Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Are you a berk? Do you disdain commas and apostrophes, dropping them into your writing haphazardly? Or are you a wanker, searching the web in fruitless attempts to correct sloppy chatroom gossip? Either way, Lynne Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is hilarious, combining a stickler British enthusiasm for proper grammar with uproarious mistakes and a dry, sardonic wit.
The title describes either what a panda does or what a gangster does, depending on the punctuation. Why are insane pandas shooting up the restaurant? Because their comma appears in the wrong place.
Yes, it’s a grammar book, but that’s no reason for it to take itself seriously. Truss refers to people “pulling the legs off semi-colons, shriveling question marks on the garden path under a powerful magnifying glass” (36), etc. She achieves her brilliant tone by accepting, even embracing modern attitudes towards grammar: “To write ‘Any of that wine left in the ‘fridge, dear?’ [note the apostrophe for a contraction] looks today self-conscious, not to say poncey” (42).
Obviously, the author covers frequent grammar mistakes, clarifying them with memorable examples: “Prudential: were here to help you” (47). Wouldn’t it be so much more reassuring with “we’re?” Even better is the author’s definition: “’Frog’s piss’ (French wine putting unfair strain on single frog)” (50). Summarizing her position after pages of silly apostrophe examples, Truss warns that anyone committing the it’s/its mistake deserves “to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave” (44).
After this deliberate apostrophe mutilation, Truss tackles rules of commas for a very thorough chapter. This includes the debate over the last comma for items in a series (don’t get between diehard debaters when drink has been taken), comma splicing (only do it if you’re famous), and all the other rules that have confounded generations of students. The comma chapter, which is far shorter and more concise than many readers might fear, ends with the actual life-or-death case of Sir Roger Casement hanging (pun intended) on this tiny punctuation mark.
Though this is a British book, Truss tackles punctuation and spelling from our country as well as explaining both sets of rules when they conflict. A shameful tale of an encounter with an American penpal shows that both countries are equally guilty of grammar misuse and equally (un)motivated to correct these errors. At least this book isn’t American bashing; with all the errors committed out there, all countries share the blame equally.
[Transcription of telegrams between Victor Hugo and his publisher, inquiring how Les Miserables was selling] (136).
While adding an exclamation point may indeed be like laughing at your own jokes, Truss conveys the history and use of the well-known marks along with the intimidating ones. The dash, ellipsis, brackets, parentheses, and all other punctuation marks appear in further chapters, teaching readers the proper way to face proper writing.
At the same time, all of the droll inserts and anecdotes make it difficult to find the grammar rules. Likewise, the chapters have names that barely reflect their content. This book is clearly a bestseller for its attractive humor and jokes, but these very qualities make it more difficult to use as a quick reference. Truss’s explanations are snappy, but similar enough to each other to serve as awkward memory guides. Of course, this is a punctuation book, so it only covers that area of grammar.
Truss concludes that book with an analysis of NetSpeak with its emoticons, all caps, and other English lapses. She worries future generations may conclude that the only use for punctuation marks on a keyboard is :-) and other equally useful pictograms. Still, even she must admit people on the internet are writing. The appendix holds a long bibliography of grammar works, useful for those seeking additional resources.
After all, is it true that the difference between the colon and the semi-colon “is too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man?” (110). Will students, writers, educators, and mere mortals ever master correct grammar, or are we all doomed to walk through life wincing at “the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party?” (169). As the author would say, where are those sexy hyphens? This book educates readers on proper grammar with flare and hilarity, though after the repeated examples, readers may never desire a Starburst again. Definitely a book for readers, writers, and anyone who’s ever committed a grammar mistake.
Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero
Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
Valerie Frankel is currently the youngest person ever to receive a
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from San Jose State
University. Her many short stories appeared in the anthologies Legends of
the Pendragon, In the Outposts of Beyond, The Kings of the Night, and three
best of the year anthologies. Her work has also been published in Rosebud
Magazine, The Oklahoma Review, The Drexel Online Journal, and sixty other
magazines. To explore her magical kingdom of Calithwain, complete with
interactive maps for all ages, please visit www.calithwain.com.