Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

by Lynne Truss

Published by Profile Books

209 pages, 2003


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Permission to Punctuate

Reviewed by John Keenan

 

In an era when the notion of accuracy is regarded is quixotic at best and oppressive at worst, who will lose sleep over a misplaced comma or a redundant apostrophe? Righteous anger is an unfruitful response to the willful desecration of the English language at the hands of text-messengers and rap artists. Language lives, it adapts and survives. Those who do not adapt with it risk sounding as ossified as Polish pilots who learned their English in Britain during World War II, before returning to a homeland where there was no call for their linguistic expertise; interviewed on television 50 years after the end of the war, the old men sounded clear, intelligent -- and completely archaic.

But we must set aside this liberal acceptance of diversity and change a human desire for clarity and order. Discipline and rules need not stifle free expression; they can provide a writer with the safety net needed to soar confidently above the crowd.

Lynne Truss, a journalist and broadcaster, believes that pedants have received a bad press. Her book is a call to arms for those who wince when they spot signs stating: "Trouser's reduced" or "Fishermens Cottage's." Truss wants to give people permission to care about punctuation. Only half in jest, she advocates the formation of a vigilante force which would fan out across the globe removing anomalous apostrophes and inserting commas into otherwise unwieldy sentences.

It is not an ignoble cause and this reader opened her slim volume with every intention of cheering the author on in her fight against the armies of ignorance. But it becomes increasingly difficult to read Truss' book without it being knocked from one's hands by the importunate personality of Truss herself. In a chapter on the pitfalls of comma usage, she writes: "The big final rule for the comma is one you won't find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don't use commas like a stupid person."

Got that? Good.

Elsewhere, she berates the people who conjured the English pop band Hear'Say as "idiotic showbiz promoters" because they placed an otiose apostrophe in the band's name. Well, the hustlers and hype-merchants behind the music charts can be accused of many failings, but idiocy is not one of them.

This reader's stretched patience finally snapped on page 103, where Truss describes receiving a letter from American pen-pal, a girl called Kerry-Anne, at the age of 14. The girl's letter "was in huge handwriting, like an infant's. It was on pink paper, with carefree spelling errors -- and where the dots over the I's ought to be there were bubbles."

Truss replied to "this vapid mousey moron" on "grown-up deckled green paper with a fountain pen" and tells us that "in my mission to blast little Kerry-Anne out of the water, I pulled out (literally) all the stops: I used a semi-colon."

From that point I was distracted from my reading by the sound of grinding teeth -- my own.

Like some neurotic housekeeper, Truss is forever sweeping and straightening: she wants to gather up all the clutter of our slipshod attempts at English and toss them into the incinerator. The trouble is that language is a messy business and scrub as she might, Truss is always going to miss a nasty stain here and there. Eagle-eyed fellow pedants will already have noted that the title of the book itself contains a potential solecism -- shouldn't it be 'zero-tolerance'? Truss will have none of it. In chapter entitled "A Little Used Punctuation Mark" (gedditt??) she says: "In the end, hyphen usage is just a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier."

The Internet, of course, can only add to the chaos, as "people who don't know their apostrophes from their elbow are positively invited to disseminate their writings to anyone on the planet stupid enough to double-click and scroll."

Punctuation, Truss rightly states, is analogous to good manners: it makes the way easy for others without seeking attention. But she goes on to humiliate a reviewer on Amazon for various bloomers. This is like a pompous bore drawing attention to a fellow guest who has inadvertently turned up in jeans to a formal dinner. It is helpful to no one -- as, finally, is this bad tempered little book; those wishing for guidance as they take their first tentative steps into the treacherous waters of composition can turn straight to its bibliography. There they will find a number of idealistic, enlightening and accommodating titles that will stimulate, rather than dampen, the creative spirit. | January 2004

 

John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.