Book review

Eats, Shoots and leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation
Profile Books 2003
RRP: $29.95

Truss and tolerance in matters of punctuation

Reviewed by Veronica ‘Fin’ McShane

Catchword, Issue 97, Autumn 2004

Dymock's website describes this book as: ‘a witty, entertaining, impassioned guide to perfect punctuation, for everyone who cares about precise writing. Not a primer but a “zero tolerance” manual for direct action’.

It is very witty and as such, a great read for people who like Truss's humorous style. And there are obviously lots of them. From an initial print run of 15,000 in December, Eats, Shoots and Leaves catapulted into and has remained in the bestseller lists. (It was number seven in the Weekend Australian, 28–29 February.) According to ‘Answer the question’ in The Age on 8 February, the print run will reach 540,000 this month, and the book has yet to be published in America.

This is all a bit ironic. The author, a self-confessed pedant, sees herself and her kind as paranoid, isolated sticklers, alone among the masses that either don't know or don't care about punctuation. Maybe the big attraction is Truss's style rather than her point of view or her subject matter? Excellent marketing, including the unarguable attractiveness of this small hardcover, has no doubt contributed. But I also suspect that Truss has tapped into a rather large market of like-minded people. (I know they are out there.)

To wit, I find myself taking the opposing view. I simply don't share the zero tolerance approach. Truss is by her own admission ‘strident’:

…I say we should shin up ladders at dead of night with pots of paint and stuff, and correct bad signage, and we should send back emails and so on …
Interview with Amanda Smith, ‘Lingua Franca’, Radio National, 31 Jan 2004.

This elitism I find misplaced – and certainly not funny. For example, Truss says of a film review, self-published on the Internet (‘now everyone's a writer’ she laments) replete with its faulty punctuation: ‘Isn't that sad?’ (p. 17). No, it's not sad. It's wonderful! Let's be honest: grammar and punctuation can be very tricky – and a lot more than this book would have us believe. What I hope is that the more people publish, the more they will leave the technical stuff to professional editors – if and when needed. And in my view that is not all the time.

Truss is prone to overdrawn analogies – some are quite well constructed and amusing, but others fall in a heap. For example, she finds unpunctuated prose to be like ‘those murky murals Rolf Harris used to paint’ (p. 21) leaving us all guessing until the very end. But we do get Rolf's picture in the end. Isn't the point that ambiguity leaves us forever wondering?

I find some of the quips more than a little tasteless. I really grimaced when I read of her teenage peers who, while Truss was reading books and listening to radio shows about grammar, ‘…were attending the Isle of Wight Festival and having abortions’. That's not funny.

Truss doesn't mind the occasional expletive, but frankly, here, I do. Interestingly, wherever Lynne Truss swears in despair and indignation, I seem to get a bit hot under the collar too – but in diametrical opposition. Truss envisages a world where ‘bloody well nobody writes about dead sons' photos’ (p. 29). I envisage a world where people relax about it and contact an editor.

She describes the issue of hyphenation as ‘a big bloody mess’ (p. 176). It's complex certainly, but also incredibly interesting. Hyphenation can tell of the dynamic shifts and regional variations that occur in English. Why different dictionaries present a compound as two words (either set apart or hyphenated), or ‘set solid’ as a single word, is indicative not of a mess but of the fascinating reality of language usage.

In decrying the influence of electronic communication on punctuation standards Truss claims that ‘bloody automatic grammar checkers’ don't know the difference between who's and whose (p. 183) (um, mine does); and describes a ‘… massive change from the printed word to the bloody electronic signal’ (p. 190), such that we are no longer ‘writing’ but ‘sending’.

The last extracts are from the final chapter on electronic publishing where I find Truss to be seriously misinformed. Posted material she claims to be ‘unedited’ (p. 17, p. 181) and on-screen reading as ‘entirely passive’ (p. 181). She does not mention that governments, organisations and professional writers place their (very well written) material on the Internet, and that people print large documents for detailed reading. And how very wrong she is to claim that ‘having no price [the material on the Internet] has questionable value’ (p. 181).

As well as having a poor grasp of the complexities of her subject, Truss is, for all her wit and liveliness and swearing, extremely conservative – very much the prescriptive, as opposed to the descriptive ‘grammarian’.

The book constitutes a series of lengthy essays (about 30 pages per chapter) on the use and misuse of the basic punctuation marks. The apostrophe and the comma each receive a chapter – probably because it is their misuse that causes the most ambiguity, and ambiguity makes the best gags; the semi-colon and colon share a chapter; and others including the dash, hyphen, exclamation mark and italics receive varying amounts of attention.

If the reader is prepared to wade his or her way through the diatribe on the ignorance of green grocers, charity shop workers and self-publishing film critics, and the author's desperation about declining standards (people of this view never produce the data, do they?), they will find in each chapter a brief but solid guide to the most basic rules and conventions, and some well-chosen illustrations. (There, I can be nice.)

Truss has researched the origins of the punctuation marks, and includes some colourful historical anecdotes on their use through the ages. (Although the occasional parenthetical ‘It's true!’ or ‘I'm not joking’ make me a bit nervous.)

On the way forward with her crusade, Truss admonishes her readers to ‘fight like tigers to preserve our punctuation’ (p. 201). In response to this final call, I find myself firmly aligned with Ludwig Bemelman's smallest girl:

To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh’

Oh, just one last niggling thing – the title. Like Amanda Smith and myself, you have probably noticed the missing word. Amanda put it beautifully: ‘If the author had been Australian, it would have been “Eats, Roots and Leaves“, and it'd be a joke about a wombat. The version that Lynne Truss uses is a bit less rude’. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s1033269.htm [link removed: no longer functioning]

If the reference to the (panda) joke still doesn't ring a bell, you could of course buy the book, or just read the back cover in the shop, or find the text of the joke at http://www.42.dropbear.id.au/thepanda.html [link removed: no longer functioning]

Contact the Society: e-mail: info@tas-editors.org.au
Post: Society of Editors (Tasmania) Inc., PO Box 4512, Bathurst Street PO, HOBART TAS 7000
ABN: 22 756 647 988

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