I first heard “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” as a bar joke; one I enjoyed and repeated often to my friends. Much to my surprise, I found it to be a book on grammar. Grammar, of all subjects!
Lynn Truss is a British writer (note this Betty and Bryce), and that matters greatly. Or is it ‘greatly matters’?
By now, you are asking yourself: “What is a book review on grammar doing here?”
This is not your normal, ordinary book on the rules of grammar. It is a New York Times Twenty-five week best seller. First published in April of 2004, Eats, Shoots and Leaves had been reprinted twenty-two times, with a total number of copies in print being over One Million!
British humor guides this book in every chapter. A British author of over a dozen books, the former host of BBC Radio 4's Cutting a Dash programme, focuses on the state of punctuation in the United Kingdom and the United States. She adeptly describes how rules are being relaxed in today's society. Her goal is to remind readers of the importance of punctuation in the English language by mixing humor, unusual history and instruction.
Lynn Truss writes with great skill, integrating history, examples of offensive punctuation, and an English cheeky attitude about how educated individuals ought to be smart enough to use the hyphen, period, apostrophe, comma, colon, semi-colon, and dash correctly. The three word phrase “Let’s Eat, Grandma” is quite different with and without a comma: “Let’s Eat Grandma.”
I laughed out loud in most chapters and read paragraphs to my wife---who wondered what had overcome me! It is not just the rules of grammar that amazed me, it is the love of grammar and how it can be used to enliven any writing. Many excerpts follow:
“To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has.” If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is ‘its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your ites mixed up is the greatest solecism in the word of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice, if you still persist in writing, “Good food at its’s best,” you deserve to be struck by writing, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”
“The story Truss tells about the American chap playing Duncan in Macbeth , listening with appropriate pity and concern while a wounded soldier gives his account of a battle and then cheerfully calling out: 'Go get him, surgeons!' (it should of course be: 'Go, get him surgeons!').”
“Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”
“I apologize if you all know this, but the point is many, many people do not. Why else would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying "Giant Kid's Playground", and then wonder why everyone says away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.)”
“Thurber was asked by a correspondent: "Why did you have a comma in the sentence, 'After dinner, the men went into the living-room'?" And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. "This particular comma," Thurber explained, "was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
“For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.”
“No one else understands us 7th sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes, we are often aggressively instructed to 'get a life' by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.”
“We read privately, mentally listening to the author's voice and translating the writer's thoughts. The book remains static and fixed; the reader journeys through it.” “The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation is not that it's an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapors when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”
“So what happened to the comma in this process? Well, between the 16th century and the present day, it became a kind of scary grammatical sheepdog. As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a 'separator' (punctuation marks are traditionally either 'separators' or 'terminators') that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organizing words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory 'woof' to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don't whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic at this job. Luckily the trend in the 20th century (starting with H. W. Fowler's The King's English in 1906) has been towards ever-simpler punctuation, with fewer and fewer commas; but take any passage from a non-contemporary writer and you can't help seeing the constituent words as so many defeated sheep that have been successfully corralled with the gate slammed shut by good old Comma the Sheepdog.”
Many things, such as periods outside the quotation marks in the above excerpts demonstrates that Truss is British. Some of her humorous statements may go over the head of American readers, but most are understandable on both sides of the pond. And she always takes care to note differences between American usage and terminology, such as the fact that what Americans call a period is a full stop in England.
Truss writes this book to clearly make the point that punctuation invites you to give careful consideration to the meaning of what you are saying. Also, as one reviewer states:
Lynne Truss's book is (stay with this sentence, and remember the function of punctuation is to 'tango the reader into the pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken word would convey') as much an argument for clear thinking as it is a pedantic defense of obsolete conventions of written language. Well. Done. Lynne!!!!!!!
I wonder if Lynn Truss has ever done workshops for Southern writers?
If you want more in the same vein, check out the world class video on phonetic punctuation by the very famous Norwegian classic pianist and humorist Victor Borge.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bpIbdZhrzA. Then stay on Youtube and watch dozens of his performances!!!
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
By Lynne Truss
Profile Books, pp. 209
© 2015 Dr. D.’s Domains