Review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

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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:

  • apostrophe
  • comma
  • colon
  • semi-colon
  • dash
  • hyphen
  • period

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.

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18 thoughts on “Review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.”

  1. Do you know where I can find a copy to “Lynne Truss’s strange grammar”?

    I did a search on the interwebs, but couldn’t find it.

  2. I enjoyed “Eats Shoots and Leaves” and thought her explanations on the whys and wherefores of usage were well done and entertaining. A good addition to the library. How often do you get a grammar book that’s FUN?

    But, I have a “rebuttal” book for you: David Crystal’s The Fight for English, which he wrote largely to respond to Lynne Truss’s “no exceptions” stance. The first third or so is largely about the history of attempts to get English grammar under control, but the rest is a really interesting look at why it’s not necessarily a good thing. In fact it’s inspired four or five posts on my blog lately, I thought it was so interesting (grin).

  3. I enjoyed Eat, Shoots and Leaves as well. It’s compact, clear, and the humor is refreshing. I only wish I had a better grasp on those enigmatic British jokes…

  4. A book worth reading. I last read the book around two years back. What I still remember from the book is an example about the dangling expectations caused by incorrect pluralisation.

    Cyclist’s only (his only what?)

  5. Rachel,
    I’ve the advantage of having lived in England for seven years. That was a long time ago, though, and some of the newer stuff goes over my head.

  6. I read it a couple of years ago, and loved it. The fight described in the beginning is interesting, as it really hails from another age.
    I’ll be interested to read the book suggested by Deb. With language, there’s always this tension between trying to keep things as they are, and letting go and adapting to the times. We have this dilemma in French, too.

  7. I found a used copy of this book earlier this year at a local bookstore. It sits on the bookshelf right next to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

    It’s my understanding these are two books (perhaps the only two) I need to reference when writing. Now, I just need to make a habit of grabbing them more often.

  8. Thanks for the review and recommendation! I’m currently proofreading a manuscript and have been going crazy over the punctuation. This book sounded enjoyable and possibly informative, so I stopped by the library to check out a copy. I’ve not been disappointed. This is a very fun book to read!

  9. This is one of the funniest books on grammar and punctuation–a field not known for humor. We often recommend it to participants in our training sessions and to our clients (right after recommending our own guide, of course!).

    Truss is an inspiration: Let’s all carry red magic markers to cross out unwanted apostrophes!

    If you haven’t yet read it, but you enjoy learning about writing mechanics and find most guides dull, we recommend that you do.

  10. hmm..can’t find it here in our local bookstores…hopefully a fairy godmother would send it to me!(keeping my fingers crossed):-)

  11. If you enjoyed “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” I recommend Truss’ book “Talk to the Hand.” This does for manners and etiquette what “Eats” did for grammar and punctuation. Her wry style is in full flower and still bitingly fun. I’d suggest checking your local discount shops for this one (I got it in hardback at the local Dollar Tree for one dollar). Make sure you have some uninterrupted reading space too — Truss’ style can be a bit overwhelming, and I found myself skim-reading on occasion because I was tired or couldn’t concentrate sufficiently.

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