Readers, check your reaction to the following sentence:
Lynne Truss, an English grammarian is bloody fed up with sloppy punctuation.
Does that sentence leave you feeling confused, irritated, or angry? Do you feel you have to second-guess the author of the sentence, forced to ascertain whether s/he was writing to Lynne Truss or about Ms. Truss?
But that sort of thing is almost the norm these days, on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, we Americans have been struggling for years with FRESH DONUT'S DAILY and Your Server: "MILLY" -- not to mention the archy-and-mehitabel school of e-mail that neither capitalizes nor punctuates and reading through this kind of sentence really gets confusing i think it does at least do you too?
Turns out that even the British--including the elite "Oxbridge" inteligentsia--are wildly ignorant of punctuation's rules and standards. Lynne Truss, an English grammarian and author of EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES, is bloody fed up with it! So she wrote this handy little book that is ever-so-correct but not condescending, sometimes savage but not silly, full of mission and totally without mush.
Think of Truss as punctuation's own Miss Manners, a combination of leather and lace, with maybe a bit more emphasis on the leather. (She advocates forming possees to paint out incorrect apostrophes in movie placards.) But her examples of bad punctuation serve a purpose: bad punctuation distorts meaning. EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES includes numerous hilarious backfires of punctuation -- statements and missives that use the exact same words but convey totally opposite messages due to inappropriate punctuation.
Do commas go where they go for breathing, as the do-it-naturally school of non-grammar so many of us were exposed to would have it? Or were they for Medieval chanting or, more analytically, for grammar? Truss explains that it's a mish-mosh of all three, and proceeds to make useful sense of it all. Along the way she confesses she would have gladly borne the children of the 15th-Century Italian typographer who invented Italics and the forward-slash.
With its blend of high dudgeon and helpfulness, Truss steers the reader through the shoals of possession and apostrophes, quotations (British use is a bit differerent from North American, but only a bit, and she notes the difference), the useful if forlorn semicolon, the mighty colon, the bold and (mea culpa) overused dash and other interrupters like parenthesees and commas.
It's important to note that Truss, while something of a true believer, is a believer who lives in the 21st Century. She does not advocate turning back the clock to the 1906 version of Fowler's MODERN ENGLISH USAGE; she is not a snob; she does not overwhelm us with technical terms of grammar and punctuation for their own sake. Just good, common-sense English prescriptive lessons in grammar. People who know they don't know their stuff will learn the right stuff there. People who felt that "the rules" have somehow become archaic in the last thirty years will be happy to see that there are still rules, and while they have become more fluid and pragmatic, they haven't changed inordinately. "It's" still means "It is" and "Its" is still a possessive: "It's a wise publisher that knows its public," say. Best of all, the teaching is conveyed with wit, bite, and in a snappy tome easy to carry and inexpensive. I'm a former English teacher and I couldn't help but learn and laugh. Highly recommended.
Oh, John Updike? He uses comma faults all that time, that's a sentence like this that splices main clauses together with a comma, maybe using semicolons or starting a new sentence would be better. For us mere mortals, though, standard punctuation fits the norm: once we become world-famous, then we can punctuate at will.
on June 2, 2004
Here's a small book you'll want to stuff in your pocket for that next flight or train trip to pass the time and avoid the embarrassment of having to explain to people you know that you're chuckling over a book on punctuation. Oddly enough the quite funny joke on which the title is based only appears on the dust jacket. But there is enough deadpan humor, historical trivia, and useful information in this modest work to make up for the lapse. If you think punctuation is just a collection of gratuitous furbelows with strict rules intended to keep grade school teachers, snobs, and compulsive personalities preoccupied, take a deep breath. To be sure our author Lynne Truss is a punctuation vigilante and does not take these matters lightly. Offenses to the language put her into a royal snit. Her temperament inclines to "zero tolerance", but in practice Truss recognizes the need for flexibility. The written presentation of our language is dynamic and continues to evolve. The preservation of punctuation rather than a fussy observance of rules is her goal. Maybe just maybe that preservation motive explains her regret at not mothering the children of the 16th century Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius the Elder, for whom we have to thank for italics and semicolons.
