Eats, Shoots & Leaves
by Lynn Truss
After an minor fandom disagreement over punctuation that couldn’t be cleared up, I became a lot more interested in punctuation clarification. I consider myself fairly punctuation aware. At a young age, my mother told me that confusing “it’s” and “its” meant I was illiterate. This was after I had showed her some of my angsty preteen poetry; I was so offended that it’s been ingrained into me. Oh, preteen self, how I want to punch you in the teeth.
I found Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves in the bargain bin at Books A Million, and decided to pick it up. Its subtitle is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”–a claim upon which it heartily delivers.
This book was initially written for a British audience, as a publisher’s note points out, and has been unchanged for the American publication. However, Truss often points out the differences between American and British usage throughout the book. I was startled to learn that I lean towards British usage.
Each of the book’s chapters focus on a specific part of punctuation–apostrophes and commas get their own chapters, due to their wide misuse, while the other chapters are a bit more general.
Truss heavily emphasizes the factor personal taste plays into punctuation, which handily explains my fandom tussle–I prefer ellipsis with a space after them, the other party did not. Truss gives us some delightful stories of alpha male editors bickering over commas to illustrate, and also lists accepted variations, especially variations between American and British usage.
Truss’ tone is playful, chatty, and intellectual, rattling off the story of the inventor of italics with the same breezy ease she uses to describe modern day folk who abuse the apostrophe to hell and back. For such a dry topic as punctuation, Truss is wonderful, keeping it light, amusing, and informative, with nicely organized lists of usage for punctuation in their respective chapter. The playfulness vanishes in the last chapter, “Merely Conventional Signs”, which is simply a hostile jab at the effect of new media upon punctuation. I’ll probably skip that chapter if I ever read it straight through again–it doesn’t teach the audience anything about punctuation, and serves simply as a coda.
The last chapter hurts it a bit, since it changes focus from not so gentle correction to fighting for punctuation despite new media tearing it down. I appreciate that Truss is trying to preempt her critics, but I honestly don’t see the Internet and e-mail as a huge threat to proper punctuation–I lost my patience with that chapter, to be honest. punctuation is also a very dry subject, and reading it straight through as a book can have its lulls. I find it immensely more rewarding as reference material.
Bottom line: A chatty, funny, and accessible book on punctuation that functions much better as reference material, with an unfortunate last chapter.
I bought this book at Books A Million.