We all know the basics of punctuation. Or do we? A look at most neighborhood signage tells a different story. Through sloppy usage and low standards on the internet, in email, and now text messages, we have made proper punctuation an endangered species. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, former editor Lynne Truss dares to say, in her delightfully urbane, witty, and very English way, that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled. From the invention of the question mark in the time of Charlemagne to George Orwell shunning the semicolon, this lively history makes a powerful case for the preservation of a system of printing conventions that is much too subtle to be mucked about with.
Lynne Truss admits to living a hard life as a stickler for proper punctuation. She insists that apostrophes and commas need not suffer the endless misuse that merchants develop with signs advertising the sale of "potato's", "apple,s", and "CD's, DVD's, and Book's". If your inner stickler cringes at those examples, Truss assures you are not alone. Taking its title (and never it's title) from the popular "panda joke", Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a chapter-by-chapter look at commonly used and misused punctuation marks.
From the confusing comma to the abused apostrophe, rules are interspersed with hilarious anecdotes and examples, adding a delightful flare of humor to a subject few have studied since grade school. Part reference book and part satire, Truss will have every reader putting new thought into writing and the fabulous world of language that surrounds us every day.
BUT I simply found it scrappily written and unclear in its objectives.
I could have forgiven all that if it had been really desperately funny as some seem to think it was. But for me, it just wasn't. (If you want a really hilarious book on language, try Bill Bryson, who'll also teach you something.) Any humour that there is in the book derives from a pseudo-superior sense of poking fun at those who don't know how to punctuate -- which is frankly puerile in itself and not enough to sustain even a very slim volume such as this.
I came away from it not sure what sort of book it was supposed to be.
Will it helpfully teach you how to punctuate English more clearly? No, apart from a few vague pointers.
Is it a clear guide to the history of English punctuation? No.
Is it just basically a humorous book that happens to be about punctuation? No.
The usage guides I adore are based on a love for the English language. They revel in the ongoing development of the language, being part of a multi-generational conversation about how words are used and how they ought to be used. They relish the continuous tug-of-war between language snobs and language slobs, prescriptivists and descriptivists, the mavens and the guys in the street. They appreciate a well-turned sentence. They're aware of the importance of cadence. They enjoy a comma placed in just the right location. And they understand that the rules serve the language and its users, not the other way around.
On the other hand, you also find people like Lynne Truss. They may be tone-deaf, but by golly, they know the rules they've been taught. And heaven help anybody who dares to break those rules in their presence. In this approach, grammar and usage aren't things to be appreciated; they're bludgeons used to pummel those lesser creatures who misuse them, and they provide ways of feeling smugly superior to others. Any alternative approaches are seen as stupidity, criminal negligence, or signs of a complete societal breakdown.
I couldn't disagree more.
All the good work Lynne Truss does in conveying her message (viz., punctuation matters) is undone by her hectoring tone, dismal attempts at humour (made worse by a tendency to point out the punch-lines) and, in the final analysis, lack of credibility: having set out rules she then reverses over them, makes egregious appeals to authority and, every now and then, just gets things flat out wrong.
You might forgive that were there any humility in her prose, but there isn't. The first rule of hubris is: if you're going to be a clever-clogs, make sure you're right, because readers won't cut you any slack if you're not.
Lynne Truss isn't always right.
A case in point: in her introduction, Truss states (rather presumptuously) on behalf of her fellow sticklers, "we got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin-Laden but because people on the radio kept saying "enormity" when they meant "magnitude", and we hate that".
Now ignoring the curious impression this creates of Truss's value scheme, she is quite wrong to take umbrage here: "Enormity", in British English, means "extreme wickedness". The magnitude and the awfulness of an act of mass murder are closely correlated. So, even in British English, it is perfectly right to talk of the "enormity" of September 11. But if any of the voices Truss heard on the radio were American, they had another excuse. In American English enormity *does* mean "magnitude". Since Truss is so enamoured with appeals to authority, it is odd she didn't check that with the best authority on American English, Webster's dictionary. I should mention that I read English edition of this book. Given Truss's proclivities as regards the cultural heathen, it will be interesting to see whether her American sub-editors pluck up enough courage to point this out.