Our present day punctuation began with Greek dramatists providing actors with cues for their onstage delivery. With the development of printing, printers became the innovators for this notational art. Over time conventions developed governing their use and were codified as rules. Creative types bristle at most forms of restraint. Gertrude Stein thought commas to be "servile", semicolons "pretentious", and question marks "completely uninteresting". George Bernard Shaw called apostrophes "uncouth bacilli". Contrast these punctuation anarchists with 18th century essayist Joseph Robertson who saw the "art" of punctuation to be of "infinite consequence" in writing. In the interent age Truss sees email and text messaging posing a significant threat to punctuation. Writers become "senders" with idiosyncratic phrases (e.g."CU B4 8"), emoticons (viz. smiley faces), and other hasty expediences. Truss can only shake her head to where this may be leading.
Truss makes a serious point simply enough. Punctuation provides the traffic signals that keep words from banging into one another. In a complicated, poetic, and dangerous world punctuation can help render thoughts with clarity. Punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. In legal, political, and personal matters this should be remembered. Hmm...maybe it's the neurotics' obsession for detail that keeps us all on track.
"If there is one lesson that is to be learned from this book, it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation." Perhaps that is hyperbole, but there is never a dull moment in _Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation_ (Gotham Books) by Lynne Truss. Surely the book will not be the sensation it was in Britain, but it is witty, informative, and entertaining; you can't ask for more from a punctuation manual. And if you do not yet think that punctuation is important, you will after you see all the misunderstandings a little comma can cause. Take the peculiar title, which is from a joke: A panda goes into a café, orders a sandwich, eats it, takes out a revolver, fires it into the air, and goes out. When the waiter calls to ask what is going on, the panda plunks a badly punctuated wildlife manual onto the table and growls: "Look me up." The waiter finds the entry: "PANDA. Large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves." Oh, let's have one more. There was an American actor playing Duncan in _Macbeth_, listening with concern to the battle story of a wounded soldier, who cheerfully called out: "Go get him, surgeons!" Misplaced comma; it should of course be: "Go, get him surgeons!" Another story related here, a true one, shows that a comma can literally be a life-or-death matter.
The book is zero tolerance indeed. Truss says it doesn't matter if you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice, "If you still persist in writing, 'Good food at it's best', you deserve ..." and she lists some ghastly punishments. Such militantism surely qualifies her for the Apostrophe Protection Society, a real organization that (along with Truss) is horrified by commercial signs that announce "Antique's" or "Apple's". The recent film _Two Weeks Notice_ gives her recurrent fits. She wants to know if they would have called it _One Weeks Notice_. She suggests that we enlist in the apostrophe war, arming ourselves with correction fluid, stickers to cover superfluous apostrophes, and markers with which to insert omitted ones. But best of all, she gives, simply and generously, the rules that will guide one in any apostrophic situation. Plus there is history. In Shakespeare's time, the apostrophe only indicated omitted letters, as it still does in "doesn't." Then in the 17th century printers put it in front of singular possessive "s," and in the 18th they put it after the plural possessive "s," and here we are.
You can turn to this little volume for guidance on the dash, hyphen, colon, semicolon, and more. The rules are here. American readers should note that theirs is a reprint of the British edition, without changes to spelling or punctuation. Often Truss mentions the differences, but she would vehemently deny that this shows that punctuation rules are arbitrary. Punctuation "... is a system of printers' marks that has aided the clarity of the written word for the past half-millennium." The conventions evolved slowly, in conversation between printers and readers. Truss worries that printing will decline in our e-age. A printed book has been edited and fussed over, but e-mail often does not even bother with capital letters. Truss thinks that since punctuation represents an effort of a considerate writer to guide a reader into a correct interpretation, the lack of e-punctuation has lead to clumsy explanations, like "Just kidding!" or even "JK!" having to be added to get a tone across, or the (to her) grievous incorporation of her beloved punctuation into emoticons or smileys. "Punctuation as we know it... is in for a rocky time," she says. But her book is a call to sticklers like herself: "I am all the more convinced we should fight like tigers to preserve our punctuation, and we should start now." This delightful style manual has been turned into a manifesto by an author in love with her subject.
on June 5, 2004
The only thing that most of the reviews about this book has in common is their grammar and punctuation -- most folks seem to love the book, several rail against it, and a handful appear to have no opinion. But almost nobody has been willing to read this unlikely best seller and then write a review that ignores the lessons about punctuation the book focuses on. That in itself offers strong proof about its value.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a charming book and an unusual success story, and I applaud it for bringing to the fore a debate about the aspect of our language that has suffered most from its inundation under a sea of Internet chat and cellular text messaging. Using a mix of humor and anecdotes, author and journalist Lynne Truss manages to create a highly readable and enjoyable primer that not only explains how punctuation works but why it is important.
