Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss’s best selling book for adults about the importance of punctuation, was published in 2003. Her appeal on behalf of misused commas and semicolons touched a chord and the book became a surprise international smash hit with sales of over two million copies worldwide. With the publication of a children’s version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, can children also be encouraged to love punctuation? Lynne Truss explains how.
Just before Christmas 2003, I bumped into an old friend at a party: a sub-editor on the sports section of The Times. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Well, I’ve just published a book on punctuation,’ I said, cautiously. I was getting used to people either laughing out loud at this weird news, or assuming a look of infinite pity, as if to say, ‘So it came to this, eh?’ But he didn’t laugh or mock, this chap. ‘Oh, I wish I’d known you were writing that,’ he said. ‘A friend of mine used to do a stand-up routine about punctuation as if it were a martial art.’ Naturally, I was a bit confused. So he demonstrated with a symmetrical karate move, using both arms, which knocked over a couple of pints on tables but at the same time perfectly described a pair of brackets. ‘Brackets?’ I said. ‘According to the ancient art of Pung Shway Shon,’ he said. And then he did a very impressive Bruce Lee semi-colon, which involved a serious, controlled punching-fist movement (the upper dot), followed by a tight, vicious twisty comma-shape underneath.
Pung Shway Shon
Well, damn him for not telling me about all this before my book was done. Pung Shway Shon is surely the key to getting children to notice (and use) punctuation. When I was involved in making the radio series Cutting a Dash which led to the writing of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, we watched a class of eight-year-olds learning the comma by snapping their fingers when they got to each one. This was a clever educational idea, I thought – because it’s a well-known fact of children’s reading that they glide over the little marks in their rush to get to the next word, so need to be told to pay special attention. How much better than a mere finger-snap, though, is Pung Shway Shon! Every sentence would end with either an air-punch or (exclamation mark) a karate slice vertical movement followed by a punch. And all with grunt effects, of course. ‘Uff! Oof! Hi-ya!’ I can never resist demonstrating Pung Shway Shon to audiences who’ve turned out on a winter’s night for a serious talk about the semicolon. It seems to lift the mood every time.
I’ve just published an illustrated children’s version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and the idea is simply to draw kids’ attention to the comma; to show them how it ‘makes a difference’. It’s not about grammar, or about getting punctuation right or wrong. It’s just about showing that a sentence such as, ‘Go, get him doctors!’ is very different from, ‘Go get him, doctors!’ The illustrator is a lovely artist called Bonnie Timmons, who has caught exactly the larkiness of the project. ‘Slow, children crossing’ shows cars honking as a crossing-lady gets the kids across the road; ‘Slow children crossing’ shows a bridge on which kids are moving at glacial speed for a variety of reasons: one has his leg in a cast; another has a snail on a lead; another balances a tall stack of books on his head with a puppy sitting innocently on the top.
A radio host said to me the other day, ‘Now, what age is this for? I mean, let’s face it, children aren’t going to be buying this book for themselves, are they?’ And I have to say, I was a bit hurt on Bonnie’s behalf, as well as my own. Our book is not so very worthy. And besides, in my experience, kids love language jokes. The panda joke that gave the title to Eats, Shoots & Leaves in the first place was a playground version of a rather rude story emanating from Australia. Kids love puns and double meanings. In the American edition of the comma book, there’s a drawing to illustrate the sign ‘Eat here and get gas’ – which sadly doesn’t translate so well for British kids in either meaning. But that’s the sort of joke they actually adore.
Punctuation as fun
I don’t remember learning to punctuate. I do remember, however, starting to write a book when I was about ten – and only two things about that book stick in my memory. One is the illustration I drew, of a rearing horse: in my imagination, it’s a bit like Stubbs’s ‘Whistlejacket’, only much, much better. The other is the punctuation error my older sister pointed out on page three, which made me so miserable and ashamed that I actually stopped writing for the next twenty-five years. I had written it in capitals, I think. ‘So YOUR the evil horse kidnapper?’ When my sister dismissed the whole book because YOUR ought to have been YOU’RE, I learned a lot of lessons, not all of them positive. I would never advocate mocking children for their ignorance of punctuation. Encouraging them to enjoy punctuation is, I hope, quite a different matter.
So let’s get moving with that Pung Shway Shon. After me. ‘Hup!’ (a pair of dashes, made by slicing karate-chops sideways). ‘Hiiiiii-ya! Hiiiiiii-ya!’ (colon). Obviously nobody would want kids to integrate this practice too much into their silent reading technique, or there could be all sorts of scuffles in the future on planes and trains. But for the moment, I don’t know about you, but I’m more than willing to give it a try.
Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves (adult version) is published by Profile Books (1 86197 612 7) at £9.99. The children’s version, illustrated by Bonnie Timmons (1 86197 816 2), is £8.99.