Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I remember once I was at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Throughout the zoo, they had several signs posted about “Free Ranging Monkeys.” I turned to my father and said that I liked free stuff as much as the next guy, but I had no idea what a ranging monkey was. (What they had probably meant to say was “Free-ranging Monkeys.”) That was many years ago.

It wasn’t until just recently that I found a book for people like me. “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” is Lynne Truss’s way of telling the world what she thinks of a particular movie title (“Two Weeks Notice”) and various other grammatical mistakes, many of which she blames on greengrocers.

There’s one chapter dedicated to apostrophes, mostly because people find it so difficult to tell when to use one. It would seem that possessives confuse a lot of people, especially when it comes to ‘its’ and ‘it’s’. (‘Its’ is possessive while ‘it’s’ is a contraction for ‘it is’ or ‘it was’.) There’s also another chapter dedicated to the comma. (For some reason, people seem to have trouble with the comma, as well as the apostrophe.) Truss points out several examples where a well-placed comma could have made a difference, as in the joke to which the title refers. (For those that haven’t heard it, it’s printed on the back of the book.)

The book also covers the colon, semicolon, dashes and several other punctuation marks, but not in as much detail. That’s because commas and apostrophes seem have the greatest impact on how we read a sentence. Consider the words, “woman without her man is savage”. (This is actually brought up in the book.) One way of punctuating it is: “Woman, without her man, is savage.” You could also go with, “Woman: Without her, man is savage.” Notice how commas make all the difference. As I’ve mentioned, dashes also have a great impact and are also covered in detail.

Truss is British and wrote the book for a British audience. No attempt was made to rewrite or edit the book for American audiences, but it doesn’t really matter. Most readers shouldn’t have a problem with the book. Many of the differences are in terminology. What Americans call a period, the British call a full stop. (I have to wonder: if a period is a full stop, is a comma a rolling stop?)

I’m tempted to recommend this book just to certain people, and I don’t just mean those within the Epinions community. However, I’d recommend this book to anyone who writes. Truss writes that the fluid nature of the Internet and the popularity of email and text messaging are partly responsible for the decline of punctuation and the language in general. (This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard such a sentiment.) I haven’t noticed it as much, probably because I deal mostly with people that hold themselves to a higher standard. (In other words, I’d like to think that I’ve chosen my friends well.)

The main reason that I’m recommending this book is the clarity with which it’s written. Anyone, British or American, can pick up this book and understand what’s being said and why the author can’t stand certain mistakes and what, if anything, she’d like to see people do about it. You wouldn’t think that you could take a subject like punctuation and keep it interesting for 204 pages, but Truss did it.

For all those that cringe whenever you see misplaced or misused punctuation, you can feel better knowing that there are others like you out there. For those that don’t cringe, this book was written for you.

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