I’ve just started re-reading the excellent Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss – a really great book with a ‘zero tolerance approach to punctuation’. If you see yourself as a bit of a punctuation stickler, or your family and friends habitually accuse you of being a pedant, this is definitely a book worth reading.
The author makes no bones about the fact that punctuation matters – getting an apostrophe in the right place actually helps the reader to understand the intended meaning of the sentence. Punctuation marks are the traffic lights and road signs that point us in the right direction as we make our way through the text.
As the title of the book outlines, there’s a big difference in meaning between ‘The panda eats shoots and leaves’ (telling us about the panda’s diet) and ‘The panda eats, shoots and leaves’ (telling us more about what the panda does after eating than we’d probably rather know!).
Punctuation marks date back many centuries and conventions surrounding their usage change greatly over time. But without them, a reader can be left floundering. Does the greengrocer who writes ‘Apple’s 30p’ really mean that the apples have scraped together their coppers and now own thirty pence in change? Or does he mean that there’s more than one apple, and that each one costs 30p? That apostrophe makes all the difference to the meaning. Even if the book store Waterstones (formerly Waterstone’s) no longer feels the need to use the humble apostrophe, there’s no reason to reject it completely.
I stumbled upon an interesting article in the New Yorker which reviews Keith Houston’s new book, Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities. It’s a fascinating look at the history of punctuation, highlighting how something as humble as the hashtag has evolved over time from ‘lb’ (libra pondo or ‘pound weight’) to the # symbol we all know from Twitter. I’ll be reading the book once it’s published at the end of this month so will share any other little historical punctuation titbits when I come across them.