If you have any doubt, witness the sentence: "A woman without her man is nothing." Now add two lonely punctuation marks and the meaning is turned on its head: "A woman: without her, man is nothing." The title of the book is another example -- it is supposed to be a description of the diet of pandas, but because of poor punctuation it sounds more like a complaint about a murderous dinner guest.
Fair warning: American readers might have problems with some of Ms. Truss's vocabulary (a "fag" is a cigarette in England; "rubbers" are erasers), and her statements about placing all punctuation marks outside quotation marks and the frequency with which she uses Britishisms like "actually" and "obviously" will stand out to readers already comfortable with their grip on grammar and punctuation. A lot of those problems could have been eliminated by putting the manuscript in the hands of a thoughtful editor before releasing it in the United States.
I also have a problem with treating punctuation as an end rather than as a means to an end. I think anyone who writes even a grocery list while trying to remember thousands of often archaic and obscure rules could starve to death before they ever make it to the supermarket. The ultimate goal should be to make the writer's intent clear. Punctuation is simply a tool to that end.
Lynne Truss writes a wickedly funny treatise on the death-- if we, the faithful who care about apostrophes, are not armed and ready to fight the barbarians-- of punctuation as we know it. Of course, her dilemma is that only people who care about correct punctuation are the ones who will read this fascinating book. Those who are most guilty will not or cannot read her.
But for those of us who read this book there are wonderful tidbits. For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes said that We have to dismount from an idea and get back into the saddle again at every parenthesis while the writer Gertrude Stein found question marks the most uninteresting of all punctuation marks. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the exclamation point (as it is known in America) is "like laughing at your own jokes." My favorite image from the book is that of the semicolon that "quietly practises the piano with crossed hands."
For those of us who care, Ms. Truss gives a good review of the rules of punctution. She discusses thoroughly the correct use of all forms of punctuation, from the apostrophe to the hyphen, and compares the differences between British and American usage. She also discusses the blight that e-mail messages have brought on us all. "I keep thinking that what we do now, with this medium of instant delivery, isn't writing, and doesn't even qualify as typing either: it's just sending. What did you do today? Sent a lot of stuff."
I fear that punctuation problems are worse on this side of the pond than they are in England. I attended a black tie event recently for over 300 people in which words large enough to be read from the back of the dinning hall were projected on a huge screen behind the speaker. The apostrophe was used over and over to express the plural, rather than the possessive of words. I felt as obsolete as a rotary telephone.
I had this book on my wish-list for quite some time. I was delighted to see and buy the illustrated version at a `remainder` price of only $4.95. The illustrations are cute, but I do not think that they warrant any substantially increased price over that of the regular version. I do not feel that the illustrations help very much in getting the ideas across, but neither are they an impediment. The book is nicely hardbound; the illustrations are cute and it would make a nice gift, but be forewarned; it is in effect smaller than the 176 pages that it takes up. There is a one and a half space between each line of text, so subtracting the illustrations (some of which are full-page) and you have a book whose text is actually less than 100 pages in length.
There are over 500 reviews of the regular version, so there is little new that I can say. I base my 4-star rating on the text and on the fact that the illustrations do not add enough to the book to warrant the extra cost that including them entails. I think that the book would have been greatly improved had there been a brief summary (as little as a paragraph) of the material covered in each chapter. Better yet, a concise summary at the end of the book would act as a great review. As it is, one has to wade through a lot of semi-amusing text to get to the heart of the matter. I sometimes got the impression that the author was more interested in being cute and addressed the material to those who, like her, are horrified at the lack of punctuation skills of the rest of us, rather than in doing her utmost to help the rest of us to improve those skills. (Don't get me wrong, I got quite a bit from this book and still recommend it, even though the author gets a bit snide at times.) I also think that the book is a bit `thin` and over-priced, even at the reduced Amazon price, let alone for the list price of $25.
