I’ve finally got round to reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.
Here’s a book that is not only useful and fun to read, its phenomenal popularity carries a moral for every writer:
Don’t worry about following the market. Don’t try to produce another DaVinci Code or Harry Potter. Write what you’re enthusiastic about and kindred spirits will find your book.
Who could have guessed that a book about punctuation would hit the top of the charts?
First published in April of 2004, Eats, Shoots and Leaves spent 25 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list and by October of that year had gone back to press 22 times to bring the total of copies in print to a million. I can’t guess how many copies are out there by now.
At a bit more than 200 pages including the bibliography, this little book describes the rules that govern the use of:
Plenty of other writing guides exist that describe the use of punctuation symbols, but the Truss book livens the discussion by throwing in history, examples of offensive punctuation, and the cheeky attitude that any English speaker smart enough to achieve an elementary school education ought to be smart enough to use apostrophes correctly.
Here’s a quotation that illustrates the clear, curmudgeonly style and underlying passion that has made this book a best seller with lovers of the language:
To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. 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.
As you can tell from the periods outside the quotation marks in this excerpt, Truss is British. Some of her funny allusions may go over the head of American readers, but most are understandable on both sides of the pond. And she always takes care to note differences between American usage and terminology, such as the fact that what Americans call a period is a full stop in England.
Truss doesn’t pretend to grammatical credentials beyond those of a professional journalist who paid attention to her elementary education.
She is not a linguist or a grammarian. Indeed, New Yorker essayist Louis Menand scrutinized her text for punctuation inconsistencies and takes her to task in a piece called “Lynne Truss’s strange grammar” (June 28, 2004). He could do no less for the honor of his magazine, considering that Truss makes numerous references to the New Yorker‘s predilection for over-punctuation.
If you haven’t read it yet, pick up a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It’s funny and it really is a useful guide to English punctuation.
Here’s a link to Menand’s New Yorker article.
You can also buy Eats, Shoots and Leaves on Amazon.