May 25, 2006

Everything old is new again: Personifying punctuation and saving the endangered comma

Had a call from our friendly library lady today letting me know that my interlibrary loan copies of Talk to the Hand and the illustrated Elements of Style are finally ready for pick-up. Which was quite a coincidence -- or maybe not, considering the way the publishing world works -- reminding me of the July publication of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!, the illustrated kiddie version of Lynne Truss's adult bestseller. The pictures are by Bonnie Timmons, whose animation you might remember from the "Caroline in the City" TV credits.

According to an article in the Independent Online several months ago, Truss's original UK publisher heard from teachers eager for a version to use with their pupils. The sales and marketing director avowed that "Loads of teachers wrote in to say how marvellous Eats, Shoots & Leaves was and that they were going to use it. They were always saying that there was nothing enjoyable that taught kids punctuation. There's a real need. I think this will be an extremely useful resource for schools." Tellingly, the U.S. publisher jumped on the bandwagon first, and the UK edition won't out until September.

According to another article, Truss said she took "the lightness and humor that characterized the funny examples in the first book, and [directed] it at smaller people who are just learning that a mark can change the sense of a line of words." She added that such books used to be rather more common: "in my research I came across lovely old children's books on grammar -- a delightful 19th-century pamphlet called Punctuation Personified and a wonderful 1940s book called The Grammatical Kittens, in which a couple of kittens were given basic grammar lessons by an old sheepdog."

(Since the picture book version of Eats, Shoots has been slashed to a rather mingy 32 pages, perhaps school teachers around the world will be as delighted as I am to find that the recommended Punctuation Personified, or Pointing Made Easy by Mr. Stops (1824) is available as a facsimile edition, published by the Bodleian Library, from Amazon for only $10. The cute kittens, however, are out of print.)

The U.S. marketing blitz includes the not-so-serious "National Comma Awareness campaign" by way of a new website, Save the Comma, which should be up and running by the book's July publication date. I'm all for saving commas, just as long as they don't start reproducing like mad and running amok.

At this rate, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find later this year a 30th anniversary edition, complete with pictures, of William Zinsser's On Writing Well, or, heavens, the picture book version of Fowler's Not-So Modern but Charmingly Illustrated English Usage. Unfortunately, it looks as if Patricia T. O'Conner missed the boat with the unillustrated second edition of Woe Is I. Unless of course the publisher wasn't exactly relishing the idea of sketches for Chapter 6 ("Comma Sutra").

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