Do You Get the Point?

By Herbert Kohl

Consider the following sentences:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

It’s all in the points—the periods, commas, semi-colons, and other punctuation marks. In her cranky and charming book, Eats Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss takes what she calls a “zero tolerance approach to punctuation.”

The book is full of colorful examples of misused punctuation. I found the book very useful for my own writing, though I habitually—and often deliberately—deviate from punctuation rules. It is also useful in the classroom where many students are sloppy with commas, don’t know where to put quotation marks, and have never heard of a colon or semi-colon. The examples in the book are striking, and can be excerpted and incorporated into many grammar and writing programs.

Another book on language, Mardy Grothe’s Oxymoronica, is filled with delightful examples of oxymorons, which are combinations of contradictory or paradoxical words. For example, “cruel sweetness,” “wise fool,” “deeply superficial,” and “happy agony” are oxymorons.

Here are additional examples:

Pablo Picasso: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”

Walt Disney: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

James Thurber: “Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?”

These examples and the hundreds more in the book show how contradictions and paradoxes can make sense. Adding oxymorons to students’ writing tool kits can enliven their work and help them learn to play with language.

I’ve also just read a hopeful and all-too-rare story about current life in Iraq. Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq is written for children, but people of all ages will be moved by it. The book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, the librarian of Basra. During the U.S. bombardment and invasion, she managed to save all of the books in the Basra library before the building was destroyed. The book ends with Alia bringing thousands of books home and expressing her dream of rebuilding the library. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to a rebuilding fund administrated by the American Library Association.

Finally, I recommend Just Like Martin, a young adult novel written by the actor, playwright, and activist Ossie Davis, who died recently. Set in the South in the early 1960s, the book documents a young man’s struggle against racism. He tries to remain committed to nonviolence in the face of violence. Davis was a remarkable person, and the book provides a glimpse of his commitment and activism.

Eats Shoots & Leaves: 
The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

By Lynne Truss (Gotham, 2004)
209 pp. $19.95.

By Mardy Grothe (Harper Collins, 2004)
256 pp. $14.95.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq 
By Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2005)
32 pp. $16.

Just Like Martin 
By Ossie Davis (Simon and Schuster, 1992)
215 pp. $5.99