When she does make them, Truss's appeals to authority are even more irritating, particularly where they contradict her own rules or justify her own errors: So, the author patiently explains that an apostrophe is required to indicate possession except in the case of a possessive pronoun (i.e., "mine", "yours", "his", "hers", "its", "ours" and "theirs"). Now, I had always wondered why a possessive "its" doesn't have an apostrophe, and this explains it nicely. But then Truss completely undermines her own rule and appeals to the authority of Virginia Woolf:
"Someone wrote to say that my use of "one's" was wrong ("a common error"), and that it should be "ones". This is such rubbish that I refuse to argue about it. Go and tell Virginia Woolf it should be "A Room of Ones Own" and see how far you get."
Virginia Woolf's been dead for over fifty years, so this is pretty tough to do. But it doesn't mean Virginia Woolf was right. And Truss fails explain why this is "such rubbish".
Finally, even the book's title betrays the author's questionable sense of humour. I don't think she gets the joke. It has nothing to do with waiters or pistols (perhaps a maiden aunt told her that one?) and certainly doesn't need a "badly punctuated wildlife manual" to work, because it isn't a grammatical play; it's an oral one. The joke doesn't work when you write it down, precisely because of the ambiguous comma. You have to say it out loud (in spoken English, there is no punctuation at all).
I hope they re-title the New Zealand edition of this book, because the local version of the joke (which employs a delightful expression from NZ English) is funnier: The Kiwi, it is said, is the most anti-social bird in the bush, and no-one likes to invite it to parties, because, if it turns up at all, it just eats roots and leaves.
The joke's about shagging, Lynne.
1 September 2008: After more than four years, I am finally out of my misery: a correspondent, C. Elder, has kindly explained why "one's" should indeed take an apostrophe: Mr(s). Elder writes:
"It is only personal possessive pronouns (mine, his, her, our, etc) that do not take apostrophes. "One" is an indefinite pronoun, so using it in the possessive sense ... it takes an apostrophe, and hence why we ought not torture Ms Woolf in her grave."
So there you have it.
If, like me, you are a lover of good spelling, grammar and punctuation you will love this book. Do you know where and when a comma should be used in lists? Are you familiar with the "Oxford comma?" What about the correct use of the semicolon? Do apostrophes and quotation marks leave you flummoxed?
The title is an amusing example of how incorrect punctuation can change the meaning of an entire sentence. I'll leave you to enjoy figuring it out.
A fun, educational and interesting read. Highly recommended!
My only complaint is her tirade at the end of the book. I totally agree with her that modern changes in communication are causing a dangerous neglect of punctuation, but I don't think she has enough faith in the human need to communicate effectively. I think we'll find a way to keep communicating clearly whether we keep our current punctuation or not.
You can read Truss either as a comedienne doing a brilliant routine about punctuation, or as an outraged purist bemoaning the state of the world. My interpretation is more of the former. She may be a purist, but she also pokes fun at how much of a stickler she is being, and she acknowledges that many of the finer points of punctuation are judgement calls, as evinced by the stories she relates of conflicts between editors and famous authors over the placement (or not) of commas and semi-colons.
All in all, this was a fun read and definitely the only punctuation guide I've ever had trouble putting down.
Oh, but I did love how she has the hypocritical gall to call those who haven't mastered (and don't want to master) the semicolon "pompous sillies" (109).
pot = kettle, or whatever.
Truss’ funny little book is a great rundown of the importance of punctuation. She includes lots of great anecdotes about funny punctuation mistakes, but also really helpful tips. I’ve always been particularly annoyed when people write “it’s” and mean “its.” I’m sure many other writers have their own grammatical pet peeves and she touches on most of them.
One point Truss makes, which I really agree with, is the importance of maintaining correct grammar in the new mediums we use. If texting, email and blogging have become our main forms of written communication (more than books, newspaper and magazines) then we shouldn’t be lax in the way we write. The fact that our way of communicating is changing so rapidly puts a stronger importance in making sure that communication is the best that it can be.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining and informative look at punctuation. Pick it up if you share her disdain for a misplaced apostrophe.
Who knew punctuation could be such fun? Lynne Truss gives us a great resource to turn too when we aren't quite sure how to use all the little scritches and scratches that bring a piece of writing its real meaning almost more so than the words. From commas to brackets to dashes and everything in between, she gives a quick overview of the history of each punctuation mark (although, nothing in today's computer writing age is set in stone) and guides us to the best usage. Many of the old ways are falling by the wayside--which depending on the mark and circumstance --can be a good or bad thing. Rules are changing and even among the best writers in the world, arguments spring up over the simplest punctuation. We learn that punctuation differs from one country to another; and, here in he United States, different publications have their own style books of what they prefer. I am but a lowly student. This book will be close by as I try to be a better communicator.
