BOOK REVIEW: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss

 

I didn’t plan to write a book review of this book, but a relative forwarded a copy to me recently and it synchronistically crossed paths with another news report about a newly translated version of the Bible and—oddly—I thought that there were some correlations to be made between the two… So without further ado, here’s what I have to say about Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham Books, 2004 [U.S. release])…

 

I had actually purchased this book-form diatribe on the modern abuse of punctuation when it first was published here in the United States in 2004 (the author is herself British and the book was first published there in 2003)…mostly because there was so much hype about it, and having worked in the publishing industry as a proofreader, copyeditor, and editor, I could hardly pass up the opportunity. And neither, apparently, could the thousands and thousands of literary and grammar geeks, because if there’s anything that grammar-philes love, it’s being able to tear one-another apart with one-ups-manship. And in no time flat the author—Lynne Truss—had been roundly disenfranchised as any sort of expert. It sort of took the wind out of the sails before I even got to crack the book.

 

Truss meant to create, I think, a humorous romp through common contemporary writing error…but such feigned indignation is a rather dangerous game when playing among vicious grammarians.

 

Lynne Truss

The author, Lynne Truss, at a book signing.

 

So I did read the book, and perhaps because it’s hard for me sometimes to turn off my proofreader’s eye, I was, without much trouble, able to find discrepancies. In such cases it’s hard to know whether to blame the author (perhaps given too much credit and too much leeway as a supposed “expert”) or the publisher, who ought to have provided more editorial oversight. (We might also blame the demise of the traditional publishing house budget, which tends to cut proofreaders and editorial staff first.)

 

I did find it interesting that in the frontice pages preceding the preface, the publisher found it necessary to acknowledge that the book, in whole, had “been reprinted exactly as it was in is original British edition, complete with British examples, spellings and, yes, punctuation.” This is no small thing, and globalization aside, while American English indeed originates from a common “mother-tongue,” there is a plethora of differences. It was, in fact, one of my primary duties as a copyeditor at an international publishing firm to translate British English into American English. The very fact that I was hired to do the job proves that there’s a difference.

 

So why would a publisher re-producing a British book on punctuation NOT translate details into a useful reference for Americans? Indeed, many forms of punctuation in British English are in complete opposition to proper American usage (for instance, periods and commas appearing outside of closing quotation marks, which is never acceptable in American English…their prevalence more and more noticeable even in mainstream publications due partly to negligible in-house editing, partly to a retreat from grammar education in schools, and partly from the obfuscation caused by globalization previously mentioned). As if there weren’t already enough rules to abide by in an eubonics-slang, text-emoji, and phonetics-literate world, why would a publisher confuse readers interested in reading this book—who are undoubtedly only interested in trying to ameliorate their writing skills—by proffering them an altogether different set of rules? Ludicrous…

 


Everyone just follow the leader…even if it feels wrong.

 

The bigger issue in contention with books like Truss’s is that trying to stay the tides of a malleable and fluid language in preference for some grand-meridian of propriety over language and grammar…is futile. Even among sticklers of style and usage there are several contradictory resources: The Chicago Manual of Style; The Associated Press Stylebook; The American Library Association Standards Manual; The American Medical Association Manual of Style; and the list goes on and on… What’s more [it used to be standard that] every publisher and print company had their own in-house style-sheets and rules, only complicating things further. Thus, for virtually every grammatical or punctuation snafu that sends some perfectionist into a tizzy, there is a style resource that often can be found to put the pundit in his or her place.

 

For example, in her chapter on hyphens and hyphenation, Truss laments the mis-spliced word at the end of a line (when the word is hyphenated and wrapped-around to the next line for space considerations). She correctly indicates that it is considered proper to hyphenate the word between syllables. She neglects to mention that single-letter first-syllables are not considered acceptable line-breaking junctures. The whole point becomes moot, however, when one considers that The New York Times made a stylistic decision in the late 1970s to do away with such rules, and since then cannot be relied upon as a resource faithfully exemplifying the splitting of words at their properly respectable syllabic defining points.

 

transparent panda gif photo: Panda Smah Computer angrypandasmash.gif
“You no good son-of-a-b*tch…you misused an en-dash in your report!!!”

