Book review – Eats, shoots and leaves

Today, we’re doing a book review!

I know, I know, that’s a bit different from what I usually do, but I thought I’d try something new and as I recently read this book, I thought it was a good place to start.

I will be doing some more book reviews in the future so if you have any books to suggest, do speak up!

Today, we’re taking a look at Eats, shoots and leaves!

A non-fiction book by Lynne Truss, it was first released in 2003 and quickly became quite popular. Its focus is on the decaying state of modern punctuation and the title itself is a clever syntactic ambiguity derived from a joke.

The joke goes like this:

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. “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.

– Truss (2009)
It’s actually quite clever.

Anyway, the book has seven chapters (including the introduction). By the end of the book, you’ll have read about apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks, question marks, quotation marks, dashes, brackets, ellipses, emoticons and, finally, hyphens.

Now, I study punctuation myself – it is what I spend all of my days doing (no, I am not kidding) and there are a number of things that I thought were good about this little book.

First, punctuation has a (really) long history. I was impressed to discover that Truss actually discusses the history of many of her included punctuation marks. Why was that impressive, you ask? Well, most reference guides, style guides, etc. simply do not bother.

Second, the book itself often has a dry wit to it. I did occasionally find myself actually laughing – which is not something I associate with reading about punctuation, although it does hold a special place in my heart nonetheless.

Third, the easy and accessible way in which the text was written made it appeal to the general public. I cannot stress this enough: massive kudos to Truss for taking a topic that most people find utterly boring and turning it into a top-selling book!

On the other hand, there were a few things that I did not find personally appealing about Eats, shoots and leaves...

The views expressed in the book struck me as rather prescriptive. As a linguist, in whose field prescriptivism is almost a profanity, I simply could not approve of that particular message.

Punctuation, like everything else in language, is never static. It is always changing, always making slight shifts in meaning, always being used by some in a way that, for others, would be considered “wrong”. That’s just the way language, and punctuation, works.

Secondly, while the book often made me smile, it, unfortunately, also sometimes struck me as a bit mean-spirited. The descriptions of previous scholars on the topic were occasionally… less than kind, at one memorable point stating:

“Are you beginning to suspect – as I am – that there was something wrong at home?”

Truss (2009: 144)

on the topic of Gertrud Stein’s opinions of the question mark. That strikes me as somewhat less entertaining.

However, although I wouldn’t, perhaps, recommend you to buy this book, it did get a lot of positive reviews. If you’re interested in seeing what Truss had to say on punctuation – which, again, was often quite funny – check it out.

That’s all for this week! Next week, I’ll be starting you on a new topic – isn’t that mysterious?

Check it out then!

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References

Today, I only have one reference to give you:

Truss, Lynne. 2009. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Fourth Estate.

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