Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review (book): Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
By Lynne Truss. Gotham Books (Penguin Group), 2004. 209 pp.

Review written by Tom Wilmeth
September 29, 2004

Punctuation (noun). (1) Non-verbalized markings used in written communication for the purpose of clarity, (2) Necessary element of composition, (3) Set of grammatically related rules which are misunderstood and ignored by many writers under the guise of personal style or literary license, (4) Topic about which sane people do not, for any reason, ever become excited.

Lynne Truss has written a scathing and very funny expose. In it she complains bitterly about the public’s lack of respect for some of England’s own. But Truss is not lifting the lid here about treatment of the Royal Family, or even the recent disdain shown to the British music scene. Instead, she has composed a compelling book about . . . punctuation.

Truss is a London journalist who is quick to point out that carping over punctuation abuse is not a new topic. She admits that it is often a pointless and tiresome battle which leads directly to madness in most interested parties. But while aware that striving for the right in a fight over usage is a no-win situation, the author is nonetheless drawn to its constant defense like an addiction.

Truss has many useful examples about proper usage, often backing into her lesson by first demonstrating a humorous misuse of punctuation, and showing the effect that the error has on a sentence’s meaning. Included are examples which range from odd to obscene. The book’s title itself comes from a story revolving around one of her favorite punctuation conundrums: A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich and eats it. He then draws a gun, fires two shots into the air and departs. The stunned café owner demands an explanation, and is shown a badly punctuated wildlife manual left behind by the bear. He finds his answer in the book’s definition of a panda: “Large bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

All of this instruction-by-example would go unread were it not for Truss’s own awareness of the sometimes absurd nature of the topic. While undeniably British, her humor is not quite so deathly dry as found in the Fowler Brothers’ seminal work on language instruction of a century ago. As such, the book is less exclusively English and more approachable to an American audience. But like the Fowlers, Truss often stresses that the book’s comments are meant to instruct her British audience, pleading ignorance or perhaps a tacit disdain of American usage.

In spite of its focused target audience, Eats, Shoots and Leaves gives hope and inspiration to writers everywhere. It also heartens the avid reader of the English language, assuring both camps that there are punctuation watchdogs on guard, and that the language is in good hands. Through an instructive revision of incorrect usage examples, Lynne Truss helps her readers to rely less on their computer’s grammar checker, and more on an actual understanding of the language. While she clearly possesses a take-no-prisoner, us against them approach to punctuation, Truss’ optimism makes for a didactic but fun read.

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