Punctuation today: notes from the 2006 bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”

Modern linguistics is based largely on a descriptivist view of language, describing common usage. Many grammarians follow a more prescriptivist view: if we don’t prescribe, language will falter.

I read a host of pop linguistics books this year, challenging my prescriptivist publishing origins with a small library of descriptivist perspective. I also consumed podcasts, articles and other interviews with experts on the matter. (Most recently this conversation.)

Along this exploration, I was familiar with several of the most-cited grammar classics (King’s English and Elements of Style among them). But I hadn’t read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, published by Lynne Truss in 2006. So I changed that late last year.

I wanted to share a few notes below.

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What are you working toward?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Earlier this year, I took a notecard from my desk and I wrote a short sentence.

It was a reminder, something I look at nearly everyday. This sentence was what I was working toward, in the simplest, most distilled form I could manage then. I then started telling my coworkers what that sentence was, so they knew my motivation, what I stood for.

From my teenage years, I’ve always written these sorts of things, quotes and priorities and reminders. Some are high-minded (I’ve had a Lao Tzu quote in my wallet since undergrad) and others are about working smarter (Your Email Inbox is Not Your To-Do List). I cherish these things. I find they do help transform my mood and habits. They are genuinely for me but, of course, they’re acts of signaling too. I am saying to the world (and therefore reinforcing for me), “Hey, These are my priorities, World!” This comforts me. I have a plan to cope.

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This is a better question for getting perspective to make a decision

I’ve started to replace a common question with something a bit different.

I love making decisions informed by consensus. As I’ve gotten older and taken on different roles, I’ve made it a point to be more decisive and clear in being responsible for the final decision. But perhaps from my journalism roots, I commonly want to get other people’s opinions on a matter.

It’s important to understand their vantage point: in a leadership function, you are responsible for having a wider understanding of a situation. But with the right balance, knowing more focused opinions are crucial.

But I think there’s a better question than simply: “what’s your opinion on this?”

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01:08: Singer-Songwriter John Elliott

Inside tiny edits, there are big secrets.

One of my favorite contemporary musicians is singer-songwriter John Elliott. For the eighth episode of this first season of The Writing Process Podcast, I spoke to the Minnesota-native and San Francisco-based independent artist.

In this episode, I unpack two of powerful writing ideas he exemplifies: leaving space for the reader to co-create and editing to get “more true.”

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01:04 Comedian Todd Glass

How does a joke writer take a punchline from a voice memo to a major Netflix comedy special? Let’s ask celebrated standup comedian Todd Glass.

In the fourth episode of the first season of the weekly Writing Process Podcast, I discuss that among many other methodologies from a man who doesn’t quite consider himself a writer. Todd’s perspective is unique: he grew up with several learning disabilities, so his relationship to writing is far different than others.

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01:03 Rapper Chill Moody

As hip hop became a global, cultural force, the definition of rapper has stretched.

But its origins, as a cornerstone of live events, remain very much alive in people like Chill MoodyA native of West Philadelphia, Chill is an effortless emcee on stage and fiercely proud of his lyrics. Though he grew up in the economically distressed (though by no means monolithic) Overbrook neighborhood, Chill excelled academically and came from a supportive family — his real name is Eric Moody but since he was always at ease, he earned a lifelong nickname. As a much-beloved underground artist, he uses music as a storytelling platform, for his experience and those like him.

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01:02 Novelist Zinzi Clemmons

With her What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons had the breakthrough debut novel you might dream of.

Upon its release last year, Vogue called it the ‘debut novel of the year;’ Vanity Fair called it “powerful” and the Atlantic called it “striking.” She was named a National Book Award 5 Under 35 Honoree, and the New York Times profiled her.

Though she is exceptional for these and other reasons (prestigious universities, born of a mixed-race South African immigrant mother), Zinzi has plenty to offer other writers by way of advice. It helps that she teaches writing at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

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On a long drive? What’s one good new idea you can develop on the road

Funny how when you don’t do something, it can feel special.

More than 9 in 10 Americans drive at least once a week and a majority commute daily by automobile. I don’t. One of my first burning desires to make part of my adult life was to not be reliant on a car.

I chose to live in a heavenly walkable neighborhood in one of our country’s few cities that can be truly lived in without a car. I sold my car. I bicycle to work, live near a major subway line and can walk to daily needs like a supermarket, doctor, veterinarian, barber and plenty of nightlife.

Cars are misused in cities and create weird parking culture. But I don’t hate cars. They’re a novelty to me now. So I’ve developed a little game when I’m in one.

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Do not save writing for later, more will come: ‘The Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard

The Writing Life,‘ a 1989 collection of essays from novelist Annie Dillard, is one of the foundational contributions to the canon of teaching modern fiction writing.

A few months ago, I finally tore through the tidy, celebrated, delightful little book, commonly known as the friendly, fiction alternative to the 1920 grammarian guide from Strunk and White. (Interestingly a New York Times book review took a dim view of her collection, but it’s cherished today.)

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Economics terms that help me understand the world

Since my undergrad years, I’ve taken an interest in the pop science of behavioral economics. From books and articles and podcasts aplenty, I’ve found the shallow edges of the social science quite helpful for my worldview. (I also book a second-hand microeconomics textbook and dug in.)

The clearest result of that has been an entire set of familiar terms that help explain the world. These phrases have been valuable to me. I’d like to share them with you.

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