Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
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's review
May 10, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, humour, 2007
Read in November, 2007

To be honest, I never heard the panda joke until this book came out. The Australian version is a bit different - not as clever and involved, perhaps, but funny nonetheless. It went something like (and I am the worst person at re-telling jokes, I always forget bits. Usually the punchline): What does an Aussie bloke have in common with a wombat? They both eat, shoots and leaves. Except that's not quite it cause the grammar is off. Never let me tell a joke, I'll always ruin it.

Anyway, to the book. Wonderful, wonderful book. Hilarious, absolutely hilarious. And, as a bit of a "stickler" myself, very welcome too.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves covers the apostrophe, the comma, the semicolon and colon, the hyphen, dash and bracket, and even the question and exclamation marks. If you have always struggled, or sometimes doubt, how to use any of these, this is definitely the book for you. If, like me, you read it and get awfully chuffed with yourself for using them (almost always) correctly, you'll still want to keep this little gem around, either for back-up in those arguments with other sticklers (or punctuation-impaired people), or for a laugh. It's an easy-going, ironic book, full of tongues-in-cheeks and witticisms and puns - intelligent puns.

One of the things I love about this book is how Truss captures the punctuations marks' true characters. Giving marks personalities is a great joy to me - the only reason I used to fly through the times table every morning in primary school was because all the numbers had personalities and characters, and when they times'd by each other it was like a dramatic scene in a play; that was how I remembered it all. I can't say I do the same with punctuation, but I totally agree with Truss' personifications. For example:

Now, there are no laws against imprisoning apostrophes and making them look daft. Cruelty to punctuation is quite unlegislated: you can get away with pulling the legs off semicolons; shrivelling question marks on the garden path under a pwerful magnifying glass; you name it. ... the tractable apostrophe has always done its proper jobs in our language with enthusiasm and elegance, but it has never been taken seriously enough; its talent for adaptability has been cruelly taken for granted; and now, in an age of supreme graphic frivolity, we pay the price. [p.36:]


... if you feel you are safe paddling in these sparklingly clear shallows of comma usage, think again. See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. [p.84:]


There are times ... when the semicolon ... performs the duties of a kind of Special Policeman in the event of comma fights. ... One minute the semicolon is gracefully joining sentences together in a flattering manner ... and the next it is calling a bunch of brawling commas to attention. [p.125:]

I love it! It also does wonders for understanding how to use the fiddly little things, if you've ever had trouble - and let's face it, who doesn't? And while Truss' tone may often be light and playful (even a little frivolous), this book is hip-deep in interesting historical background, usages and common mistakes, and entertaining examples of real-life punctuation boo-boos that, if you care at all, will actually make you tense up in indignation.

She also has a friendly dig at Australians and our tendency to turn statements into questions, which the British fans of Neighbours have picked up, much to her chagrin:

Increasingly people are (ignorantly) adding question marks to sentences containing indirect questions, which is a bit depressing, but the reason is not hard to find: blame the famous upward inflection caught by all teenage viewers of Neighbours in the past twenty years. Previously, people said "you know?" and "know what I'm saying?" at the end of every sentence. Now they don't bother with the words and just use the question marks, to save time. Everything ends up becoming a question? I'm talking about statements? It's getting quite annoying? But at least it keeps the question mark alive so it can't be all bad? [p.141-2:]

I laughed and laughed.

I did feel a bit ashamed when Truss disparagingly brings emoticons into the discussion - I have used a couple of smileys and the like on occassion. But it's not easy getting tone across in written words - or, rather, it kinda is (isn't that what writers accomplish all the time?), but in emails etc. it's more personal, and you can't read body language or facial expressions, and these people you are chatting away to are so often strangers, that it is so easy to be misconstrued, misunderstood, and a whole lot of other "mis-es".

Another thing I appreciated was that, this book having been written by a Brit, it hasn't been Americanised. That would be a completely different book. But Truss does make distinctions between American and British usages which are very helpful, and interesting too.

This book reads a bit like an essay, the kind famous writers write so that we'll all be awed by the intellectual genius behind their Great Works - except Eats, Shoots & Leaves is not at all pretentious; on the contrary, Truss confesses several times that she herself has doubts, and still learns that what she thought was wrong is actually "correct" (such as it is). What I mean, is that this is not some dry reference book - and the panda joke on the back cover prepares you for that. Even so, this is perfect reference material for students, teachers, copy-editors, journalists, proof-readers (please!), sticklers and, well, anybody. I learnt a lot from it but had fun learning, which should actually help me remember it all.

And I just can't believe I never noticed that the movie Two Weeks Notice doesn't have an apostrophe (which I very nearly typed in myself just now), or that Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn't have a question mark. I think my brain put them in for me, which is why I'm very surprised to find these punctuation marks are missing.

Recommended for everyone, even people who are bored shitless by anything to do with writing.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Paige I read this book several years ago so I don't remember it ALL that well but I do remember laughing out loud (rare when reading a book) and enjoying it. And I agree about emoticons... I mean it's not like I put them in essays, cover letters, or even MOST emails, but when I'm chatting on AIM or MSN, I use emoticons ALL THE TIME. It makes it more fun and involved and more like a real conversation...I think, anyway. I couldn't live without my emoticons!

message 2: by Ron (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ron I was given this book as a gift. Since I had no idea what is was about, I was open to both the humor and history. Not much help actually using punctuation correctly, but great fun.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) I agree Paige - they're just so useful! ;)

Not much help actually using punctuation correctly, but great fun.
Agree - we swotty types already know it all!! I had a few gloating moments though which is always nice ;)

(The emoticons are just running wild today!)

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