Review 106: Eats, Shoots & Leaves


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

This is how I know I’m a real English teacher – I have a shelf dedicated to books just about English. The history of English, the uses and misuses of English, and even the history of the alphabet we use. This is something I never expected to have in my personal library, that’s for sure.

So has my brain. (photo by Nathan Harrison)

But that’s all to be expected; I’m an English teacher, and people like me are supposed to read books like this. It’s professional development, or something. The weird thing about this book, a book dedicated to punctuation, of all things, is that it was popular with people who weren’t English teachers. Everyone was shocked by how well it sold, the author included. A book written as kind of a primal stickler scream somehow struck a chord with the general reading population. Perhaps there is some hope for our species after all….

The reason it sold well, of course, is that it’s well-written and entertaining to read. Far too many books about language are written by dusty intellectual Linguists who exude smugness with their impenetrable jargon and are completely inaccessible to the general public. I have those books on my shelves as well, and nothing this side of a double shot of NyQuil is as good at getting me off into slumberland. Ms. Truss, however, writes like one of us. She’s an ordinary person who loves her language and who just snaps every time she sees a sign like, “Apple’s – $1”. I share her pain.

Can't use white-out on neon, can you? (photo by James McNally)

The book is a well-mixed combination of history, usage and style. The tiny marks that make the written English word behave the way it does have come to us along a remarkable number of paths. In the last millennium or so, marks have been added, changed and removed over time as necessity dictated. One of her fears (and the impetus to write this book) is that we may be changing English to a new form that requires less of that rigid, form-fixing punctuation.

Or people just haven’t bothered to learn.

As she notes throughout the book, punctuation is one of those things that few people ever really get to learn. Our English teachers give it a once-over in elementary school, and then we never get a review of it, so we spend most of our lives just throwing around commas and apostrophes and hoping we get it right. More often than not, we don’t. And we’re afraid to ask anyone, lest we look like ignorant yobs.

But to master punctuation means more than just being a pedant and a nerd. Heavens, no. Mastering punctuation means controlling your language, which is controlling your thoughts. The vast difference between a sentence like, “The convict said the judge is mad” and “The convict, said the judge, is mad” should be enough by itself to illustrate how important proper punctuation is. In a language like English, so dependent on rhythm, timing and stress, punctuation is the substitute for our voice. It tells us when to speed up and slow down, which points need to be stressed and given special attention, and which points (like this one) can be safely disregarded, if one so chooses.

Only one member, mind you.... (photo by Lobstar28)

It would be very easy for Ms. Truss’ obvious frustration with the misuse of punctuation to overwhelm her and poison the book. Admittedly, she does at one point put together a kit for those who would be punctuation guerrillas and risk prison to set the world straight, but by and large she stops short at advocating actual lawlessness.

Ms. Truss understands that punctuation abuse isn’t something that people do intentionally – it’s largely a matter of ignorance, and she wants to help. What’s more, she’s funny. For example:

In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.

Every section in the book has sharp and clever humor, a description of something as simple as a comma made in such a way that you find yourself laughing out loud on the train.

Of course, whenever you get into this topic, you run the risk of finding yourself forced to one side or the other of the “proscriptive” versus “descriptive” debate. You know, the people who want to tell everyone else how to use language versus the people who want the speakers to decide for themselves how it is used. The latter smacks of classical democracy, and as both an English Professional and a person with a healthy distrust of The People, I’m hesitant to sign up for it. I like rules in language. I like having a common set of guidelines we can turn to in order to make sure we’re all getting the meaning that the speaker or writer is trying to convey.

WHAT? The fabulous fur's WHAT?? (photo by Trevor Coultart)

Unfortunately, for people like Truss or myself, it’s all too easy to cross that line from being the person who appreciates a bit of order to that person who writes letters to the editor because some headline writer used a colon where a semicolon would do. And I’ve seen internet flame wars go wild over this pro- or de- divide. People who could politely disagree with each other about Sarah Palin’s international policy experience will find themselves screaming bloody murder over whether or not you should put two spaces after a period.

What has to be remembered is this: there are rules to language, like it or not. Those rules, however, change, and no single one of us has any power to impel or obstruct that change. The best we can do is to make sure we are writing with clarity and precision so that our intended audience understands our thoughts with the least amount of effort on their part. Regardless of what you think of the rules, if the reader has to stop and ask herself, “Wait, what did he say?” then you have failed. So learn the rules. Once you’ve learned them, you’re free to do what you wish, but make sure you have them down cold.

So, if you’ve always wanted to know about how to use a semicolon, or you’re not sure if your commas are in the right place, or if you’ve ever driven someone to madness by dropping an apostrophe into a possessive “its” – and you know who you are – then this book is the one you need. Enjoy.

——————————————
“Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko.”
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Lynne Truss on Wikipedia
Eats, Shoots & Leaves on Wikipedia
Eats, Shoots & Leaves on Amazon.com
Lynne Truss’ homepage

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24 Comments

Filed under humor, language, Lynne Truss, nonfiction, punctuation

24 responses to “Review 106: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

  1. Vijay

    Those interested should check out Louis Menand’s interesting 2004 review: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/06/28/040628crbo_books1

    • A great review – starts off pretty harsh, but addressing the concept of the author’s “voice
      is really interesting.

      Of course, now I’m wondering where all my punctuation mistakes are….

  2. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds

    Make sure to follow up on this one with the excellent David Crystal’s The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left. (Of course, Crystal, like virtually all linguists, most of the English professionals that I know, and me*, is a descriptivist.)

    *97% of the time. We all have our peeves! Hahaha.

  3. Love the book, love your insights…and I admit, I love love LOVE good grammar.

    If that makes me a geek, so be it.

