George Will

  WASHINGTON -- The actress Margaret Anglin left this note in the dressing room of another actress: ``Margaret Anglin says Mrs. Fiske is the best actress in America.'' Mrs. Fiske added two commas and returned the note: ``Margaret Anglin, says Mrs. Fiske, is the best actress in America.''
  
  Little things mean a lot. That is the thesis of a wise and witty wee book, ``Eats, Shoots & Leaves,'' just published by Lynne Truss, a British writer and broadcaster. She knows that proper punctuation, ``the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape,'' is ``both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.''

     The book's title comes from a joke: A panda enters a cafe, orders a sandwich, eats, draws a pistol, fires a few shots, then heads for the door. Asked by a waiter to explain his behavior, he hands the waiter a badly punctuated wildlife manual and says: ``I'm a panda. Look it up.'' The waiter reads the relevant entry: ``Panda: large black-and-white bear-like mammal. Eats, shoots and leaves.''

     Behold the magical comma. It can turn an unjust aspersion against an entire species (``No dogs please'') into a reasonable request (``No dogs, please''), or it can turn a lilting lyric into a banal inquiry (``What is this thing called, love?''). The Christmas carol actually is ``God rest ye merry, gentlemen,'' not ``God rest ye, merry gentlemen.''

     Huge doctrinal consequences flow from the placing of a comma in what Jesus, when on the cross, said to the thief: ``Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise'' or ``Verily, I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.'' The former leaves little room for Purgatory.

     Combined with a colon, a comma can fuel sexual warfare: ``A woman without her man is nothing'' becomes ``A woman: without her, man is nothing.'' But a colon in place of a comma can subtly emit a certain bark.

``President Bush said, 'Get Bob Woodward.''' 
``President Bush said: 'Get Bob Woodward.'''

     But beware the derangement known as commaphilia, which results in the promiscuous cluttering of sentences with superfluous signals. A reader once asked James Thurber why he had put a comma after the word ``dinner'' in this sentence: ``After dinner, the men went into the living room.'' Thurber, a comma minimalist, blamed the New Yorker's commaphilic editor, Harold Ross: ``This particular comma was Ross' way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.''

      Truss, a punctuation vigilante, says punctuation marks are traffic signals telling readers to slow down, pause, notice something, take a detour, stop. Punctuation, she says, ``directs you how to read, in the same way musical notation directs a musician how to play'' with attention to the composer's intentions  regarding rhythm, pitch, tone and flow.

     The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been rightly compared to canned laughter. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own joke. But not always. Victor Hugo, wondering how his ``Les Miserables'' was selling, sent this telegram to his publisher: ``?'' The publisher wired back: ``!''

     The dash can be, among other things, droll, as Byron understood:

     He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,   And how to scale a fortress -- or a nunnery.

     Or:

     A little still she strove, and much repented,   And whispering ``I will ne'er consent'' --   consented.

     The humble hyphen performs heroic services, making possible compounds that would otherwise be unsightly (``de-ice'' rather than ``deice''; ``shell-like'' rather than ``shelllike''). And a hyphen can rescue meaning. As Truss says, ``A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public.'' If you are a pickled-herring merchant, you will not want to be called a pickled herring merchant. The difference between extra-marital sex and extra marital sex is not to be sneezed at.

     The connection between the words ``punctilious,'' which means ``attentive to formality or etiquette,'' and ``punctuation'' is instructive. Careful punctuation expresses a writer's solicitude for the reader. Of course punctuation, like most other forms of good manners, may yet entirely disappear, another victim of progress, this time in the form of e-mail, cell-phone text messages and the like.

     Neither the elegant semicolon nor the dashing dash is of use to people whose preferred literary style is ``CU B4 8?'' and whose idea of Edwardian prolixity is: ``Saw Jim -- he looks gr8 -- have you seen him -- what time is the thing 2morrow.''

     Oh, for the era when a journalist telephoned from Moscow to London to add a semicolon to his story!


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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