Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

By Ekta R. Garg

October 9, 2013

In our digital world dominated by text messages and email, a whole generation of students lacks solid punctuation skills.  Ten years ago, seeing this eventual consequence of the digital revolution, British author, literary editor, and journalist Lynne Truss decided to stand up for the rights of punctuation.

“The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning,” she writes in the early portion of her runaway bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  “You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself?  This one gives you permission to love punctuation.”

While The Elements of Style by Strunk and White may give students all the nuts and bolts of grammar and syntax, Truss takes those nuts and bolts and turns them into a work of art.  She relates in a droll British-sense-of-humor sort of way the fundamentals of punctuation, but she has so much fun along the way—and entertains the reader so much—that you almost forget you’re reading a punctuation guide.

Truss hits most of the highlights: apostrophes, commas, semicolons and colons, dashes and hyphens, question marks, italics, quotation marks, and even the ellipsis (among other punctuation marks.)  Throughout the entire book she offers bits of history—how all of these marks got their start—and other interesting tidbits about them.  And she doesn’t hesitate to exhibit her love for this essential part of grammar.

“On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that.  It tells the reader how to hum the tune.”

She also gives practical advice, in a no-nonsense manner when she feels compelled.

“Don’t use commas like a stupid person.  I mean it.  More than any other [punctuation] mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity.”

And in true British style, Truss will catch you off guard with a good joke.

“In the family of punctuation, where the [period] is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.”

I loved Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and I think any writer—experienced or amateur—should read through it at least once.  This was my second time going through it, and aside from being a fun read (and making me feel like a geek more than once because I was laughing at jokes in a book about punctuation) I found several good grammar reminders to add to my notebook as a quick reference.  More than anything—all jokes aside—it made me feel good to know that even in this digital world, many people out there still care deeply about the details that make the craft of writing special.  Without these details, as Truss points out more than once (especially at the end in her outburst against emoticons,) writing will eventually become a string of letters that lack meaning.

I would highly recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves to anyone interested in writing in any capacity.

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