Book Report: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

eats-shoots-leaves-lynne-truss“We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.” (Eats, Shoots & Leaves: p201)

Title: Eats, Shoots & Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Author: Lynne Truss

Publisher: Gotham Books

Publication Date: 2003

Origin: No idea…I must’ve seen it mentioned somewhere.

Summary: In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynn Truss presents an entertaining how-to guide for punctuation in the modern age. Our familiar friends (or enemies, depending upon you preferences) the apostrophe, the comma, the period, the semicolon, and the colon are joined by brackets, hyphens, quotation marks, and a couple of marks you’ve probably never heard of.

With a frank, straightforward, and funny-as-hell manner, Truss introduces us to the history of each mark, its evolution, and its correct usage.

Lionel Hutz

“So you don’t work on a contingency basis?”

My Take: Well, it was easily the most entertaining punctuation book I’ve ever read. But more than that, it was useful.

I consider myself a pretty damned good punctuationist (and moderate grammarian), so it was with excitement – anticipating feelings of validation, and learning a few things – and with trepidation – have I been doing things wrong all this time? – that I dived into Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

I needn’t have worried, though, as it turns out that I’ve been mostly right. Annoyingly, though, there are a couple of things I’ve been doing that were right until recently, but what with language being subject to the forces of evolution, things have changed a titch.

Not surprisingly, given my English parentage and Canadian education, I’ve been using British conventions all this time; which is all for the best, because the American conventions don’t make any sense.

Read This Book If: …you’re a stickler for punctuation, or want to stop mucking up your punctuation.

Speaking of sticklers…I called my mom up while I was reading this, as she’s a real stickler¹ and also British, so I figured she’d get a kick out of the book. Here’s how the convo went:

me: “Hey, I’m reading this hilarious book on grammar…I thought you’d like it.”
mom: “What’s it called?”
me: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”
mom: “Oh, I’ve had that for yeeeaaaars. I have the children’s version, too.”
me: “Well OK then.” 

¹When I was 23, I was the quote-of-the-day in a national newspaper, talking about the employment prospects for new grads in high-tech; my mom saw it and called to point out that I’d made a grammatical error. I claimed I was misquoted.

Notes and Quotes:

  • p3: “Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can dead punctuation.
  • The book is full of clear examples (many of the uglier ones are quite painful to read, as a stickler, in the sense that the bad punctuation completely throws off one’s inner monologue, intonation, etc.). Anyway, here’s one from p8 illustrating ambiguity:
    “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
    “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
  • p20: “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 vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.”

“The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.”

  • p20 (I’d never heard this little rhyme before):
    A cat has claws at the end of its paws.
    A comma’s a pause at the end of a clause.
  • In the margin next to this passage on p28 I scrawled, simply, “Sean Penn”: “How long will it be before a mainstream publisher allows an illiterate into print?” (and I felt this way long before the El Chapo thing in Rolling Stone)

the world of grammar is divided into ‘berks and wankers’

  • p30: “Yes, as Evelyn Waugh wrote: ‘Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic.’ Or, as Kingsley Amis put it less delicately in his book The King’s English (1997), the world of grammar is divided into ‘berks and wankers’ – berks being those who are outrageously slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise. Left to the berks, the English language would ‘die of impurity, like late Latin’. Left to the wankers, it would die instead of purity, ‘like medieval Latin’. Of course, the drawback is implicit. When you by nature subscribe to the view that everyone except yourself is a berk or a wanker, it is hard to bond with anybody in any rational common cause.”

“When you by nature subscribe to the view that everyone except yourself is a berk or a wanker, it is hard to bond with anybody in any rational common cause.”

  • p43: “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 sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler.”
  • TIL, p45: “Not a lot of people know this, but the ‘O’ in Irish names is an anglicisation of ‘ua’, meaning grandson.”
  • Today I also learned (p45) that the apostrophe is used to indicate plurals in letters and plurals of words (e.g., “How many f’s are there in Fulham?” and “What are the do’s and don’t’s?”). It just seems wrong to me to use an apostrophe in a plural; does that make me a berk?
  • Confusing the matters of p45 are, of course, the exceptions (p46): “Only one significant task has been lifted from the apostrophe’s workload in recent years: it no longer has to appear in the plurals of abbreviations (‘MPs’) or plural dates (‘1980s’). Until quite recently, it was customer to write ‘MP’s’ and ‘1980’s’ – and in fact this convention still applies in America.” OK, see? That’s why many or most people just give up on punctuation.
  • I mentioned earlier that some of the examples are hard to read…here are some of them, from p53, all drawn from real life:
    “…giving the full name and title of the person who’s details are given in Section 02” (on UK passport application form)
    “Make our customer’s live’s easier” (Abbey National advertisement)