    πŸ™‚

  4. Today I did a review of a similar book Things That Make Us [Sic] by Martha Brockenbrough on my blog. Interesting coincidence!

    Congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed! πŸ™‚

  5. RFW

    Read this when it was first published, and gave it as a Christmas present to a particularly annoying person who persisted in identifying me as the one person who should correct his grammar. Now that I am a retired prof, I avoid those conversations – and use dashes – and dots…

  6. I was taught at school that an apostrophe was never followed by an “and”
    example: “Our English teachers give it a once-over in elementary school, and then we never get a review of it,”
    Has this changed? as it is over sixty years since I was taught this simple rule.
    I enjoyed the review.

    • I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I’m more right than not. You can use a comma before “and” when you’re putting together two independent clauses, so I think I’m on safe ground. I do acknowledge, however, that I tend to be rather comma-happy in my writing, so the chances of me being wrong are pretty good. *grin*

    • Assuming that you mean a comma, there are many cases where it can be followed by an “and”. Indeed, I seem to remember that the older rules (not necessarily a mere 60 years ago) dictated a komma before “and” as the more typical case. In the end, it is a question of consistency, disamibiguation, and separation-vs-connection. Consider e.g.

      o “Tom, Dick, and Harry”, but “Tom and Dick”.

      o “I went strolling and watching the birds, and then dropped by the store.”

  7. No doubt everyone will mind their p’s and q’ and apostrophes in these comments – I, too, loved this book. Now that I’m writing more perhaps I should revisit its pages.

  8. Wow. Sounds like I’ve got to pick this one up!
    I’m a creative person, creation’s easy (in my head), but the subsequent expression of what I’ve imagined, with all the detail and depth I’ve put in, simply will not be showcased in the manner I’d envisaged it in, if i can’t corral the language, toss a saddle on it, and force it do my bidding.
    I think that the “looser” school of thought on the issue can be labeled, justifiably so, as (God help me…), lazy. When you get it right, you simply know it, and to the reader it makes all the difference.
    Hopefully this book will help clear some things up, and not knock me out like that NyQuil and so many other bland books I’ve attempted to tackle on the subject.

  9. Sarah

    I am putting this on my list to read right now. As a journalism student, we were grilled over and over and proper grammar and punctuation. However I still found that my best teacher was Microsoft Word. It corrects me every time I am wrong… so why bother to learn it the hard way in the first place? Oh well, great post! Look forward to reading more!

    http://www.SarahLaGringa.com

  10. ahhh this totally reminds me of the seinfeld where elaine overuses the exclamation point! see what i did there…congrats on freshly pressed.

  11. It’s funny and intelligent book. I met her at her book signing in Manchester. My copy is signed: ‘To a fellow pedant’
    To be nerdy though, I have to ask, shouldn’t that be ‘prescriptive’ rather than ‘proscriptive’?
    Feel free to find similar gaffs on my site…… πŸ™‚

  12. I like your take on English. I am NOT an english major, and the lessons we had when I was in elementary school/jr.high/high school were painful and boring. I consider myself very good at grammer and spelling, but I know that english majors have much criticism on my writing. Yes, that last sentence probably will not pass muster. . . . I feel bad about what is happening to the english language due to so many non-readers and to the “shortcut” english used in texting and other electronic communication. I’m glad you use humor in teaching english; your students will love you for it. I know I would have!

  13. Sadly, I have only read the children’s version. I will say that I loved it. I grew up in the anti-language era when the decided that kids should skip what they don’t know and figure it out later. My college professor called me a “pistol-packing comma mama.” I hope my children will have a less dramatic future with language. So “Eats” (the Children’s edition, along with the two sequels) will remain on my shelf for now.

  14. I am glad that someone takes a stand. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of the problems that can follow when language drops below a certain bar of precision (notably, a bar that large parts of the younger generations and their teachers fail to reach).

    It is sometimes said that 50 (70, 30, whatnot) % of all communication is miscommunication—and one of our first priorities should be to minimize this percentage. Sloppy language increases it.

    A particular danger: Many are not merely unable to see the ambiguities in their own writing, but even believe that comparatively large ambiguities can be ignored because the reader will be likely to pick the right alternative. Well, if one sentence has a 10 % propability of being misinterpreted, we could possibly live with that—but when we have hundred sentences and they all have a 10 % probability, then there will be plenty of misunderstandings.

  15. Pingback: More…. weight… | The Labyrinth Library

  16. In response to Michael Eriksson.
    In the sentence “I went strolling and watching the birds, and then dropped by the store.”
    Why not simply say “I went strolling and watching the Birds, then dropped by the store” .
    The “and” is not neccessary to the sentence and its ommision can make the sentence more concise.

    • That is possibly true, but the idea was to demonstrate two uses of “and” in the same sentence, where one was better off with a comma, the other without.

      • I understand Michael but in doing so you constructed a flawed sentence. I believe that in the majority of sentences, the additional “and ” after the comma is superfluous and is a common mistake that has entered the English (UK) written language over the last twenty or thirty years. If you examine sentences, where this is the case, you will almost certainly be able to slightly alter the sentence to make the meaning clearer.

      • Aha: We are probably discussing two different issues, which accidently crossed in my (admittedly poorly chosen) example.

        You are discussing the insertion of “and” after a komma even when it is not needed (e.g. “[…], and then […]”).

        I am discussing when and where a comma should be inserted before an “and”. The point I intended with the example was not that “and then” would be a wise formulation, but that disambiguation or the internal logic of a sentence could require different “and”s to be treaded differently. (Notably, most people under-punctuate heavily—or, if they are journalists, replace all punctuation signs with a full-stop.)

        The formulations in your original comment make a lot more sense to me now.

  17. Ah, the old intended use of a word by the author ploy eh… Well done Michael, you finally got there……Lol

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