Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation seems like a book made for me. Given that I enjoy a well-placed semicolon, I know about the different types of dashes, and I like to use i.e. and e.g. properly, the book’s slogan, “Sticklers unite!” isn’t just a slogan: it calls my name. Mix that with Truss’s bone-dry British and fun examples and you’ve got a book that entertains, though not without some faults.
On the whole, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is an enjoyable romp of a punctuation book, oxymoron that it may be. In the various chapters, Truss talks about punctuation in general, apostrophes, commas, and even the dreaded colon and semicolon. Though this may sound colossally boring, Truss, to her credit, makes it rather not. There are plenty of entertaining digressions, anecdotes, and quotations from fanatical punctuators, like George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.
In the age of email and instant messages, punctuation is thought optional. Truss tries to make the argument that it is not, an argument that is made largely through examples. I was particularly intrigued by one example where Truss quotes Cecil Hartley’s explanation of how punctuation can make huge doctrinal differences. Consider Luke 23:43 and these two options:
The first says thou are going straight to heaven while the second offers paradise at some undetermined point in the future, leaving room for some purgatory. Truss wraps up the matter, “Of course, if Hebrew or any of the other ancient languages had included any punctuation … two thousand years of scriptural exegesis need never have occurred, and a lot of clever, dandruffy people could definitely have spent more time in the fresh air.” Well put.
You’re likely to learn something in Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well, though perhaps not the right things. There are some lists of rules and fresh explanations of how to think about those marks that dot the page. I appreciate some of the insights, though the rules were mostly a review of things I already knew. Some reviewers more learned about punctuation than I have criticized Truss’s rules and explanations as incorrect, which is certainly a heavy flaw in a book that purports to teach. Moreover, the rules Truss outlines come from the British English system and differ at certain junctures from what we use (or should use) in American English.
The rules given are dotted with interesting digressions, though it may be more correct to say that the digressions are dotted with rules. Therein lies the simultaneously strong and weak point of the book. For those really interested in the rules, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is decidedly fluffy—by the time you read the foreword, preface, and introduction, you’re nearly a quarter through the book. For others the nuisance of rules just interrupt enjoying Truss’s wit and make the book a drag to finish. My copy’s dust jacket categorized the book at “Reference/Humor,” which are, by the author’s own admission, strange bedfellows for sure. In the end, the mix is a guilty pleasure, tending more towards enjoyment than education. It is redeemed by the author’s detours and the hope that you might be interested enough at the end to actually learn more about punctuation.