Christopher Smith


Many readers will remember a book about punctuation that came out some time ago (in 2003, to be precise) by Lynn Truss called Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title was from a description of the panda bear that she’d come across. What does a panda eat? It eats shoots and leaves. But whoever had written the text had put a comma after the word ‘eats’, so that it read as though the panda, having eaten, would take a firearm out of its holster and shoot at someone or something, before leaving. What does a panda do? It eats, shoots, and leaves. I was reminded of the book’s title a few years later when I saw a very brief letter from my former English teacher in the bottom right-hand corner of the Times letters page: Sir—stern resistance to the apostrophe can be found among inhabitants of a local block of flats, where a notice in the communal area reads ‘Residents refuse to be put in chutes’. If an apostrophe had been in place after the s of ‘residents’, the notice would have conveyed its intended meaning about how people should dispose of their rubbish: ‘Residents’ refuse to be put in chutes’.

One apostrophe, one comma, each tiny thing making a huge difference to the meaning of a sentence. And Lynn Truss had plenty more examples to follow, including ‘Ladie’s Hairdresser’ and ‘Mens Coat’s’. That last reminds me of a restaurant in Durham which called itself ‘Peters Pizza’s’. Two words, with one apostrophe in perfectly the wrong place.

Somewhere in all this is a lesson about attention to detail. It has become fashionable for people to think of themselves as either big-picture types or detail types. ‘How’s that going to work, then?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. Someone else needs to work out the detail.’ And yet what do we see in God’s action but detail? We see it in the Incarnation; we see it in the events which we will commemorate again during the coming Triduum. Not only does God paint the big picture, but he is concerned enough about the detail to go back and fix it when it goes awry.

The detail is in the apostrophe or the comma that makes the correct sense of the sentence. The detail is in the Babe of Bethlehem who is truly a new-born child, without ceasing in any way to be God. The detail is in the true God and true man on the cross of Good Friday, and what goes on on the cross matters because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It’s at the heart of the Christian faith: the man on the cross is not just a man on a cross. God has joined us in our human nature and shared all that it means to be human, without ceasing to be the God who created the universe. He has taken flesh and, in doing so, enriched what is human without diminishing what is divine. There is much detail there, and it is right that we should work hard to understand it.

As a boy in my middle years at school, I was taught my own language out of a textbook called The New First Aid in English. There are more recent editions of The New First Aid in English, but mine dated from 1959, and I encountered it in the mid-70s. It’s all about the detail, and we worked hard at it. Just to give you a sense of the book, it opened with parts of speech, and went on with the correct usage of verbs, adjectives and adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions, punctuation, derivations and spelling. Theodolite. Turpentine. Engineer. Marmalade. Chrysanthemum. Test 1 began, ‘Parse the words in black type’.

I can recall puzzling over such things as Adjectives of Distinction under the tutelage of Miss Kirby. Demonstrative adjectives of distinction are: this, that, these, those, yon, yonder. Example: ‘This stone was found on yonder hill.’ Now, it must be said, I don’t think I have ever used the word ‘yonder’ except humorously, but I’m glad I at least know it when I see it! But I’m also glad to have been taught that level of detail, and I’m pleased I see it coming back into primary schools nowadays.

So how about, from us, a little more attention to detail? How about a little more time spent on the detail of our faith? How about working at it a bit harder, making sure that we didn’t leave it with our teenage selves on the day of our confirmation? How about some deeper Christian conversation, and a way of circumventing the English reserve of talking about our faith? For the better we can articulate it to each other, the better we will be able to articulate it to those who know nothing about it.

Attention to detail is a fine quality in the Christian life: being prepared for mass, saying our prayers, having a rule of life, putting right the wrong we do, setting aside time to study the faith and the scriptures, sharing in the shepherding of each other in the Christian community. What does a panda do? It eats not only shoots, but it also eats leaves. What does God do? God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is God who is in the detail.