Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution. -- Lynne Truss

Can a pedant's guide to English language, grammar and punctuation, at the same time be very funny?

The answer is yes, if it is written by Lynne Truss.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss is very witty, at times highly amusing.

When I hear people around me open their mouths and speak the English language, I inwardly groan, it is that bad. And these are the native speakers, who should know better, the foreign speakers of the language I have no problem with as they usually put the native speakers to shame.

That is the effect bad punctuation has on Lynne Truss.

When my lovely Czech friend stayed with me one summer, she was worried at her use of the English language. She had nothing to worry about. As I kept trying to tell her, her spoken English was better than 95% of the native population. She thought I was trying to flatter her or be kind. I wasn't, it was a simple statement of truth.

I was lucky, I was taught English by a teacher, who had for the time, thoroughly modern views. At a time when grammar was taught, we were taught no grammar. Our teacher believed good English flowed from exposure to good English, good literature. To this day, I know no grammar, and what grammar I do know is from learning Spanish.

What I have noticed, is those of my generation who were schooled (drilled may be a better description) in good grammar, may write what is grammatically correct, but it is stilted and wooden.

For me, I know if something is 'correct', because it flows smoothly, it feels right. But even I would agree with Lynne Truss, that at times the knowledge of a rule is helpful. And to my surprise, all the rules of punctuation she spells out, maybe not known to me as rules, nevertheless are familiar to me.

Where though I would agree with Lynne Truss is today's standards are abysmally low, and seem to be getting worse by the day.

If the emphasis was on being able to express oneself, we have a generation, nay a population, that lacks even that ability.

It was thought that all communication was verbal, but with the advent of the Internet, written communication has become increasingly important, for the writing of blogs, e-mails, reviews on websites like Amazon, BookCrossing, filing reports and commentary on Indymdeia etc.

When I read a review on an Internet site, I now rarely do, what strikes me is the ignorance of the writer, such that I fail to notice the content.

This was brought home to me by my niece on Christmas Day when she told me how it was found necessary to fail a university student for her course work. Her entire essay had been written in textese, ie text English!

It may be hard to believe, but there is a Apostrophe Protection Society, they even have a website, with excellent examples of apostrophe abuse. What they lack, bemoans Lynne Truss, is a militant wing, that in the dead of night, like graffiti artists, goes out and spray paints over offending punctuation.

We have a situation where you will be lucky to find a native speaker of English who can spell either 'grammar' or 'sentence', let alone use or construct in a meaningful and well-informed way.

This concern on the use, if not misuse, of the English language is not new. Lynne Truss cites an example of a schoolmaster in 1644, raising his concern.

A more contemporary example was Ronnie Barker reading a letter in the TV comedy series Porridge.

There is a world of difference between

Now I must go and get on my lover.


Now I must go and get on, my lover.

Many more examples are given, for example:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

At times Lynne Truss is pedantic. Does it matter when writing the time, that we use for 'seven-thirty' not 7.30 but 7:30 or 7-30, and should we not in any case have stated whether morning or afternoon, or else expressed as a 24 hour clock, ie 0730 or 1930?

I always uses 7:30 or 7-30, never 7.30, and does it even matter, provided that we are consistent?

Language changes, we do not, for example, now capitalise all nouns, or do as the Spanish do, place an upside down question mark at the beginning of a sentence. How else do we know it is a question, is it not too late to wait to the end of a sentence? But none of this is an excuse for today's sloppy language.

Our own use of language changes. I used to use the semicolon in my writing, now it never, or very rarely, appears.

That which we take today as the norm, has not always been so. The initial letter of a sentence was not a capital letter until the 13th century and was not consistently applied until the 16th century.

From learned experts in the language, from Dr Johnson onwards, it has been accepted that a language is not set in stone, it evolves.

We could go so far as to argue that if everyone fails to distinguish, let alone understand the finer points of grammar, then it has outlived its usefulness. The other end of the spectrum would be to argue that if that was what I learnt at school in the 1950s, or any date before, then it must be right and should be rigidly adhered to and enforced.

This though is to miss the point, if we do not agree on the grammar and more specifically punctuation, then we lose all sense of what we are trying to communicate, as the given examples have shown.

There is, for example, clearly a difference between

The man looked at his dinner, then the dog's.


The man looked at his dinner, then the dogs.

Similarly we should not got too hung up if we start a sentence with an And or a But, or as John Humphrys does in Lost for Words, for preceding an and in a sentence with a comma.

It is not just the sense of a piece that relies on its correct punctuation, huge doctrinal differences may hang in the balance.

There is a huge difference between

Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.


Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.

or between

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way for the Lord.


The voice of him that crieth: In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord.

Hebrew texts, not only lack punctuation, they also lack spacing between the words. You were to meditate on the meaning of what was written, what had been dictated by God, and faithfully reproduced by generations of scribes. It was arrogant of Man to believe he could, with his punctuation, express the meaning of God.

We see a similar dialogue taking place between miniaturists in the novel My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. [see BCID 5745751]

That the ancient Hebrew texts were dictated, then written, letter by letter, means Kabbalists can spend years, if not generations, looking for hidden messages within what can be seen a gigantic code. Indeed the Kabbalists believed the entire history and future of the universe was written within these ancient texts, like some cosmic DNA. [see God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism]

Eats, Shoots & Leaves evolved from a BBC Radio 4 programme, Cutting a Dash, presented by Lynne Truss. It is well researched, with a very good bibliography. Lots of interesting anecdotes and examples and lots of useful references for further reading. The only minor criticism is that it would have been useful to have had an appendix gathering together all the rules of punctuation given in the book.

Minor criticism to one side, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is an excellent book on the use of punctuation. The sad fact though is it will be read by foreign speakers of English whilst the native speakers will continue to be content to wallow in their ignorance.

The classic books on the use of the English language

Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge

The King's English by H W Fowler

Fowler's Modern English Usage

Mind the Stop by G V Carey

Plain Words by Ernest Gower

For a contemporary account and compliment to Lynne Truss

Lost for Words by John Humphrys [see BCID 5386352]

Copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress checked on the Internet via a unique BookCrossing ID (BCID).

For my lovely friend Iva who is not in need of this guide, but who I think would enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- April 2008 rev 2