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Eats, Shoots & Leaves

By Mags L Halliday on 04 January 2004

It is almost inevitable, in reviewing a book on grammatical punctuation, that I will make at least one mistake. ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ is not the book I would reach for checking my comma usage.

It’s difficult to understand why this book became the UK number 1 best-seller this Christmas. Are there unknown hordes of punctuation pedants? Was it bought by parents in an attempt to get their children through exams? It seems most likely that it just became the best-seller because everyone was talking about it as if it already were. Author Lynne Truss describes herself as the kind of pedant who becomes incandescent at a misplaced apostrophe. Whilst I’m not about to go around correcting greengrocers’ signs, I do mutter darkly when I see an it’s where it ought to be its (don’t even start on its’), so this book should be my sort of thing.

Truss starts out by excusing her book: it is a self-help book for punctuation pedants, a grammarian manifesto, rather than a straightforward usage guide. This is true: if you want a instructive usage guide, complete with UK/US distinctions, a far better investment is Bill Bryson’s ‘Troublesome Words’. Bryson only devotes an appendix to punctuation but he clearly elucidates the most common uses and abuses and the rest of the book contains useful reminds of the difference between effect and affect etc. If you’re interested in the history of the English language then there is Melvyn Bragg’s ‘The Adventure of English’ or Bryson’s ‘Mother Tongue’. These are entry-level books on English, aware that they are required to both entertain and inform.

So what does Truss’s book achieve? In the Introduction, we are told that it will not be didactic but a middle way, balancing the prescriptive and evolutionary approaches to punctuation. It’s not the first book to do so. Most pop. grammarian books likewise take a “don’t become too anal” attitude (whilst always remaining very firm on the its/it’s distinction – and quite right too). Truss’s tone varies between curmudgeonly and head-girl jollity, with a certain amount of “wasn’t I a swot?” thrown in. Most punctuation pedants are already self-deprecating about the urge to correct others’ mistakes, so do not really require a “self-help” book to encourage the acceptance of the inner precisionist. As a manifesto it is a little too eager to suggest that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously when the whole purpose of a manifesto is to nail one’s colours to the mast and say “yes, I take this seriously”. Unless you’re a Dadaist.

If the book is meant to be both light-hearted and instructive then it fails due to one simple flaw: the quoted examples just aren’t funny enough. Obviously, we all know the panda joke is rather ruder but this vague prudery means there are none of the entertaining errors which pepper Bryson’s ‘Troublesome Words’ or the cuttings read out on ‘The News Quiz’. There is an enjoyable tale of two grown men having fights in the news room over the use of the comma but overall the prose isn’t arch enough, whilst attempting to be knowing.

The section on the way in which the new media (the net, txt msgs etc) are altering written English is rather more interesting and includes a decent piece on the different ways in which the reader interacts with a printed or onscreen text. It doesn’t go far enough into this though: the suggestion that emoticons will one day be outdated is, itself, a little outdated when people are switching to Japanese emoticons. Hypertext storytelling (see ensemble.va.com.au/water/title.html or www.edwardpicot.com/) is ignored entirely.

Overall ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ struggles: it is neither pedantic enough to appeal to grammarians, nor witty enough to be a joyful read for newbies or old hands. If you feel you can’t live without understanding the use of the comma, get Bryson’s ‘Troublesome Words’ instead.

There should probably be some kind of Marvel no-prize for anyone spotting five or more mistakes in this review.

Buy ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ at Amazon.


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