Book Review: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

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I mourn the loss of the English language.

There was a time, when I first started this blog, I tried to make a note of the most egregious grammatical errors I noticed in the news or stumbling out of the mouths of those knaves and villains we laughingly refer to as our elected officials. I thought it might be both amusing and instructive to chronicle and comment on the decline of English as used by graduates of journalism schools and by politicians. I abandoned the project very quickly when I realized it would be a full-time job for a regiment, or possibly a brigade, of people like me just to keep track of the multitudinous methods of mangling the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickens, Faulkner, and—more recently—Wodehouse, Mantel, and McCarthy. As far as I can tell, there are virtually no journalists who consistently use English as it was meant to be used (which is to say, correctly), and the only politician I can bear to listen to these days is John Kennedy of Louisiana. Not only does he normally speak English more or less correctly, but he has a southern country boy’s colorful and wickedly funny way of expressing himself. Even if you disagree with him, he can make you laugh, but a single senator out of far too many journalists and nauseatingly too many politicians is not encouraging.

It turns out I am not alone in my despair.

Lynne Truss is an intimidatingly prolific British writer (twenty books in sixteen years, or possibly more; it depends which list you consult) who writes everything from books on sports to comedy to mysteries to punctuation, which brings me to Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Punctuation?

Yes, and before you hurry on to some other website, I assure you, this is one of the most entertaining books you will ever read.

Like all good teachers, Ms. Truss is well aware that keeping her readers entertained is critical, and since she is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, without ever taking herself too seriously, she qualifies as a first-rate guide to making oneself understood when writing, primarily through the correct usage of those little marks and squiggles so many readers and writers ignore or misuse. She covers it all with style and grace and dazzling wit: colons; semi-colons; commas; apostrophes; quotation marks; exclamation marks; question marks; even periods (what the British refer to as “full stops”).

This would be a good time to remind you that there are significant differences in the way the British use punctuation and the way we use it over here, just are there significant differences in spelling. What little formal grammatical training I received in my various schools in Germany and Switzerland was based on British rules, when it involved English at all, and when I finally returned to America, for many years my papers and essays were invariably returned with buckets of red ink splashed liberally across the pages. Even today, spellcheck frequently disapproves of my spelling and syntax, and that includes the rare times I actually get the spelling right. Wisely, the editors of the American edition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Gotham Books) refrained from trying to Americanize Ms. Truss’ (or Ms. Truss’s; she discusses that extra “s” and whether or not it’s necessary) writing, an act of clarification that might have increased the length of the book by a third and made it both largely unintelligible and possibly unintentionally funny, so you will learn more about British punctuation than you will about American, but that won’t diminish your enjoyment an iota.

(By the way, Gotham Books is a subsidiary of The Penguin Group, which is part of Penguin Random House, which is owned by Pearson plc, which recently merged with the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, and this parenthetical aside should scare the hell out of you. As more and more companies in various industries become gobbled up by more and more conglomerates, it means fewer and fewer people making the decisions about what you get to read or watch or even consume, which in turn means fewer risks taken on the new and innovative. In the case of literature, that means in today’s Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You publishing world James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, and their ilk would have had a slim or possibly non-existent chance of getting into print.)

How does Ms. Truss make a dry and dusty topic like punctuation entertaining? Consider the following (my example; not hers):

“Let’s eat, Mom.” versus “Let’s eat Mom.”

One is suitable for the average Thanksgiving gathering, the other is only suitable for the Donner party. Same words, but a single missing comma changes the meaning dramatically.

Ms. Truss includes some marvelous exchanges from the running, decades-long comma-battle between James Thurber (a punctuational progressive who occasionally lapsed over into the revolutionary) and his editor, Harold Ross (a hidebound punctuational reactionary) that makes you wonder how either of them died a natural death. Passions run high in creative writing.

Ms. Truss utilizes a range of examples from advertising slogans and official signs she has observed and deplored (“XMA’S TREES” and “CHILDREN DRIVE SLOWLY”) to flights of fancy (“Instead of ‘What would you with the king?’ you can have someone say in Marlowe’s Edward II, ‘What? Would you? With the king?’”) all of them intended to make the reader appreciate that the difference between the ridiculous and the sublime can be as small as a squiggle on the page. Or the absence of a squiggle.

Reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves won’t make you an expert; there are so many alternatives, variations, exceptions, disagreements, not to mention wildly successful authors who break all the rules that it is safe to say there is no such thing as an expert, possibly not even Ms. Truss. She will, however, make you laugh, and give you the authority to sniff contemptuously the next time you see the goodthinkful Newspeak that passes for English these days made even more incomprehensible by kindergarten punctuation.

