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January 19, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 3


Punctuation book sells big

Lynne Truss, 48, a freelance writer who lives in Brighton, England, is doing very well, apparently, with her new book "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation." Sarah Lyall of the New York Times tells of Truss in the newspaper's Jan. 5 edition.

Lyall opens with an exchange between Truss and a taxicab driver who was hauling her to the British Library, London, to deliver a lecture. "What's your subject?" the driver asked. "Punctuation," Truss answered. Said the driver, "Ooh, in that case I better get you there on time!" This response, Lyall writes, reminded Truss yet again "that a tremendous gap exists between her natural obsessions and those of other people."

The title of Truss's book comes from a joke about a panda who walks into a café and orders a sandwich. Upon eating it, the panda fires a gun into the air, tosses a poorly punctuated wildlife manual at the bartender, and directs him to the entry for "panda." The bartender reads: "Panda. Large black-and-white bearlike animal, native to China. Eats, shoots & leaves."

Truss's book will be published in this country by Gotham Books in April. In England, Lyall reports, the book "has become this year's surprise No. 1 best-seller." Truss's publisher, Profile Books, initially ordered 15,000 books but now has 510,000 in print.

The book appears to be succeeding because it's entertaining as well as instructive. Times reporter Lyall writes that it's "a sprightly volume that leads the reader through the valley of the shadow of comma splice; refers to the apostrophe as 'our long-suffering little friend'; makes a rousing case for the semicolon's usefulness in, among other things, 'calling a bunch of brawling commas to attention'; and describes Woodrow Wilson's inexplicable visceral hatred of the hyphen, which he called--spectacularly undermining his own argument--the 'most un-American thing in the world.' " The author thinks her readers have become aware that "punctuation is quite a good system for making yourself clear, and that it's been completely neglected by so many people."

The book is said to be "more playful than Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" and less prescriptive than "The New York Times Manual of Style & Usage." It's dedicated to "the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg," who "in 1905 demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution."

Mrs. Millikan's oil-drop story

A story about Robert Millikan and his oil-drop experiment for determining the charge on an electron appears in the January Chem 13 News (Department of Chemistry, University of Waterloo, Ontario). Millikan did the work at the University of Chicago and told about it in his 1917 book "The Electron." Chem 13 News reports that Mrs. Millikan "as late as the 1920s was wont to tell a story of the days at Chicago when the young couple were living on a salary whose initial figure at the time of their marriage was $1,800 a year."

The oil-drop experiment required that Millikan sit for hours at a time continuously eyeballing the oil drop. It was suspended in air between the opposing forces of gravity and the upward pull of an electrical field supplied by a source controlled by the scientist. If the droplet lost or gained a unit or more of charge, Millikan would adjust the field to maintain balance. The atoms of the electrically charged droplet were said to be ionized and so were often called ions.

The research regularly kept the scientist late at the lab. Once, when Millikan and his wife were expecting guests for dinner, he had to telephone and ask her to carry on without him. He told her that he "had watched an ion for an hour and a half and had to finish the job."

A lady at the dinner table asked why Dr. Millikan was absent and was given the explanation verbatim. Later the lady told her husband: "I think it's scandalous that they underpay these poor young professors so cruelly! I always heard their salaries were small, but I was really astonished when Mrs. Millikan told me her husband had to miss his dinner because he had 'washed and ironed for an hour and a half and had to finish the job.' "



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