Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
I love English. I love grammar. Even when I get it wrong (dangle a particple, don't use an antecedent, run-on sentence), I love learning about the nuts and bolts of English. If you attended a Catholic school in the 1950s and '60s as I did, then you know how to diagram a sentence, that is, breaking a sentence down into its component parts so that you know how a sentence goes together. It was boring, but necessary, and it has served me well.

I am a sucker for buying books about the English language. As a result, I know about the great vowel shift and inkhorn terms and Chancery English, and so when I saw Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves at a used bookstore, I bought it.

Publishing a book on grammar takes guts. Inevitably, you will have thousands of people poring over your every sentence looking for mistakes and posting reviews on Amazon, and in this book, it doesn't take long to find them. We all make mistakes, but the author's overuse of the semicolon borders on abuse. A similar complaint can be made for her use of the colon. Even her use of commas is questionable.

In short, this book should not be used as a grammar guide, especially if you are an American. (Truss is British.) British and American grammar differ, particularly in the use of quotation marks. Another quibble: One half of this small book is devoted to the misuse of an apostrophe. This is a legitimate complaint, but half a book? That's overkill.


  1. Ouch, a book about grammar with mistakes and over-using certain elements of grammar? Not a very good grammar book, indeed. I mean, sure, we make mistakes, but a book teaching grammar should avoid them and use grammar correctly. Well, not the book, but its author.:)

  2. The New Yorker (a prominent magazine) apparently took her to task, but this book was a bestseller. I never saw so many semicolons in one book as I did this one.

  3. Hi Mary. This is very popular in England and many English school teachers use it.

    Punctuation can be a matter of taste and emphasise by the way. Jane Austen used it to express the feelings and tone of voice of her charters and in the case of her letters, how she was was feeling and what she wanted to emphasise.Much of Austens punctuation might be deemed unconventional. Lets not get too stuffy about it. Enjoy it, have fun, be creative and use it. Those who pontificate about the misuse of punctuation too much have punctuation constipation, don't you think?????(Oh my God, all those question marks!!!!!!!) Ha! ha!(two exclamation marks)

    The author has made a ton of money over here selling it anyway. It was reviewed in all the main newspapers.

    All the best,(comma)
    T(capital letter) ony. (full stop)

    Yes, I know, brackets!?!?!?!?

  4. I must explain Mary. There is a lot of snobbery about punctuation and a lot of hogwash spoken. There are those around and I have come across them, who will lecture people mercilessly and belittle and humiliate others concerning every apostrophe and it seems apostrophes seem to be the greatest bone of contention when these stultified pinch nosed types get going. They think it some sort of elitist, I'm better than you, thing. As I said in my other comment above, get out there and enjoy and have fun with punctuation. If you get it all very wrong at the very least you can only be accused, as Shakespeare was and is, of creating their own language. Thank God for people who are creative!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. I sort of liked this book (OK, the cover art was the best part) but I love reading about language more than punctuation.

    My fave book of this ilk is The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. It has also been criticized for accuracy, but it is one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. Even one of the most entertaining Bill Bryson books I have ever read, and that is saying something. Have you read this one Mary?

  6. Jenny, I have not read The Mother Tongue, but I'll look into it. Tony, I am not a punctuation snob except for those who say they have "zero tolerance" as this author did. I didn't finish the book b/c she was literally casting the first stone, and she had committed the same sins.

    My first copy editor was comma happy, and I told her that I felt as if I was tripping all over them. For example: She, too, took me to task for deleting the commas offsetting "too." Who cares? The only thing it does is slow the reader down.

    However, if I set myself up as a grammar expert, I would have gone over my manuscript with a fine tooth comb.

    P.S. I would never criticize someone who wrote with a quill pen.

  7. Jenny, On second thought, I did read reviews about Bryson's books. As I mentioned in my post, he was set upon by grammarian purists. I would NEVER write a grammar book.

  8. I am going to go buy it now. Thanks Mary.

  9. This used to be one of my favorite books to use in the classroom.