I recommend this book to everyone who writes. Punctuation is turning into a lost art. Let's bring it back in style.
Her explanation of the use of parts of speech was easy to understand, and ran the gamut from basic idea to more complex debates; and to her credit, Mme. Truss tended to stay out of the more heated ones. She also keeps the reader pleasantly amused with both the character of her writing and the literary bent of her many examples.
However, her analysis of the changes in language after the oft-bespoke Internet Revolution was somewhat simplistic. I understand that this is not entirely her area of expertise, and as the a member of the last generation to witness an age without the internet or personal computer, I am sympathetic. However, I still cannot forgive her for failing to come to the insight that this is a fundamental change to the medium as a whole. The future of publishing lies on the internet, along with the rest of our knowledge.
I do not begrudge her the nostalgia and love of books that she has, and with Sony's new paper displays, I would doubt that something like the book will not continue to be available. However, her crude abuse of the interrobang, that young but upright princeling of punctuation, cannot be forgiven.
Although aimed at punctuation sticklers, it would be an entertaining introduction for the punctuation-challenged. It covers all the basic punctuation marks and rules, but not the trickier stuff.
And her prose is such that you sit up and pay attention. It is not light reading for an afternoon's hour, but deserves to be given your focus so that you too will take on a little of her zeal in the fight to save the tools that make our words sing!
Citing many writers and providing examples Truss shows us and reminds us that there is craft to writing, and to using punctuation to elevate your thoughts to better than they are. To make your writing able to be admired for the way you craft it beyond what you say with them.
And that the art of this is falling away in our digital text/chat driven society. That we should remember that we who do write are guardians, placed with a sacred trust that when we write and attract many eyes to our tales, it gives us the chance to preach and proselytize to the masses who have become lazy with language.
If you are no longer a novice in the art of writing, or do care about what your words should do and be, then this is a book you must add to your library. Not just read it, but buy it, keep it, and place it in a place of reverence.
Those of who are 'sticklers' can hold our heads high; we now have a champion who's not afraid to crack the whip on errant apostrophes and misplaced commas. Ms. Truss' descriptive prose and laugh (or groan) out loud examples make this a laudable contender for "least boring book on punctuation" ever published.
If you fume when you come across blatant errors in the books you read; if you've ever deleted an email because the sender didn't know the difference between they're/there/their; if you've actually offered to correct a restaurant's menu (is that just me?) - then you shouldn't miss adding this book to your library - or maybe leaving it casually on your desk for your illiterate boss to see?
In 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves', Lynne Truss tries her best to change that. As a self-confessed stickler for following linguistic rules, she is deeply committed to the premise that punctuation is the stitching “that holds the fabric of language in place”. The book is at its best when illustrating that point, as in the following example: (i) A woman, without her man, is nothing; or (ii) A woman: without her, man is nothing. The author then devotes several chapters to developing a systematic approach to using these symbols properly and effectively; the discussions of commas and semi-colons proved to be the most useful ones to me. The book concludes with a chapter in which Truss speculates—rants, actually—on what the advent of the e-mail/text message age will do to punctuation standards.
Reading this book was fairly enlightening and occasionally enjoyable. However, it was not a completely satisfying experience, primarily because the author’s purpose seemed to be a little muddled. At times, Truss offers straightforward rules for using the various punctuation marks, which are demonstrated with practical and humorous (if somewhat repetitive) examples. Interspersed with these descriptions, though, are several sometimes churlish digressions into the history of how our punctuation system developed and where it may be headed in the future. The problem this creates for the reader is that the book is neither suitable as a working guide—I am far more likely to turn to 'Garner’s Modern American Usage' for answers to any future punctuation questions—nor is it thorough enough to be a definitive historical reference. Still, the book has kept alive the debate over the extent to which grammatical rules can safely be relaxed and, for that reason alone, it is to be commended.
Still, it's nice to know that there are others out there who care as desperately about the state of the language as I do. I would recommend it to anyone who feels the same way, or to anyone who thinks there might just be something to this grammar and punctuation stuff after all.