Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Lynne Truss

Review by
Anne Cox
Profile Books: London, 2003
228 pages

Gotham Books (Penguin): New York, 2004

209 + xxvii pages

February 2005


In this comma manifesto, author Lynne Truss calls for a ban on bad punctuation and, in the process, creates a surprisingly humorous — and popular — book.

See? With the right punctuation, that complicated first sentence in this review is readable.

The author's entire point is that without punctuation, "there is no reliable way of communicating meaning." Take, for instance, the book's title: Eats, Shoots & Leaves. In the context of a wildlife manual depicting a panda's favored dinner fare, a meal of shoots and leaves would be delectable. Unfortunately, as Truss points out, the unnecessary comma after "eats" implies a pistol-packing panda might just shoot up the saloon and then stomp off into the sunset. At the very least, poor punctuation might be as dangerous as it is irritating.

Truss appears so concerned that matters of apostrophes, dashes, periods, and other tools might be ignored that she works extra hard to make her book memorable and breezy. Her examples are amusing, such as the quaking fear that normal-sized children might have when reading this frightening sign: "Giant Kid's Playground." Who could blame these tykes if they run home screaming before those gigantic feet arrive at the sandbox to mash them? Or consider the signs in public places that say "No dogs please" that slight virtually all dogs with the haunting omission of a comma. Truss points out that too many of us have become so inured to missing commas that we fail to observe that "many dogs do please, as a matter of fact; they rather make a point of it."

Truss uses more than common public examples; she calls on a variety of literary greats to help her make her point (or comma, or semicolon). She favors quoting Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov, and many others, highlighting their observance or violation of useful and correct punctuation. Some are capricious examples, but all are entertaining, and they help to enlarge the canvas of concern beyond the "sticklers" that Truss wishes would unite.

Truss delves deeper into history to the origins of many punctuation forms, claiming she could "still swoon every time" she sees the first printed semicolon by "good old Aldus Manutius just two years after Columbus sailed to the New World." She proceeds through brackets, dashes, and ellipses, perhaps revealing that she may be an author who loves punctuation as much as content. Fortunately, the book is small, because after pages of this tirade and parade of jokes, it is easy to become slightly weary of punctuation issues.

Humor sells punctuation! What she and her publisher apparently did not anticipate that the punctuation-challenged, English-speaking markets in Great Britain, the US, and beyond would have such an appetite for this slim book. The book shone brightly at the top of the best-seller lists in Britain for six months after publication in 2003, and then enjoyed another strong showing on this continent after the American edition was introduced in 2004. Sales continue, so apparently there is a pent-up need for assistance with these niggling marks as English-speakers struggle with their language.


© 2005 Anne Cox

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