Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Hardcover (available in trade), 209 pages, 2003
Reason for Reading: I had to know how a book about punctuation could attract so much attention.
Synopsis: After seeing one punctuation-related faux pas too many, Truss cracked and wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves to try and (re)enlighten the general population about clarity in writing. Commas, exclamation points, apostrophes: Truss pleads for their correct usage, largely by using ridiculous (and true) examples of intended meanings gone awry.
Why you should read this book: Everyone can use the occasional brush-up on punctuation – even, as Truss points out, Oxford-type scholars who inappropriately use semicolons to bluff their way through ill-formed ideas. The biggest draw here is Truss’ sense of humour, which she uses with alternating glee and horror to point out errors that she’s seen in print. Her story about how, as a child, she extracted grammatical revenge on a hapless pen pal who cheerfully put her misspelled words onto pink paper and placed bubbles over her i’s instead of dots is especially hilarious. Although Truss’ rallying cry is ‘Sticklers unite!’ she spends a chapter exploring what the internet has meant to punctuation, and is willing to concede some changes are for the better. In the end, it’s all about clarity rather than the ability to ruthless apply rules that even grammarians can’t agree on, much less Joe Six-Pack. This is as painless as punctuation is going to get, folks.
Why you should avoid this book: There is, of course, an excellent chance that the people that need this book the most won’t be the ones to read it. The widespread consumption of Eats, Shoots and Leaves might leave you a little paranoid about getting your own writing punctuation-perfect for fear of a fellow reader sadly shaking their head before dashing off an email to inform Truss that they have more fodder for her blooper reel.
Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. ‘Come inside,’ it says, ‘for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s, and BOOK’s.’
Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: “Why did you have a comma in the sentence, ‘After dinner, the men went into the living room’?” And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. “This particular comma,” Thurber explained, “was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
Nigel Hall, a reader in literacy education at Manchester Metropolitan University who studies the way children learn to punctuate, told me about one small boy who peppered his work with quotation marks, regardless of whether it was reporting any speech. Why did he do that? “Because it’s all me talking,” the child explained, and I imagine it was hard to argue against such immaculate logic. It seems to me that the ‘PIZZAS’ people, who put signs in their windows – ‘NOW OPEN SUNDAYS’, ‘THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING’ – have the same problem as this little boy. If they are saying this thing, announcing it, then they feel that logically they have to present it in speech marks, because it’s all them talking.
Also recommended: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester; Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson; The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.
Also by this author: Talk to the Hand; Tennyson’s Gift; Making the Cat Laugh; With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed; Going Loco.
Author’s website: eatsshootsandleaves.com
Fun tidbit: Do you have it in you to be a stickler? Take the quick punctuation quiz to find out.
Â© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007