Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book Review: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne TrussPunctuation seems to be something that is glossed over by a large number of English teachers. Perhaps one reason is that, aside from periods (full stops for Brits) and apostrophes, most other marks are governed by rules that are misunderstood by native speakers. Even the criteria for apostrophes, which are straight forward and easy to follow, are regularly disregarded and abused. Many languages have none of these dots, dashes and symbols that are meant to bring order and rhythm to the words we write and read. We have them in English, yet a woeful number of us overlook these tools which can add precision, flow and nuance to our words.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss addresses the declining standards of punctuation use in society, offers a lighthearted (though fully accurate) introduction on its history and provides memorable and succinct instruction on the most common marks.

Surely, only a tiresome pedant would write or read a book on such an ostensibly soporific subject matter? But then, just as a sub-par writer would self-censor and convince themselves that certain topics could never provide enough material or angles, lazy readers would also be put off by particular issues and content. Thankfully, Truss is clearly energized and enthusiastic about punctuation and the result is enjoyable and entertaining.

She does, however, recognize the fact that the image of those obsessed with precise punctuation is worth addressing. Amongst those with at least some concern for correct usage, that stereotype or its mirror image is regularly invoked to describe others and highlights an interesting truism. Truss quotes Evelyn Waugh, who said, "Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic." With the insinuation being that, of course, each individual rates their own approach as the best one.

Truss places herself firmly on the side of the stickler and asks you as the reader to come along for the ride. Whether or not you share her obsessiveness on the matter, with the exception of the true mouth-breathers and semi-literates, you will probably be happy that you did.

The book is light and highly informative. It is also well-researched and full of the progression of various rules and trends throughout history. While you may rail against the corner grocer and his ignorance regarding the use of apostrophes (for example, "banana's,) you also learn that at one point an apostrophe was used to pluralize foreign words ending in vowels.

The opening chapter lays down a template for the rest of the book. A collection of laughable misuses of punctuation by shop owners, newspapers and government institutions, together with historical references as to where certain conventions arose and why they changed over time.

The heart of the book is broken down into chapters that each cover a specific punctuation mark. Starting with her own personal favourite, the apostrophe, Truss cycles through all the major devices, including commas, periods (full stops,) semi-colons, colons, exclamation points, questions marks, ellipsis (...), quotation marks, brackets, dashes, hyphens and italics.

She goes over the usage of each type using conversational language laced with plenty of humour. The playing-with-words type of quips are the ones that work best, though her self-deprecating comments on being part of the militant punctuation crowd also hits the mark fairly often. Only the "Let's unite, take action and put an end to these atrocities!" schtick that she tries out early on is a bit too contrived.

The book works best when Truss is spinning factoids and explaining simple concepts that many people may already recognize but have never been able to name nor been aware of their back-stories.

I finally get to put a name to the comma that comes after the final word in a list before an "and" (example: I like birds, dogs, and guns; the comma that appears after "guns.") It's called an "Oxford comma" and has been optional for years depending on whose wisdom you ascribe to (I personally don't use it.)

I also realize that I use the American rules regarding punctuation and quotation marks for no other reason than it is "tidier." In fact, the British rules (only punctuate inside quotation marks when it applies to the words inside) make more sense.

Truss marshals an interesting selection of quotes for each chapter as well, the best ones providing analogies or metaphors for each cherished symbol she is analyzing at the moment. This one, for example, from H.W. Fowler who was describing the use of the colon, which, "delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words."

Truss also articulates the kind of statements regarding punctuation usage that only someone who has spent so much time thinking about the topic could:

"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 organising 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."
There are also plenty of clever examples included which every teacher should have in their arsenal. The humorous kind that are double entendres just waiting to be sprung by misplaced or different applications of punctuation. This one regarding comma placement:

"What is this thing called love? What is this thing called, love?"

Or, regarding the use of hyphens:

"extra-marital sex vs. extra marital sex."

As you can see, Truss also employs that tittering British habit of lacing conversation or text with sexual innuendo or risqué comments.

The equivalent of an historical novel that includes real dates and factual happenings within the narrative, this is a far more enjoyable way to brush up on points of usage than would be offered in some musty grammar book that happens to have a chapter on punctuation. Does it go beyond an audience of those who are teachers or have an obsessive interest in punctuation and language? I would say yes; at least to some degree.

No book on the musical notes that we use to add timing and rhythm to our written words would be complete without a lamentation on the decline and abuse of those guiding symbols. While acknowledging the normal evolution of language, Truss decries the sad state of affairs as evidenced by English online and in e-mails.

Anyone who similarly cringes at the decline in general grammar usage will empathize with these statements. Despite the effort and attention to detail of those who refuse to become sloppy, will the day arrive when there are not enough people to care or even recognize the difference?


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