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17 thoughts on “Book Review: Eats, Shoots & Leaves”

  1. Reminds me of Eddie and the Cruisers movie. If you ever have a chance to watch it, you’ll see a scene where a new band member teaches them about saying something in one breath & the difference in saying it with a pause.
    Will get my library to get Ms. Truss’s book. I am sure it will be a great read!!!

  2. This was a delightful review of my favorite grammar book!

    McCarthy? As in Cormac McCarthy, author of, among others, The Road? I know that book won the Pulitzer Prize, but why? The book has no plot, no climax, no real conclusion to speak of. Throughout the entire book you have no idea what has really happened, what is going on, who anyone is, nor what will happen.
    And quotation marks. There are none at all in the whole book. Why?
    What is so great about Cormac McCarthy?

    1. I am not a fan of The Road. Like you, I found it short on plot and conclusion in the worst sort of deconstructionist mode (if I understand that word correctly; I don’t pay a lot of attention to labels when it comes to art) and not anywhere near his top-tier work, though a lot better than his worst. I realize he is a bad author to cite in a discussion of punctuation, but it is his extraordinary use of rural, working-class (cowboy) language and the English language generally, that makes him one of our greatest authors. Try the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) or either of the first two volumes to get a feel for him at his best. Blood Meridian is also one of his greatest books, but it’s a little more–I’m not sure what I want to say–obscure? difficult? than the Border Trilogy.
      JP

        1. My apologies: I had a senior moment and completely forgot one of McCarthy’s best books. In addition to either of the first two of the border trilogy (after which the third volume will be far more coherent) another stand-alone book is No Country for Old Men. The movie was excellent, but the book is even better.
          JP

          1. Books are always better, aren’t they?

            Would you extend permission for me to quote your writings in my paper for my psychology class? (Additionally I had sent an email with questions, I would still like an answer to those questions, if possible. The paper is due Sunday night, December 9th? Shoot I don’t even know what today is! Nope, December 8.)

            As soon as finals are over I will give McCarthy another go. Thanks for the recommendations!

          2. (I feel like a stalker because I keep bothering you with endless questions…You are completely safe with me but isn’t that what all stalkers say?
            Did you sit through the trial of Robert St. George? If so, did it trigger any response in you? Was the news blurb about the armed robbery/shooting you watched over breakfast with Darleen the first time you experienced a triggered flashback response? Are there some things you simply no longer do to prevent a flashback? How are you dealing with the PTSD and depression currently? In therapy (what kind)? Medication? A combination?
            Do you know I still get teary thinking about that time? I still wish I could have jumped in the bullets path, such a strong visceral response for someone I have never met. I am so thankful for your life and the ways it has blessed mine.)

          3. Yes, feel free to quote me. If I’ve said anything intelligent, give credit; if it’s not so clever, blame someone else.
            A witness is not allowed to sit through a trial and as the victim, the defense got me barred from the courtroom save during my own testimony.
            The news blurb was my first exposure to PTSD. I have been treated (therapy) for it. Depression, on the other hand, is an ongoing, life-long thing one has to learn (therapy again) to deal with.
            JP

  3. Unfortunatly, that seems to be a rule these days. I am a portuguese man, following your writings from time to time. Here in my country, I find it’s a whole nation bringing down a language. We used to call it the “Camões” language, a portuguese poet from the seventeenth century equivalent to Shakespeare that is part of who we are. Not only journalists, politicians and social media are drowning in errors. Language itself was sold at low cost to a so-called orthographical agreement between Portugal and other portuguese languese speaking countries that twisted up things completely. The irony is many of those countries did not sitck to their part of the agreement and did not put it to use yet. Language was already being massacrated on an everyday basis, but now it simply lost its soul. The new rules are completely speculative, words loosing the latin reference, loosing accents, hyphens, etc. becoming the same, but changing their meaning according to context… what a mess! The thing is: what about a language following its own voice, its own evolution, its own time? Once again, people are out of the equation. We did not need these changes, least of all changes that did not deal with problems of their own. Portugal is a small country in the tail of Europe, living a gone by empire dream. Numbness has already tied us up too much to that past; our elected officials, and their misguided decisions are just a simptom. Language is who we are. I’m proud of being portuguese, i’m proud of Camões and i’m proud of that empire. But I’m also proud of being portuguese today, talking reading writing today. What i’m trying to say is that the past is who I am, not a cage from which I get a glimpse on the outside and take it as the world. Tradition means everything to me, consistency also. Above all, having the tools I know of, and TRUST will allow me to jump and grab my life by the hand, fearlessly. That’s just being realistic, not dreamy, I guess… I say that’s the right way to jump into the world, to that extent. Sometimes I think portuguese are just a scared little people, always looking behind their shoulder, always suspicious, and I wonder why… but that’s just little me, dreamning of something me… I hope I shared my point of view on the subject intelligibly. A hug,
    Hugo.

