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Eats, Shoots & Leaves Discussion


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Hey everyone, this was July’s book club selection. I apologize for the delay. I completely underestimated the amount of work I would be able to get done while traveling to the two speaking engagements. Lesson learned: mentallyI am incapable of doing anything useful while traveling or attending conferences. Except for talking.

I’m also just going to announce August’s selection here today. Something short, since the month is slipping away:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Trusse is one of two pieces of writing about grammar that made me laugh as hard as any other book has. The other was the David Foster Wallace essay “Authority And American Usage,” which appears in his collection Consider The Lobster.

Both talk about punctuation in what would probably be agonizing detail for many people. I’d like to give an example that might help you decide which category you’re currently in.

I was talking with a learned bookperson once. I had an awful cold and made the mistake of saying that I was “feeling nauseous.”

“No you’re not,” said the person who will go unnamed.

“Uh, I’m pretty sure I am. I feel like I’m going to–”

“No no no, listen. You’re feeling nauseated. If you feel naseous, then it means you are inducing nausea in others.”

If being corrected like this would annoy you, you might be annoyed by Lynne Truss’s book on puncuation. That’s what Eats is. A book on punctuation, written by a proud stickler who is dismayed at the state of grammar in the UK and the United States.

Dismayed to the point that she fantasizes about walking around her city with an apostrophe on the end of a stick, holding it up to words on signs that are missing apostrophes entirely, or are placed incorrectly.

How important is grammar?

Is it worth this much consternation? I think it is, although I’m more lax than she is.

I’ll give you another exampe that isn’t about punctuation, but that is relevant. I made a joke on Facebook not too long ago about hearing someone say the word “tooken” instead of both “took” and “taken.”

Someone immediately jumped in and said that if the point comes across and is understood, then it is just as good.

That is an idiotic argument and a dangerous one.

ur gr8 cuz read my blogz got 2 no wut eye meeeen. holla holla.

You might be able to tease out what I’m getting at there, but why would you want to? Why should you have to? Words mean things, so does punctuation. I am unapologetic about trying to use the right word whenever I can. That said, Truss might consider this review a grammatical nightmare.

I don’t feel as strident about punctuation as she does, but I don’t discount it and I’m always trying to improve my own usage.

A relatively harmless example

The title of the book comes from this joke:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.’Why?’ asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.’Well, I’m a panda,’ he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

This is really not a high stakes mistake, but can you see how the placement of that comma changes the entire meaning of the sentence?

There are documents out there that need to be impervious to misinterpretation. We can’t have our laws written in AOL chatspeak. If you’ve ever tried to assemble a barbecue or a swingset and your instructions have been written by someone with no concept of English or grammar, you probably spent a day swearing and lashing out at anyone who came near.

If you want more information along those lines, I highly recommend George Orwell’s Politics And The English Language.

Other offenders in the book

So far I’ve mentioned apostrophes and commas. But Truss includes sections on colons, exclamation points, semicolons, hyphens, brackets, emoticons, and more.

I don’t blame you if you are thinking “Wow that doesn’t sound at all gripping or interesting.” But I want to say this: the book is funny, it is useful, it is absolutely hilarious, and if you’re interested in better communcation in writing, it is a mistake not to read it.

I can’t convey Truss’s humor here. If you enjoy British wit, read the book. I laughed on every single page. I’m not sure what I find so enjoyable about someone’s absolute outrage over punctuation, but I enjoyed it as much as any book I would consider a comedy or farce. And I do understand her annoyance with people who are simply lazy and have no interest in speaking or writing correctly.

Many of the people I know who fall into that category insist on speaking loudly and writing constantly, so I can’t really ignore them.

Let’s talk about this. How important is grammar to you? Does the slippery slope of poor communication exist? Think about the movie Idiocracy if you have seen it. I think Trusse might tell you that’s where we’re headed if we don’t do something about this.  


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  • Amy J August 11, 2011, 9:34 am

    I read Eats, Shoots and Leaves a few years ago and found myself laughing out loud. I teach composition and English grammar and run across all kinds of punctuation misdemeanors.

    I consider myself a descriptive linguist and am interested in language evolution. It’s fascinating to watch the changes to our language. I guess to me, change is a sign that our language is healthy. If it weren’t healthy, it wouldn’t adapt to change.

    The problem comes when people confuse the different varieties/dialects of English. I try to get across to students that formal, written standard English is the dialect for professional and academic discourse. It ensures you are understood by the greatest number of people. Afterall, when you communicate, your goal is to convey a message so that it is received (decoded) in the way you intended it. Using the appropriate dialect is the first step to successful communication.

    Does it bother me when people violate grammar rules? Sure. The level of “botheredness” depends on the rhetorical context. A post on a facebook wall – not so much. A blog that hundreds of people from all over the world read – more so. A textbook on grammar – sends me into orbit.

  • Jessica August 12, 2011, 6:47 am

    Love, love, love this book! It’s been on my bookshelf for quite a while now, and I’ve actually found a few people to share it with (who would actually appreciate it). Improper apostrophe placement tends to make me a wee bit apoplectic, so I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit in Truss. I’ll actually go back now and again to review some of the trickier punctuation rules that aren’t used so much. My husband thinks I’m quite the nerd to love this book so much, but he also consistently adds apostrophes to everything, so what does he know?

    P.S. I have gotten in a “Facebook war” over grammar on one of my posts… all in good fun, of course. But I got my geek on and explained why my grammar was, indeed, correct.