- Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, is a slight book. This is perhaps unsurprising for a book whose subject is punctuation. And while it became a best-seller in Britain before crossing the pond to us, it is unlikely to cause any great punctuation re- formation; the evolution of the apostrophe into a mark of pluralism, the ascendence of it's over its, and so forth, will likely continue unabated, despite Truss's book.
Nevertheless, the book will hold many pleasures for lovers of language. Readers, writers, teachers and others will find themselves amused and at times instructed by Truss, a former editor and confessed stickler. She has done a sizable amount of research, and the book is peppered with fascinating tidbits from the history of printing and punctuation. (Did you know that the apostrophe didn't arrive on the English beat until the 16th century and was not originally used for possessives?) She spices the book as well with anecdotes and arguments on the subject from various literary lights: G. B. Shaw, for example, upset with T. E. Lawrence's abuse of the colon, wrote to him, "Confound you and your book: you are no more to be trusted with a pen than a child with a torpedo."
What really sustains the book, however, is Truss's lucidity and wit. When she applies herself to the actual usage of punctuation, she states her case well, and always with good humor. The humor is frequently directed against the yahoos who are corrupting the language through punctuation abuse, but the engaging Truss is perfectly willing to also poke fun at her own obsessions. The lucid explanations are to be found everywhere—though at times the tidbits seem like gratuitous filler, and the humorous anecdotes begin to make one think this book should be shelved in the bookstore with Dave Barry rather than Diana Hacker.
At their best, Truss's pedagogy and humor sometimes combine with [End Page 200] her fine writing to provide sublime moments: "The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once fired a publisher who insisted on replacing a semicolon with a full stop; meanwhile, full-time editors working together on the same publication, using the same style book, will put hyphens in, take them out, and put them in again—all in a day, if necessary."
Those who can savor such a sentence will forgive Truss her shortcomings and her popularity. Indeed, they will wish they could sit down with her and trade sticklers' tales.