    “Gateaux’s” (evidently never spelled any other way)
    “Your 21 today!” (on birthday card)
  • Oh come on, I never got this memo! p55: “…tastes have changed in the matter. Current guides to punctuation state that with modern names ending in ‘s’ (including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’), the ‘s’ is required after the apostrophe.” Oh, except for the, um, exceptions: “If a name ends in an ‘iz’ sound, an exception is made…and an exception is always made for Jesus.”
  • p63 introduced me to the Law of Conservation of Apostrophes, which states that, “For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its.”
  • I love commas; in fact, I’ve written about commas before. From an early age, I realized that commas gave the writer enormous control over the reader. This simple mark lets us shape how the reader experiences and processes our words. Lately, though, I’ve been having moments of weakness – I feel like commas are disappearing, and I’ve asked myself if I’m being a bit over-the-top, as styles seem to be favouring the purely grammatical comma. I rejoiced, then – felt validated, even – when I read this bit on p70 and the subsequent quote from p71: “More than any other mark, the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions: (1) To illuminate the grammar of a sentence; (2) To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow. That is why grown men have knock-down fights over the comma in editorial offices: because these two roles of punctuation sometimes collide head-on.”
  • p71: “On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.”

“On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.”

  • Perhaps you noticed that point #2 on page 70 didn’t include an Oxford comma? (I did) Well, here’s what Truss has to say about it: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
  • p88: “Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous…Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”
  • p95, oh no! “Nowadays the fashion is against grammatical fussiness. A passage peppered with commas – which in the past would have indicated painstaking and authoritative editorial attention – smacks simply of no backbone.” (that seems to me a bit harsh)
  • p96: “The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person.”

“The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person.”

  • Sometimes I think I’m the only person in the world who still uses semicolons. p109: “But how much notice should we take of those pompous sillies who denounce the semicolon? I say, none at all.”
  • p114, quoting the American essayist Lewis Thomas on the semicolon (from The Medusa and the Snail): “The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added. The period (or full stop) tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with the semicolon there you get a pleasant feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”
  • We lovers of semicolons can relate, p114: “Of the objections to the colon and semicolon listed above, there is only one I am prepared to concede: that semicolons are dangerously habit-forming.”

“Of the objections to the colon and semicolon listed above, there is only one I am prepared to concede: that semicolons are dangerously habit-forming.”

  • Oh hey, while we’re on the subject of semicolons, check out this terrific song about semicolons, complete with kinetic typography.
  • On why it’s sad that good, effective punctuation is on the decline, p130: “But the main reason is that, as Joseph Robertson wrote in an essay on punctuation in 1785, ‘The art of punctuation is of infinite consequence in writing; as it contributes to the perspicuity, and consequently to the beauty, of every composition.’ Perspicuity and beauty if composition are not to be sneezed at in this rotten world. If colons and semicolons give themselves airs and graces, at least they also confer airs and graces that the language would be lost without.”
  • OK, so I’ve been doing it the (superior) British way all these years; p152: “There is, too, a gulf between American usage and our (British) own, with Americans always using double quotation marks and American grammarians insisting that, if a sentence ends with a phrase in inverted commas, all the terminal punctuation for the sentence must come tidily inside the speech marks, even when this doesn’t seem to make sense.” With these examples:
    Sophia asked Lord Fellamar if he was “out of his senses”. (British)
    Sophia asked Lord Fellamar if he was “out of his senses.” (American”
  • p155 continues: “The basic rule is straightforward and logical: when the punctuation relates to the quoted words it goes inside the inverted commas; when it relates to the sentence, it goes outside. Unless, of course, you are in America.”
  • I’ve noticed myself using dashes more and more lately – they just seem to add a certain something. p160, on brackets and dashes: “But as they sit on the page, it seems to me that the brackets half-remove the intruding aside, half-suppress it; while the dashes warmly welcome it in, with open arms.”
  • p161: “…because there is a certain amount of anxiety created once a bracket has been opened that is not dissipated until it’s bloody well closed again…Writers who place whole substantive passages in brackets can’t possibly appreciated the existential suffering they inflict.”

“Writers who place whole substantive passages in brackets can’t possibly appreciated the existential suffering they inflict.”

  • I’ve also noticed that people seem to avoid hyphens; it’s rarely the case that I proofread something and don’t end up inserting (correctly, as it turns out) a handful of hyphens. p168: “One of the most profound things ever said about punctuation came in an old style guide of the Oxford University Press in New York. ‘If you take hyphens seriously,’ it said, ‘you will surely go mad.'”
  • p178: “Our punctuation exists as a printed set of conventions; it has evolved slowly because of printing’s innate conservatism; and is effective only if readers have been trained to appreciate the nuances of the printed page. The good news for punctuation is that the age of printing has been glorious and has held sway for more than half a millennium. The bad news for punctuation, however, is that the age of printing is due to hold its official retirement party next Friday afternoon at half-past five.”
  • Man, there are a dozen examples that make it clear that George Bernard Shaw was a colossal. p185 mentions his doomed campaign to reform the spelling of the English language.
  • p201: “We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”
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