Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Reviewed by Jean A. Schara

©2004, Jean A. Schara

A book about punctuation?  An entire book?  It must be boring, right?

Not a bit!  This book first captured my attention in an English language bookstore in Brussels, Belgium, in January 2004.  I read the panda joke attributed to the title, thumbed through the book, and decided I had to have it.  I looked at the price (in Euros) and decided it would probably be cheaper in the States so I placed it back on the bookrack and wandered on my way.  But, I regretted this decision.  Lynne Truss is a British author, and her book was not released in the States yet.

I had to wait nearly four months for the US release, and I paid almost as much.  But, I have the book, and I’m glad of it.  Truss covers all the punctuation marks and includes examples designed to clearly illustrate usage. 

Words are a writer’s work materials.  Punctuation is both the glue that holds words together and the spacer that holds them apart depending upon what message we intend to impart to our readers.  Where we pause and where we rush through makes dramatic differences in what we mean to convey.

Truss’ book drives this fact home.  Numerous examples of improper punctuation usage simply make the perpetrator look ignorant ("Antique,s" is one example).  In other instances, she discusses the anticipated demise of several punctuation marks.  For each, Ms Truss makes a convincing case for retaining the particular mark as essential to clear communication.  Most of us are not like Gertrude Stein in our approach to writing, so some punctuation finds its way into our craft.  Few of us write stunningly enough that our current or future editors would be willing to overlook a non-punctuated or poorly punctuated submission.  Unless we know how to use consistent and proper punctuation to direct our agents, editors, and readers when reading our words, they may not be receiving the message we believe we are sending.

Since punctuation is something we simply must do well, why not use an enjoyable guide to help us along?  Eats, Shoots & Leaves is such a guide.  Truss cites enough history to show that she did her research but stops well short of boring the reader with details.  In fact, she left me wondering, "How did the history of punctuation get so interesting?"  She also left finding out the answer to that question up to me—the subtitle, after all, is "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" not "The Complete History of Punctuation."

She begins the book, appropriately, with a discussion about the apostrophe.  I believe it was significant negative experiences with apostrophes that drove Ms Truss to compose this book, so it is fitting that she begins with this misused, misunderstood piece of punctuation.  After completing an instructive (and for me, painful) discussion, replete with prolific examples of apostrophe abuse, Truss moved on to the far-too-often-abused comma.  I usually do well with commas, but I subscribe to what has, over the last twenty-five years, become the British rule on comma usage in a series.  Twenty-five years ago, this was the American rule as well.  Truss clearly explains why the final comma in a series is important.  I found myself cheering and thumping the table in agreement.  When was the last time you got as enthused reading about punctuation as you do at a competitive sporting event with your favorite team?  It could happen here.

Commas are followed by a refined section titled "Airs and Graces."  This is the "punctuation as art" chapter.  She discusses colons and semi-colons—did you know they were endangered?  I didn’t.  I have always loved both and used them to make just the right statement.  They are luxurious and add so much more "punch" to writing than mere periods and commas. 

Next, she offers the ever-so-elegant "Cutting a Dash" which is devoted to expressive punctuation—the exclamation point, dash, and italic.  She reminded me of my manual typewriter days when I had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe to create an exclamation point.  I had forgotten about typewriters not having that piece of punctuation.  How many of you remember this?  I don’t believe typewriter manufacturers meant to slight the exclamation mark in any way; it was most likely a space-saving measure.  But, possibly it served as a subtle reminder not to use this punctuation too carelessly.  If it still required extra keystrokes to create an exclamation mark, perhaps the writer would give greater consideration when deciding if it was needed.

Then, there are italics.  I never considered italics to be punctuation, but they definitely provide meaning to our writing.  So, whether you agree or not, consider her discussion a bonus track in the book--like the movie outtakes on DVDs.  It is a worthwhile discussion about when italics are appropriate and what a writer can accomplish with them. 

She also discusses the use of "scare quotes" as a means for an author to distance him- or herself from the word in quotes.  Improper and proper use of quotation marks formed a significant portion of this chapter.  Dashes, brackets, and using the ellipsis closed out the section.  Have you ever wondered whether dashes or commas were more appropriate to set off a phrase?  Truss discusses how you can decide.  You did know the ellipsis is those three dots used, usually, to indicate a break in a quote or that the thought is trailing off into the sunset, didn’t you?

A whole chapter is devoted to a little-used punctuation mark—the hyphen.  We tend not to discuss hyphens much, but Truss shows several examples of why the hyphen is still a vital, important piece of punctuation.  And, in case you were wondering, the hyphen is another punctuation mark that many have considered extinguishing.

Truss closes the book with a discussion of some conventions and the decline of punctuation, brought about partly through the increase in Internet and electronic mail usage.  She briefly discusses the future of the written word.  I cannot imagine the written word vanishing anytime soon.  For writers who write in English, whether British or American, I suggest this would be an essential reference manual.  But, unlike most reference manuals, you will want to read this one cover-to-cover more than once.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.  ISBN:  1-592-40087-6.  Published in Great Britain by Profile Books, Ltd, in 2003.  First American printing, April 2004, by Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.  Suggested retail:  US $17.50.