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Eats, Shoots & Leaves
An English tutorial
By Bernard Chapin
It is quite surprising that a book about grammar would become a runaway bestseller in America today, particularly as there are fewer people reading than ever before, but Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation has defied all expectations for the genre.
The author is a successful British journalist who decided to pen a book about punctuation, as it happens to be one of her greatest passions. She dedicated it to "sticklers" everywhere and urged them to unite, as the only thing they had to lose was their "sense of proportion." Truss is a perfectionist who dreams of stickler brigades running through the streets and whiting-out misused apostrophes or adding missing question marks to sentences upon advertisements.
There is much that is right about this book. Entire chapters are devoted to individual forms of punctuation. Over 130 pages of the text concern apostrophes, commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, question marks, and exclamation marks. Her work is strong when she is discussing the specifics of grammatical usage. Considerable historical background on language is shared and most of it is quite fascinating. We learn of a controversy created by a deathbed bound Graham Greene adding a comma to a document, and also the situation of Sir Roger Casement whose legal defense hinged on a bizarre grammatical interpretation of the Treason Act of 1351. In the end, Casement was "hanged on a comma."
Eats, Shoots & Leaves can be very educational for those who have difficulty remembering the essentials of grammar. Many will welcome instruction regarding terms like stet, interrobang, and the "yob's comma."
Unfortunately, this reviewer cannot recommend the book, as its parts are infinitely greater than its whole. i Truss's illuminations are handicapped by her narrative voice. At first, her cheeky and hyper-adrenaline style charm the reader, but by page 50 one longs for a voice that is content to merely inform as opposed to one that seeks to entertain. The incessant asides are tiresome and a source of distraction. Here is an excellent example:
"Look at that sentence fly. Amazing. The way it stays up like that. Would anyone mind if I ate the last sandwich?"
In the sentence below the narrator manages not only to disrupt but to disturb as well:
"That man was Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515) and I will happily admit I hadn't heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies."
There is also an irritability about Ms. Truss that cannot be denied. In the following passage, she shares her views regarding someone with whom she once had a transatlantic correspondence,
"In hindsight I see it was unrealistic to expect a pen-pal from the 8th grade in Detroit to write like Samuel Johnson. But on the other hand, what earthly use to me was this vapid mousey moron parading a pigmentational handicap?"
Then there is the matter of Truss's relentless personalization of punctuation marks which will strike anyone as being odd. She loves them and we never hear the end of it. It makes one wonder if the author is attempting to over-compensate for a disdain of humanity by swooning lustily for apostrophes and semi-colons. This excessive enthusiasm for punctuation affects the palate like four packets of saccharin in a small cup of coffee.
Yet another defect is that there has been no Americanization of the book. Her rules and procedures often are inappropriate for those who live outside of Britain. A three page discussion of how and where to use quotation marks disappointingly ends with, "[u]nless, of course, you are in America." Given the amount of sales in England, there is little excuse as to why the publisher didn't alter selected passages to meet the needs of those of us in the colonies.
This reviewer certainly cannot deny that Eats, Shoots & Leaves has some value for neophytes, but there are numerous works on the mechanics of writing, such as L. Sue Baugh's Essentials of English Grammar, that are more informative and less expensive.
i It should be noted that even some of the "parts" or suggestions made for usage have been questioned by various authorities. Louis Menand, in his review, was quite contemptuous of the amount of grammatical knowledge that Truss possesses.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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