I have always found it strange that I could get through graduate school, have successfully learned advanced calculus, thermodynamics and the rudiments of quantum mechanics, yet find punctuation somewhat of a mystery. This book has helped clear up some of that mystery. It does so in a delightful manner, one geared to adults rather than grade-schoolers. Somehow, like most people, I did not absorb this material in grade school, so some remedial education is clearly needed, and this book provides it. Now I hope that I can remember to apply what I have learned.
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss entertained me. I learned a few things, too.
Truss takes to task the errant punctuation found through common language. She even finds problems in Amazon.com reviews. I cannot disagree; my own reviews are littered with errors. She cites a review of Hugh Grant's movie "About a Boy". The reviewer, like so many of us, did not proofread his work, and left his shame available in review form.
While claiming not to be about class distinction, in the British sense George Bernard Shaw meant to reduce in "Pygmalion," she still comes across as arrogant. There is no way to avoid this poise of authoritative injunction. Punctuation is a perfect science with imperfect applications. We readers tolerate (or completely miss) errors because we understand both the message and the messenger.
Truss' examples are humorous. Her writing is bright, with all British overtones. These overtones were resident in the original English edition, and the copy published in America is verbatim. It works to highlight the accidents of poor punctuation pervasively nicking our writing. By selectively altering a comma here and there, she shows how meaning is sometimes entirely changed. That's good to remember.
She is clear in the beginning to say this is not a grammar book. Grammar is not punctuation, she correctly says. However, she misleads the reader into believing this is a punctuation book. It's not. It is about punctuation, with many stories, anecdotes, tales and lessons teaching proper punctuation. The book never closes in on being purely a list of 'dos and don'ts'. It is valuable for that, especially as her style welcomes the reader more than the standard reference book on the topic. She encompasses punctuation as the basis for her book, but Truss never lets the method arrest its entertainment value.
Intelligent readers for whom the use of language matters will indubitably learn something.
Throughout are citings of the kinds of punctuation mistakes forwarded in e-mails by editors to their friends.
This book is a primer, at best, but completely incomplete. We are taught quickies in the usage of apostrophes, commas, colons, ellipses, semicolons, dashes and, in her estimation, the rarely used hyphen.
Who should read "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"? Smug freshman copyediting students and their pretentious high school counterparts, full-time professional editors who need to remember they are not alone, anyone who makes a living joining letters on a page, and junior high school English teachers who need never forget that even their best efforts will not teach every student. Most of all, as I'm confident Truss would agree, amateur book reviewers like myself should read this; we could learn the proper use of a semicolon.
I fully recommend "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss. It will not replace your AP, Chicago, MLA or APA stylebooks, but it will add to your enjoyment of their much-needed use.
on April 19, 2004
Lynne Truss so eloquently expresses the frustration that many of us feel when we see inept and haphazard use of punctuation, especially when this incorrect punctuation is published or found on permanent signage. Her accounts of her encounters with mis-punctuated text are entertaining and often hilarious.
Those of us who are fellow "sticklers" often feel despair or even anger when we come across text that is not punctuated correctly. However, there is room for us to laugh at our own obsession and take a step back to note the comedy in the common errors in the language. Truss presents this humorous perspective while still setting a serious, take-no-prisoners tone on the need for everyone to strive towards correct punctuation usage. She not only explains the history of punctuation marks but also clarifies why knowing the history of the marks is beneficial to understanding their usage and evolution.
Trust deserves extra commendation for focusing her book on discussions of punctuation and not straying into the topics of misspellings and incorrect grammar, as tempting as that must have been.
