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

Useful and very readable

Lynne Truss
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Profile Books, 2003
ISBN: 1 86197 612 7
UKP 9.99
204 pages (main text)

It was slightly amusing to read John McWhorter's book about how language naturally changes and then read Lynne Truss's book about how we should pay more attention to punctuation even as our hasty emails and hastier text- and instant-messages cause many people to pay less attention to it.

Are "sox's", "cul8r" and the like the next step in the ordinary, indeed desirable, change that English goes through? Perhaps. But the language doesn't change as a result of some outside force. It changes because of the way people use it. And Ms Truss makes a good case that using punctuation intelligently helps us to communicate well. In her words (p. 20):

    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.

As a small handbook on punctuation, Ms Truss's book is very good. I say that as someone who was once paid to be an editor. (That may come as a surprise to you on account of the number of errors I no doubt make here but it's true.) For example, a colon and a semi-colon can be used in similar ways in the middle of a sentence and Ms Truss has good advice on when to use which.

But a book of this kind could be good in the sense that it's useful without being good in the sense that it's readable. Happily, Ms Truss's book is very readable. There are many charming passages such as (p. 7):

    I have even seen a rather fanciful reference to he full
    stop and the comma as "the invisible servants in fairy
    tales -- the ones that bring glasses of water and
    pillows, not storms of weather or love".

(Ms Truss, being British, uses "full stop" where an American like me would say "period".) And also (pp. 178-179):

    Our punctuation exists as a printed set of
    conventions; it has evolved slowly because of
    printing's innate conservatism; and it 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.

There's lots to like in this little book.

The title of the book is from a joke about a panda who, on account of having read a badly-punctuated description of his habits, shoots up a restaurant rather than paying for dinner. The sense of the sub-title isn't made particularly clear in the book and, yes, it's arguable that "zero tolerance" should be hyphenated but on balance I'd leave the hyphen out.

Posted: Wed - January 28, 2004 at 01:32   Main   Category: