N. Not T-H-A-N, T-H-E-N. Do they not know there is a difference? "...they __ __ __ then I do." ARGH! Unless she is doing the same thing they just did...

  7. Now I am going to be nervous when I write something here. I skipped grammar class in school and it shows in my writing. Please don't hold it against me. I will try to do better with its and it's.

  8. It's, where, there and a few others drive me crazy. I posted on an ex-boyfriend's computer the proper uses of all versions of all three since he just couldn't get it down.

    I see so many college intern applications with just outrageous errors. I feel like the school system has failed these kids. Do they not teach grammar anymore? I am the daughter of an English teacher turned news editor and I married the son of a lawyer. I am not allowed to get away with poor grammar! I apologize in advance for any errors in posts of mine that you might read :) I sometimes type so fast I miss things! Feel free to emit me at will :)

  9. How about your and you're? This seems to be a mistake made because of not understanding contractions. You should see my Facebook friends; they make my blogging crowd look incredibly brilliant. Lily, you know how to make me laugh, and Rae, I don't think I've ever seen a mistake in any of your grammar, but it could be because you're so funny I just didn't notice. You guys are so much fun!!

  10. I think we all get a little lazy in blogland. I think I've made this mistake recently - yipes.

  11. Allow me to share a Facebook link that was lots of fun last week.

    From her FB: Arlene wishes people would use the correct version of either "your" or "you're." Get the grammar police! Of course, I probably need the punctuation police.

    Jerry:... get off you're high horse!

    Melinda: one of my grammar pet peeves is people using apostrophes in plurals!

    Jerry: @Melinda: could you provide some example's?

    Arlene: Jerry, I knew there was a reason I wanted to be your Facebook friend!

    Keri: Oh my gosh, this is my biggest pet peeve!

    Robynn: Jerry, I don't know you but your my entertainment for the day. Your a riot! I wish I knew you're friend's, Arlene.

    Ken: Not nothin that makes me angrier.

    Deborah: Hahahahaha! Robynn, I don't know you either, but you made me laugh. Out loud. (I hate "lol.")

    Ken: You're my new hero Deborah. I hate acronyms. (IHA)

    Arlene: I'm so glad my frustration has birthed all this hilarity! :)

    Emily: Okay, not quite the same thing, but check out The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks

    Melissa: And up for tomorrow... use of their, there and they're.

    Lori: what about "alot" !!!!! THAT IS NOT A WORD! That was an instant "F" in English class... so, if you must use it....please spell it " a lot"....Thank you ~ (I'm getting of the soap box now) :P

    Arlene: So many pet peeves. I have them all!

    Jerry: And I plan to "abuse" them alot. So, Lori... "F" that!

    Robynn: Well, LOL, Jerry (in honor of Deborah)! And I detest the overuse of exlamation marks and parenthetical inserts. That's why I do it ALL the time. And I loathe hyperbole. (I'm worried that we're all having this much fun over you're issues, "Arlene!")

    Ken @Emily: thank you for the unnecessary quotes site. It is the most humorous and entertaining web site ever invented.
    okay...that hyperbolic shot was over Robynn's bow.

    Robynn: OMGOSH, Ken. I now "HAVE" too go their alot (ALL THE TIME!!!) LOL! Your ALL to FUNNY!!! THEY'RE! (I SAID IT!!!)

    Arlene: This is just getting out of hand!

    Tica: I must admit, this has been the most entertaining comment section I have yet to read. Ya'll just made my day!

    (And believe it or not, this was edited. I think there are many of us out there who are members of the Red Pen Club. Even if we (I) don't qualify! I knew you'd get a kick out of this.) :) I keep Eats, Shoots, and Leaves within arms reach at all times along with Woe, Is I.

  12. We often find ourselves in the book store and you have peaked my interest, though I am a little worried about my grammar now ;) Yes I am only joking, sort of! :))

  13. I tend to write like I talk. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it's not. I do believe I need to find your book! Sounds terrific!

  14. That facebook comment was funny. You must cringe reading my blog, I go back and re-read some posts and I have been typing so fast that I really screw some things up. I'm sorry! :)

    Some of my facebook friends mix up breathe and breath. "I just need to take a deep breathe," or "Just breath!" Really?!? Is that too difficult for you?!? Drives me NUTS!

  15. Robynn, you had me rolling on the floor laughing with that FB comment. I've got to find you on FB and join the fun. And thanks, everyone, for the really wonderful comments on here, and please don't think I'm the grammar police, I just look for fun stuff to write posts about. I've got two awards to write about, but this one came up because of finding the book!

  16. I love this book too Djan. Have you read her "Talk to the hand?" That's very good too.
    I enjoyed reading your write-up of "Eats shoots and leaves."
    Blessings, Star


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