Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance to Punctuation - Lynne Truss
Reviewed by Françoise Herrmann

Publisher:Gotham Books (Penguin Group - USA)
Publication date: 2003
ISBN: I-592-40203-8
Price $11.00
Available from:

Punctuation is fun! It was also a #1 New York Times bestseller. In truth, it is Lynne Truss who has made punctuation such a captivating and interesting topic with a charming, informative and delightful book called Eats, shoots & leaves, including a complete punctuation-sticker repair kit for all punctuation sticklers! Nominated for sainthood, dubbed goddess on the altars of all English teachers, best-selling author in the most unexpected domain of punctuation, star of the Society for the Preservation of the Apostrophe, Lynne Truss has truly changed the face of what is perhaps to many a most boring and drab subtopic of grammar.

Punctuation matters
Take the title, for example: Eats, shoots & leaves, and the whimsical Panda story used to illustrate how much punctuation matters. The story goes:

"A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. 'Why?' asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. 'I’m a panda' he says at the door. 'Look it up.' The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots, and leaves.'"

Striking a balance between punctuation prescription and description, Truss’s Eats, shoots and leaves is written with the voice of common sense pragmatism (The Zero Tolerance Approach), and as the title illustrates, with enough humor and wit to make even the most resistant and staunchest grammar-phobic smile.

Punctuation matters, seriously. Take the dedication of this book:

"To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution."

And if you are still unconvinced concerning punctuation matters, try this example:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

From start to finish, this book highlights the importance of punctuation on the grounds that punctuation is closely linked to meaning, and the reduction of uncertainties in communication between writer and reader. Of the use of punctuation with commas, Truss says: "It tells the reader how to hum the tune." (p. 71). Of a hypothetical abolition of the apostrophe, Truss comments: "Triumphant abolitionist sits down to write, 'Goodbye to the Apostrophe: we’re not missing you a bit!' and finds he can’t." (p.67). And with humor you'll love, Truss wishes she had babies with Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer of the 1400s who invented italic typeface and the semi-colon.

Furthermore, your ignorance of punctuation matters will no longer bench, or shame you; rather it will make you laugh because Truss has a way of showing you the outrageous consequences. Not the least of which are effects on punctuation sticklers (i.e.; lovers), who gasp for air, take up arms, and otherwise behave in the most startling ways when confronted with punctuation bloopers. (They are due, for example, to picket the Heinz company in a drive to add punctuation marks to Alphabetti Spaghetti.)

Punctuation marks
There are seven chapters in this book: a long introduction dedicated to The Seventh Sense and five chapters, each dedicated to different punctuation marks: apostrophes, commas, colons and semi-colons, attention-seeking punctuation (dashes, exclamation marks and italics) and hyphens; plus one final chapter dedicated to changes in language use and punctuation under the influence of electronic media.

The introduction called The Seventh Sense is a direct analogy to the film with the same title. Only here, we meet punctuation sticklers, people endowed with a seventh sense that places them in direct communication with punctuation-at-large, and in particular punctuation bloopers. Part-activists, part-watchdogs, and mostly lovers of punctuation, sticklers are Lynne Truss's tribe.

The next five chapters cover the rules of each punctuation mark, and an in-depth discussion of usage and digressions in a tour de force that blends thriller, historical facts, humor, and treaty. Using the most interesting and fun examples, Lynne Truss takes you for a ride. As mentioned previously, perhaps that the most compelling examples are those that clearly illustrate the relationships between meaning and punctuation.

Blended with historical fact, you’ll find the following example (p.13), taken from County Schools exams in 1936, in the UK:

Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off
Charles the First walked and talked. Half and hour after, his head was cut off.

No less illustrative of the power of punctuation are anecdotes such as the one about Victor Hugo for example, "who - when he wanted to know how Les Misérables was selling - reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simply inquiry '?' and received the expressive reply '!'." (p. 136). Lynn Truss really means business. At her most prescriptive, this is how she drives the point about the correct use of apostrophes for contractive vs. possessive purposes.

“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.” (p. 44)

At her most holistic, and sensitive, Lynn Truss, simply models usage. Here is Lynn Truss strutting down the comma runway, with semi-colons and colons:

"Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of-bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway, and then eventually with the help of three dots… you stop." (p.106)

In a myriad of ways both entertaining and informative, Lynn Truss succeeds in sharing her love of punctuation. And for many, she may even succeed in taking the dread of punctuation away!

Long live punctuation!
If you take a few breaks from reading, you will surely visit Lynne Truss's website to play her punctuation game and test your punctuation skills. Or you may visit the Apostrophe Protection Society website to suspend your disbelief. The apostrophe is in danger and you will see photos of misplaced apostrophes live from the streets, much like the ones that Chris Durban posts in her Onionskin column to blow the whistle on mistranslations. And from there you may also visit the QES – Queen’s English Society website with more than one eyebrow raised, at the implications. However, when you return to Lynne Truss’s panda-covered punctuation book, and flip the final page, your punctuation awareness and attitude will have changed for good. This is no boring grammar book with complicated explanations as one of my students has pointed out.

For all translators, who are interested in punctuation, because punctuation matters in their texts, or in their work as editors and proofreaders. For all translators who want to refresh their knowledge, or really understand the rules of punctuation, while charmed and entertained, Eats, shoots and leaves is both delightful and informative reading. Lynne Truss has popularized punctuation with the rigor of an academician and the humor of a stand-up comic. If you have always shuddered, or rolled-up your eyes at punctuation, now is the time to enjoy it!