Book Review: Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation:
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

The idea that a book on proper punctuation would rocket to the top of the bestseller charts is ludicrous. But the cliché says that truth is stranger than fiction, and indeed, such a thing has happened. As I write this review, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is number two on the New York Times bestseller list and has been on the list for ten weeks. It is number three on the sales list. Compounding the strangeness is that the book is British and has not been edited to reflect differences in American punctuation. The book has achieved similar commercial success in Britain.

Longtime readers who know of my descriptivist bent may be surprised to hear this, but I was rather eagerly looking forward to the American debut of this book. I have long held that punctuation, along with related rules about capitalization, spelling, and spacing, are the traffic signals of the written word. They serve to make reading easier and the writer’s meaning clearer. As such, standardization is highly prized. This book, however, does little to aid this goal.

Even more amazing is that this book is not a particularly good book on punctuation. It is not organized to be a useful guide or reference. Its jokes, of which there are many, are mildly amusing at best, often simply feeble, and always smarmy and smug. Truss provides no conceptual underpinning for the rules she promulgates, simply stating that these are the rules and that’s that. And she and her editors commit the sin of sins for a prescriptivist tome, it is filled with “errors” and violations of the very rules it advocates.

In defense of the first two criticisms, that it was not edited for the American market and that it does not provide clear rules for the punctuation it espouses, it should be noted that the book is not intended as a style guide. Rather it is a manifesto, a call to arms, as it were, for people to take up the cudgel and go to war for good punctuation.

As to the British bent to the book, the publisher’s note states, “any attempt at a complete Americanization of this book would be akin to an effort to Americanize the Queen of England: futile and, this publisher feels, misguided.” That’s fair enough. But one can then hardly use this as a criticism for punctuation practices in America.

Okay, so one should not try and use it as a style guide or a reference. With no index, detailed table of contents, or appendix that lays out the rules according to Truss, you will get no help from this book in determining whether a particular punctuation is correct. But is it an effective manifesto?

My vote is no. This is not a manifesto, but rather a tantrum. Truss wants something from the language, but she cannot articulate what it is. So she just complains. Every good manifesto lists a bill of particulars, clearly stating exactly what the call to arms is all about. Take the Declaration of Independence, for example. Once one gets past the familiar opening paragraphs about self-evident truths and men being created equal, the bulk of the document consists of a long list of specific and clearly stated complaints, such as:

He [George III] has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

Jefferson leaves no doubt as to exactly why the colonists were rebelling back in 1776. By contrast, Truss rarely articulates what the rules of punctuation should be. She simply complains that people aren’t following them (whatever they are). And when she does state the rules, she violates them herself at various points in the book.

Truss also fails to explain exactly why good punctuation is so important. There is a need for this, but Eats, Shoots and Leaves does not meet it. Other than examples of benefits to clarity, like that of the title, she does not make a conceptual case. Let’s go back to the Declaration of Independence. In its opening paragraphs, Jefferson makes the general case:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Only then does he list the bill of particulars detailing how George III became destructive of the end of securing the unalienable rights of the American colonists. It is this conceptual argument, a theory of government that Jefferson distills into two paragraphs of glorious prose, for which people remember and value the Declaration. The list of particulars is largely forgotten and ignored, irrelevant to all but historians.

Truss attempts but fails to do this in the introduction, leaving us with a rambling mess of particulars that lack coherence or clarity. The closest she comes is a quote from a stylebook of an unnamed British newspaper defining punctuation as, “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.” Unfortunately this definition is incomplete and Truss fails to develop it.

Instead of explaining how punctuation can assist reading and comprehension, Truss simply gives negative examples of how poor punctuation obscures meaning. While many of these examples, like the Panda joke represented by the book’s title, are amusing, they are hardly the stuff of revolutionary fervor.

Instead it is a call to rap people upside the head and tell them to use correct punctuation or they will appear as idiots—and points for the need for a style guide as opposed to a manifesto.

It also ignores a second, equally important function of punctuation: it serves to translate the tone and rhythm of speech into print. Most people think that writing is the primary mode of language, but that is not the case. Writing is usually nothing more than an attempt to imitate speech.

The lack of a conceptual underpinning to her rant leads to her rule about when to use a comma splice, “only do it if you’re famous” (p. 88). Instead of explaining how great writers have used the comma splice for effect, she simply adopts the posture that you can get away with violating the rules if you’re notable enough.

And evidently, Truss thinks she is notable enough herself to violate the very rules she promulgates. For example, Truss lists three acceptable uses for the semicolon, to link independent clauses without using a conjunction, to separate items in a list that contain commas, and to denote a pause that is longer than that created by a comma. (Actually, Truss gives conflicting explanations of what the third rule actually is. This is the explanation given in the section on semicolons, but in the chapter on commas Truss says that a semicolon should be used to join clauses that are linked by the conjunctions however and nevertheless.) Yet right there in the preface (to the American edition) she writes:

My hopes for Eats, Shoots & Leaves were bold but bathetic; chirpy but feet-on-the-ground; presumptuous yet significantly parenthetical.

Either she has made an error by omitting the commas before “but” and “yet,” or she should use commas for the items in the list, not semicolons.
In the very next sentence, she misuses quotation marks, using them for emphasis rather than quotation (italics would be a better choice):

My book was aimed at the tiny minority of British people “who love punctuation and don’t like to see it mucked about with”.

And then in the next sentence Truss violates more rules of quotation marks, failing to place a comma before the quotation and switching from British to American practice and placing the ending comma inside the marks. To cap it off, she uses a comma when she should be using a semicolon:

When my own mother suggested we print on the front of the book “For the select few,” I was hurt, I admit it; I bit my lip and blinked a tear.

All this and we’re only on the second page of the preface.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is also filled with misquotations and misstatements. On page 143, Truss has Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady saying, “The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.” The line actually reads, “Arabians,” not “Arabs.” That’s a minor nitpick, but sloppy research like this leads to more significant errors, such as when she writes:

British readers of The New Yorker who assume that this august publication is in constant ignorant error when it allows “1980’s” evidently have no experience with how that famously punctilious periodical operates editorially.

Evidently Truss has no experience in this regard either. The New Yorker style is to spell out the names of decades, “the nineteen-eighties.”

After all this, we return to the conundrum presented at the beginning. Why is it that a book on punctuation, especially one that is not very good, is so wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic? The answer is that smug superiority sells. Write a book disdaining how the unwashed masses do things; include quotes from Fielding, Woolf, and Shaw; tell an amusing anecdote or two about James Thurber and Harold Ross and you have a bestseller. The key to understanding the success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (and any other prescriptivist book for that matter) is that it feeds the egos of those with literary pretensions. But this kind of prescriptivism displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is.

Grammatical language is the greatest and most democratic of human institutions. It is what separates us from the other animals. It is not an invention of one person, but of us all. It belongs to all of us, but is answerable to none of us. It is wild, ever changing, and quite ungovernable. Ungovernable, but it can be mastered—not as a trainer masters a wild horse, but as a surfer masters a wave, using the force of it to propel the writer and the audience in an exhilarating rush.

Language is not mastered by adhering to strict rules. It is mastered by understanding which rules actually exist and why. Once this understanding is reached, one can apply, bend, and ignore the rules as appropriate to achieve great effect.

Hardcover; 240 pages; Gotham Books; April 2004; ISBN: 1592400876; $17.50.

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