Grammar Gremlins: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Okay, I admit, this isn’t a column on grammar tangles. It’s a short review of a book on punctuation. Doesn’t that sound exciting? Perhaps not, but Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is very funny, thoroughly entertaining, and not just for those of us who consider ourselves punctuation sticklers, who cringe at plurals made with apostrophes and sentences upended by misplaced commas.

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It’s not a new book (2003), but I’d never read it—no idea how I missed it all these years. More of a history of punctuation (basically typesetters’ conventions, some going all the way back to illuminated manuscripts) than a how-to manual (the how-to parts are based on British usage, sometimes in interesting contrast to American practice), Eats, Shoots & Leaves is full of snarky humor, examples of badly done signs (“Come inside for CD’s, VIDEO’s DVD’s and BOOK’s”), arguments over how to form the possessives of nouns ending in “s”, and demonstrations of how a misplaced comma can change the meaning of a Bible verse or a line of dialog (MacBeth, Act 1, “Go get him, surgeons” in place of “Go, get him surgeons,” for an unfortunate wounded soldier.) And don’t forget the Oxford comma (I never will!).

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The differences between British and American usage are fun, and Truss admits that while the British would like to blame all instances of language deterioration on America, that just isn’t true. Her catalog of misplaced punctuation is all British, giving us hope that our educational system may not actually be the worst in the English-speaking world (although I wouldn’t bet on that).

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After going through our long-established punctuation marks, Truss tackles the new insults to language: emoticons (she’s not a fan), text messaging, and the mythical (but badly needed) Strunkenwhite computer virus, which “refused to deliver email containing grammatical mistakes.”

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If you’ve managed to miss this delightful treatise, pick up a copy. I found mine at Half Price Books, but it’s been a bestseller for years and is widely available.

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And if you’re wondering about the title, it comes from a joke that, as far as I can see, is not actually in the book, but appears on the back cover:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots into the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward 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.”

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