 

Truss also pines for the disappearing hyphenated conglomerative word, so prevalent in the first-half of the twentieth century. It’s absolutely true that most manuals of style, as well as most independent publishers, advocate the elimination of hyphenated words, deeming them antiquated. I, personally, tend to perpetuate hyphenation in my own writing, if for nothing else than a sort of literary dandy-ism. And different publishers have amended rules of hyphenation with several alternative punctuation techniques. As noted, the most common of these [techniques] is simple elimination. But The New Yorker took a different tack when de-hyphenation resulted in confusion—such as when two abutting vowels in separate syllables create a confusing “flow” for the reading eye. The New Yorker solves this problem with the historical diaresis mark.

 

In other hyphen confusion, Truss only fleetingly mentions use of the en-dash (which is different from an hyphen, as well as from an em-dash) but she neglects to provide any rules of usage. What’s more, she might be taken more seriously if she used them properly or consistently herself. (Correct usage of the em-dash in the context of a sentence is to abut it with the last letter of the word preceding it and the first letter of the word following it… In other words, there should be no “space” on either end of an em-dash, a prescription that Truss fails to follow, yet the author of her book’s “Foreword”—Frank McCourt—manages to accomplish the feat just fine. (Consistency of usage, one would think, at least, would prove some level of editorial standards.)

 

I’m going to spare you and not even go into Truss’s negligence of the serial comma…

 

Let's Eat Grandma!

 

For its part, I’m not certain the general American reading public notices these things…or cares. Those so-called “sticklers” of grammatical rule and proper punctuation outside of the educational system are more often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder and dismissed with annoyance. We ought, I suppose, to be grateful to that tribe for retaining some sense of regularity and read-ability. Without them, our language may have devolved into something less coherent and something even less collective than we complain about now.

 

Perhaps this brings me back to the flexibility of language, its plasticity, even its poesy in colloquialism. When a new generation can create an entire language out of acronyms, and a generation after that can create an entire language out of Japanese smiley-face emoticons, where is “grammar” going?

 

And as a reader of symbols—as a tarot reader—I have to question where the line is drawn in what and how symbols can transfer ideas and information…because not only are the tarot cards symbols, and not only are they full of symbols, but language is a set of symbols, too, that transfer a complex but communal set of ideas and allow communication to happen between individuals. As an editor, I have tended towards the lenient, allowing an author to express him- or herself using their own forms of colloquialism (as long as it remains somewhat consistent and coherent). We have to do that because language continues to change and expand all the time. Webster’s and Oxford Dictionaries continue to add words every year to their litany of definable terms dependent on the vernacular that sprouts up or “trends.”

 

The blossoming of tarot decks that are now being published seem to present more and more minimalist images, or representative images that are supposed to evoke the traditional meanings of the 78 cards—themselves a representation of ideas from a historical period in which they sometimes represented something profoundly different than what we assign to them today. Or deck creators and artists just create a new language altogether in the case of some “oracle” decks. Meaning changes. Language is fluid. And it still holds meaning. That’s fascinating.

 

Passage in Genesis from the emoji Bible

 

So when I read that an anonymous author had translated a new version of the Bible for millennials…and that the new translation consisted of over 3,200 pages of emojis in a sequence that was “translated” from the King James version…who am I to say that it’s not a valid resource full of meaning to some young, iPhone-hypnotized, street-smart kid looking for meaning through a language that speaks to her? I have no doubts that I’d be about as impressed with this emoji Bible as I was with Truss’s punctuation manifesto…it just doesn’t speak to me, or what I understand as symbolically relevant and relate-able.

 

So it’s a good thing there are so many tarot decks out there that can speak to so many different types of people. The next time someone belittles you for not knowing a second language, just smile knowing that you do indeed know several languages…music is a separate language, tarot cards are a separate language, text messaging is a separate language, reading a soup can label can be a separate language, and even listening to a junior high school student can be a challenge of learning a different language. Language might be malleable, but so are our minds—we create the extended malleability of language and give it meaning, after all.

 

But it’s interesting, isn’t it, thinking about creating meaning, interpretation, and conveying context? …Which is what we do when we write a sentence. …Or what we do when we throw some cards down and try to convey some meaning to our clients.

 

…So I shall probably donate Truss’s punctuation resource to the local library to sell at their summer book sale…or shall I?… Have you ever had the quandary of whether or not to pass along a book that you felt might do more damage to someone’s grammatical education than not? Then again, maybe it will chock full of meaning and insight for someone else…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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