This book will be most appreciated by those of who pay close attention to detail, not only in our own writing, but also in the writings of others. While Truss clearly explains the rules for the usage of various punctuation marks, I would hesitate to call this book instructional or label it a reference manual. Instead, it's more of an entertaining read for those individuals who feel exasperation when they come across the misuse (or absence) of apostrophes, commas, hyphens, and the like--these readers certainly will find a kindred spirit in Truss.
on June 23, 2004
I remember a long time ago seeing a headline in a paper that read "Milk Drinkers Turning to Powder." This is the kind of English that really sets off Lynne Truss. I saw an interview with her on television, and while she had a sense of humor, and that is apparent from the book, she also had a very serious side, and I was sure that for certain grammatical errors she would not hesitate to shoot and leave!
The title of this book comes from the kind of problem that people can encounter in the difference between spoken language and written language. Being a fan of poetry, I am very aware of the difference between spoken words and written words on the page, and what a difference simple intonations and voice changes can make. Punctuation and spelling can make a big difference, too. Is it here, or hear? Here here! or Hear! Hear! There are lots of arguments for the need for correct grammar and punctuation, and there are lots of pieces in here that talk about the history and misuse in the past of punctuation in key times.
This is a very British book in many senses, and some of the American rules of grammar are different, but it is still fun to read and see what happens with the differences. Truss has a dry wit and this comes through most of the time fairly well. There were times I did laugh quite a bit, and times I copied things down to email to friends.
This is a fun book. You won't want to leave it behind, eating or shooting.
on July 29, 2004
This little book about punctuation has gotta be one of the most unlikely non-fiction bestsellers in recent memory.
For most of John Q. Public, a PURE 'reference' book about punctuation will cure insomnia better than a double-dose of sleeping pills.
But 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' is different. It's in the 'reference' AND 'humor' sections at most libraries and booksellers like Amazon.com.
Author Lynne Truss - a novelist, radio personality and a former television AND sports critic for the Times of London (geez, what a resume) - obviously isn't the first to say that punctuation MATTERS.
But she's the first to scream her case globally, armed with a comical and politically incorrect poisonous pen. In truth, Truss doesn't take herself too seriously, but she gets to choose what's good and bad, which offenses are egregious and which aren't worth bursting a vein. Her 'zero tolerance' mantra is actually a selective ruse. Bad signage in particular gets a big-time skewering.
Where Truss succeeds best, though, is going for the jugular to push her point, using hyperbole that's laugh-out-loud funny. Examples:
* If you persist in writing, 'Good food at it's best,' (instead of the correct possessive, 'its'), 'you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.'
* Punctuation vigilantes who spot offenses must be armed with tools, such as: correction fluid, big marking pens, a bucket of paint, a big brush - and - a gun.
There are patches in 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' where you want to shake Truss silly for pounding you with one history lesson after another. Some of it quite dull. Her stories about the origins of punctuation marks - the changing acceptance of apostrophes, periods, commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, hyphens, parentheses, brackets, question marks and periods - aren't as effective as hard examples about their proper use today. Although I did laugh at her rueful comment about how upset she is for not volunteering to meet a centuries-old punctuation advocate to have his babies (Aldus Manutius the 'Elder, 1450-1515). As if she had a choice.
'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' is a reference (each punctuation mark has its own chapter), but you can easily thumb (or skip) through some of her prose to get to the meatiest examples. Truss is best when she demonstrates how two sentences, for example, identical in every way EXCEPT for their punctuation marks, can have opposite meanings:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Meanwhile, it's a little disrupting to see what's OK in the U.K. that's NOT OK in America (putting a period outside a quotation mark at the end of a sentence, for example, instead of inside it). But these differences are noted and Truss doesn't force British usage down your throat.
Finally, to critics who say the 'better book' about punctuation is 'Elements of Style' by William Strunk and E. B. White: Well yeah, of course. But have you ever tried reading 'Elements of Style' from cover-to-cover? It's pure reference, not entertainment. 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' is irreverent, but not irrelevant. And Lynne Truss, to her credit, pays proper homage to both pioneers. She even revisits a 1999 Washington Post parody by columnist Bob Hirschfield about the 'Strunkenwhite Virus,' which rejected e-mails with improper punctuation, bringing commerce and productivity to a screeching halt.
It's no crime taking on an otherwise dull subject and loading it up with laughs. Truss obviously wants to reach more than just educators, librarians, writers and readers.
With 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves,' she's done it. So put 'em both on your shelf.