A review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

This book will make the pedant, or “stickler” feel good about themselves. The rest of us will probably agree with most of what Truss writes, enjoy this book for its good natured, light hearted banter, and often hysterical examples, and feel bad at our own transgressions. With any luck, we might even make them less often. If so, Truss’s book will have created a better, clearer, and more understandable world.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
By Lynne Truss
209pp, Profile, Dec 2003, hardcover, $A29.95
ISBN 1861976127

Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots & Leaves is not really a handbook on better punctuation. There are plenty of those around, and the reader in search of educational improvement would be well advised to look elsewhere, although there is much to be learnt here. For those of us who tend to be a little sloppy in our punctuation habits, substituting dashes for commas because it is much easier, or relegating punctuation to the realm of the pedant – subservient to meaning – this book is both an eye opener and cause for significant guilt. I’m no pedant myself, and my writing tends to the sloppy, product of an American, grammarless education that I am, but Truss’s very humorous and pleasurable book makes the clear point that meaning and punctuation are intricately linked. This is really a book to read for pleasure, rather than edification. If you are indeed a pedant, you will rally along with Truss, shaking your head knowingly as she describes her own desperation in the face of a “satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes,” the way sentences like “Thank God its Friday” rouses her to violence, and her demonstration outside of the film “Two Weeks Notice.” Truss is known in the UK for her the punctuation programmes she hosted for Radio 4, Cutting a Dash, and many of her examples come from surveys, listener send-ins and faux pas she uncovered during the show.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a good natured look at the importance of good punctuation, and provides a lot of very funny, light hearted, and real, examples of transgressions. If you are a pedant, or “stickler” as Truss puts it, this book will indeed ring bells for you, and you will probably receive it as a gift from someone who knows exactly what you are. But you don’t have to be punctuation mad to enjoy this book. Like the clever joke which provides the book’s title, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is a pleasurable read which, above all, celebrates the importance of clarity in meaning, and the beauty of language in all its variations. Anyone who reads will get pleasure out of the many funny and real life examples which Truss provides. The book is divided into chapters on the apostrophe, the comma, the semi-colon, the dash, and the hyphen. The book ends with a look at the potential future of punctuation, and, in particular, the impact of the hypertexted Internet with its edit-less democracy, its encouragement of strange alternate usage and abbreviations (think Martin Amis’ K8 in Yellow Dog) and the emoticon:

Having grown up as readers of the printed word (and possibly even scribblers in margins), we may take for granted the processes involved in the traditional activity of reading – so let us remind ourselves. The printed word is presented to us in a linear way, with syntax supreme in conveying the sense of words in their order. We read privately, mentally listening to the writer’s voice and translating the writer’s thoughts. The book remains static and fixed; the reader journeys through it. Picking up the book in the first place entails an active pursuit of understanding.

Truss uses a wide variety of examples for each chapter, citing things like George Bernard Shaw’s overabundance of semi-colons, to Lawrence’s serious underuse (and “cavalier attitude”). Flaubert, Amis, Chekhov, Hugo, Sartre, Fielding, Twain, Dickens, Woolf, and Shakespeare to name just a few are all used as examples, along with much from the Fleet Street press, various downtrodden greengrocers, and of course Hollywood. The writing is always light, and Truss is not afraid to poke fun at herself, or use her own silly examples, like the change in name from Opal Fruits to Starbursts. The comma chapter is particularly amusing, with examples that clearly demonstrate this little punctuation mark’s importance to the world of meaning: “what is this thing called, love?” What makes this book more than just a little manual on punctuation, and indeed, more than just a “book for people who care and want to prevent” punctuation’s extinction, is Truss’s clear devotion to the world of words.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart.

This book will make the pedant, or “stickler” feel good about themselves. The rest of us will probably agree with most of what Truss writes, enjoy this book for its good natured, light hearted banter, and often hysterical examples, and feel bad at our own transgressions. With any luck, we might even make them less often. If so, Truss’s book will have created a better, clearer, and more understandable world.

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