    1. I realize, reading your comments, that I have an insular point of view when it comes to language and literature. That’s not unusual or unexpected, since I speak no Portuguese, but while I am aware of Portugal’s long and distinguished literary history, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that social media and texting might be taking as much of a toll on modern Portuguese as they do on English. It’s the loss of proper use and comprehension that disturbs me the most in America today. I just learned this morning that our local middle-level schools in my little town don’t require students to read anything beyond graphic novels (a glorified version of what I used to call comic books) until the students reach high-school. Graphic novels can be very good (judging by the two I’ve seen turned into movies) but they’re not in the same league with the best of American and English literature–or the single sample of modern Portuguese literature I’ve read (The Cave, by Jose Saramago). And I don’t want social media to bring all of us together if it means losing the many national and regional differences that made travel so exciting back when I was a kid. If the whole world wears bluejeans and Nikes and eats MacDonald’s, why bothering going anywhere?
      JP

  4. It reminds me of the time, during college, when I ended a parenthetical sentence with the period inside the parentheses as I was taught in high school. When the professor marked it as wrong, I asked why. She stated; “It just goes to show you what a dynamic and ever-changing language English is!” I wonder how much it has changed in the 20 years since then.

    JK
    Wisconsin

  5. The use of language changes over time (Old English, to Middle English, to Modern English). That is to be expected. It is the loss of knowledge – of what is correct – that is frustrating (angering). Using incorrect grammar or syntax to make a point is one thing. The problem is, people don’t know when they are using it incorrectly! However, to hopefully lift your spirits, I share with you the following:

    I am the daughter of two journalism majors from the late 1960’s. I grew up with my parents correcting EVERYTHING I said. It drove me insane. Then, without recognizing it was happening, I incorporated proper grammar into my own speech to the point of correcting my children’s. Now, my 19 year old daughter corrects my 50 year old friends’ grammar on Facebook! Which is to say, all is not lost. Your generation (at least some of them) passed proper English on to my generation, who have in turn passed it on to the next generation. Certainly not as many as you, my parents, or I would have liked, but at least some have.

    Second, as you have recommended a book to your audience, I wish to recommend a podcast to you, who enjoy learning and the English language: This History of English Podcast (https://historyofenglishpodcast.com/). Kevin does a truly wonderful job of sharing the history of where our language comes from and all the changes it has endured throughout the centuries. Check it out (and I recommend starting from the beginning)!

  6. For some reason when I read this post I was reminded of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for the “first line of the worst novel never written”. Good use of punctuation and grammar is important in these submissions. Although I have two older paperback compilations of the “best” of the entries I see you can now find the newest ones on the Bulwer-Lytton website. I had forgotten how clever and funny these could be.

    I think we have to accept that any language that is in use is going to change and evolve, even if it is not an improvement.

    1. You are a bad woman. I had never heard of the Bulwer-Lytton contest and went on the site to check it out. The predictable result was that instead of getting any work done, I spent an hour laughing until I was incoherent. Language does change and evolve, but never for the better.
      JP

      1. Bad? Ha! You started it! I have not thought about that contest for decades but reading your post somehow triggered my memory. Miraculously I found my Bulwer-Lytton compilation books in my cluttered basement and then I looked for a website. That all led to an unknown amount of time spent reading and helpless laughter here too.
        As for grammar issues, what is most annoying is having people advise me to “drive safe”. I prefer to “drive safely”. I always feel a strong urge to correct them!

  7. Hi JP,
    It’s been a while since I have read your blog and even longer since I have replied. Being a primary school teacher (ages 5-12) I have become an expert at deciphering spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. It is a tad annoying, though, when it is other teachers work that I have to decipher!
    The most recent cringe worthy trend is when people, discussing sports, say they were “versing” another team. Their thinking is that if the competition was A versus B, then the past tense was A versed B and it then holds that A will be versing B in the future.
    Bad grammer and speelin are OK anyways cos its all commen usige!
    Kathy
    Sydney, Oztralya!

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