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Punctuation Sticklers and Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Punctuation is a tricky topic to write about: some people are obsessed by its proper use; many people couldn’t care less about it.  (I happen to be a very strict punctuation stickler, for those who are interested.)  Neither obsession nor disregard is our target here, though—we are discussing the  correct use of punctuation as a very necessary characteristic of effective writing.  But we’re doing this in a somewhat whimsical way, by taking a look at some excerpts from Lynne Truss’ now-famous book on punctuation Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Truss has collected a lot of examples of incorrect punctuation usage for her book.  Here are just a few of them—can you tell what’s wrong with them (and no, it’s not the missing period at the end of each example)?

And, of course, we must use the story that titles Ms. Truss’ book:

A panda walks into a café.  He orders a sandwich, eats it, and then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. 

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the exit.  The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door.  “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds the explanation.

“Panda.  Large black-and-white bearlike mammal.  Native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Naturally we don’t see all that many talking, gun-toting pandas, but the example works—as do the others above—to remind us that people (and pandas) do notice errors in punctuation, and these errors are routinely ascribed to either ignorance or apathy (either the writer doesn’t know correct punctuation or the writer doesn’t care about it).  Presumably, if we want our writing to be taken seriously, we don’t want obvious errors to leap out at unsuspecting readers, perhaps startling them or at least making them suspicious about the rest of our writing (such as its content, for example—if we got the punctuation wrong, what are the chances we got the research right?).

In the end, we want our writing to be reliable, trusted, and respected—because we want to be known to be reliable, trustworthy, and worthy of respect.  Correct punctuation usage is only one of many elements that, together, produce effective writing, but it’s one of the most immediately noticed (along with misspelled words).  Misuse of punctuation, like other writing errors, reduces our credibility, and that’s difficult to get back.

Do you want to respond with corrections to any of the errors above?  Just email jbcarter@keuka.edu.

Do you want to regularly produce effective writing?  Do you want to understand purpose, audience, style, and other elements of good writing?  Or do you have questions about study skills, time management, test taking, or other academic concerns?  Then come on down to Academic Success at Keuka (ASK), located in 301 Hegeman Hall, or call us at 279-5636 to make an appointment with a professional academic skills counselor or a content-area peer tutor.  We’re here to help you succeed at Keuka College.

submitted by: Jeffrey Carter, Academic Skills Counselor, Writing tutor, ASK

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