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Eats, Shoots and Leaves

To much surprise, this book by Lynne Truss from a small publisher on the unsexy subject of commas, colons and dashes is proving the UK publishing success of Christmas 2003. There’s good reason for this: it’s witty, thought-provoking, and brief.

The cover of Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Lynne Truss is passionate about punctuation. She confesses to an urgent desire to be the militant wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society, to the extent that she once attempted to demonstrate to the cinema-going public with the aid of an apostrophe on a stick how easy it would be to make the film title “Two Weeks Notice” grammatical. It is all too obvious that many people do not know how to use this little mark: “Why else,” Ms Truss argues, “would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying ‘Giant Kid’s Playground’, and then wonder why everybody stays away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.)”

Her internal anguish sometimes boils over. “No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best’, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” A little extreme, I feel: boiling in oil would be quite sufficient.

She says in her introduction, “You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation.” Her own love of the subject turns what might be a dry exposition into a romp. She regrets that marks such as the colon and semi-colon are now much less used than they once were, though she is sure they aren’t necessarily doomed to fade into obscurity. She also regrets that books are losing their value as the main medium of communication in our society and that newer and more egalitarian media may let the barbarians determine the fate of our punctuation systems. (She remarks sadly about the Internet and texting: “By tragic historical coincidence a period of abysmal under-educating in literacy has coincided with this unexpected explosion of global self-publishing”.)

I have few quibbles. She even manages to explain the semi-colon and colon in a way that is both comprehensible and corresponds to the way I use them. But just to prove that I’ve actually read the book, I point to one solecism: on page 188 she indicates traditional punctuation of addresses by writing “Mr. A. Franklin, Esq.” That wouldn’t even be generally acceptable in the USA, where Esq. denotes an attorney, and certainly not in Britain. My old English teacher would have had her guts for garters for doubling up the honorific (and also for putting a full stop after Mr, on the grounds that the abbreviation lies in the middle of the word). 1

The title comes from a story about a panda in a cafe (so written on the back cover; what a pity she never gets around to discussing accents), which I am told is a cleaned-up version of an old raunchy joke. The panda eats a sandwich, fires a gun in the air and walks towards the door. When the waiter asks in confusion what he thinks he’s doing, the panda throws him a badly punctuated book on wildlife: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.

1 This has been corrected in more recent printings: being critical on occasion has useful results!

[Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, published by Profile Books in hardback on 6 November 2003; ISBN 1-86197-612-7; pp207; publisher’s UK price £9.99. Available in the USA from Gotham Books (an imprint of Penguin Books USA), ISBN 1-5924-0087-6, at $17.50.]

Page created 20 Dec. 2003

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