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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation » User review

It's not clever and it's not funny

  • Apr 13, 2004
  • by
It is a good thing that a book on punctuation is a best-seller; it's just a pity it's this one.

All the good work Lynne Truss does in conveying her message (viz., punctuation matters) is undone by her hectoring tone, dismal attempts at humour (made worse by a tendency to point out the punch-lines) and, in the final analysis, lack of credibility: having set out rules she then reverses over them, makes egregious appeals to authority and, every now and then, just gets things flat out wrong.

You might forgive that were there any humility in her prose, but there isn't. The first rule of hubris is: if you're going to be a clever-clogs, make sure you're right, because readers won't cut you any slack if you're not.

Lynne Truss isn't always right.

A case in point: in her introduction, Truss states (rather presumptuously) on behalf of her fellow sticklers, "we got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin-Laden but because people on the radio kept saying "enormity" when they meant "magnitude", and we hate that".

Now ignoring the curious impression this creates of Truss's value scheme, she is quite wrong to take umbrage here: "Enormity", in British English, means "extreme wickedness". The magnitude and the awfulness of an act of mass murder are closely correlated. So, even in British English, it is perfectly right to talk of the "enormity" of September 11. But if any of the voices Truss heard on the radio were American, they had another excuse. In American English enormity *does* mean "magnitude". Since Truss is so enamoured with appeals to authority, it is odd she didn't check that with the best authority on American English, Webster's dictionary. I should mention that I read English edition of this book. Given Truss's proclivities as regards the cultural heathen, it will be interesting to see whether her American sub-editors pluck up enough courage to point this out.

When she does make them, Truss's appeals to authority are even more irritating, particularly where they contradict her own rules or justify her own errors: So, the author patiently explains that an apostrophe is required to indicate possession except in the case of a possessive pronoun (i.e., "mine", "yours", "his", "hers", "its", "ours" and "theirs"). Now, I had always wondered why a possessive "its" doesn't have an apostrophe, and this explains it nicely. But then Truss completely undermines her own rule and appeals to the authority of Virginia Woolf:

"Someone wrote to say that my use of "one's" was wrong ("a common error"), and that it should be "ones". This is such rubbish that I refuse to argue about it. Go and tell Virginia Woolf it should be "A Room of Ones Own" and see how far you get."

Virginia Woolf's been dead for over fifty years, so this is pretty tough to do. But it doesn't mean Virginia Woolf was right. And Truss fails explain why this is "such rubbish".

Finally, even the book's title betrays the author's questionable sense of humour. I don't think she gets the joke. It has nothing to do with waiters or pistols (perhaps a maiden aunt told her that one?) and certainly doesn't need a "badly punctuated wildlife manual" to work, because it isn't a grammatical play; it's an oral one. The joke doesn't work when you write it down, precisely because of the ambiguous comma. You have to say it out loud (in spoken English, there is no punctuation at all).

I hope they re-title the New Zealand edition of this book, because the local version of the joke (which employs a delightful expression from NZ English) is funnier: The Kiwi, it is said, is the most anti-social bird in the bush, and no-one likes to invite it to parties, because, if it turns up at all, it just eats roots and leaves.

The joke's about shagging, Lynne.

1 September 2008: After more than four years, I am finally out of my misery: a correspondent, C. Elder, has kindly explained why "one's" should indeed take an apostrophe: Mr(s). Elder writes:

"It is only personal possessive pronouns (mine, his, her, our, etc) that do not take apostrophes. "One" is an indefinite pronoun, so using it in the possessive sense ... it takes an apostrophe, and hence why we ought not torture Ms Woolf in her grave."

So there you have it.

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review by . May 05
Not quite a usage guide and not quite a history of punctuation and not quite a comic essay,  this little gem may give you bits of all three.   It helps if you know what I mean when I say Strunk and White's,  and if you actually own a copy of Strunk and White's then you will definitely enjoy all the aspects Truss intended when this piece was published in 2003.      The title is a punctuation joke (Google it) that may have been the eye candy that encouraged …
Quick Tip by . July 15, 2010
Any book that can make grammar fun... wait, I think this is the only book. So cool. Really enjoyed this one.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
A delight for a pedant old grammarian like myself. Lazy language -- born in America, migrating to every point on the globe -- needs to be eschewed wherever possible. Truss' observations are witty, delightful, and dead accurate. If you like speaking and writing "American," don't read this book. (LOL)
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
An entertaining and educational read!
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Definitely funny for anyone who has studied or struggled with English.
Quick Tip by . June 29, 2010
A wonderful, humorous little book - also extremely useful.
Quick Tip by . June 25, 2010
Fantastic book for those, like myself, with a comma dragon to conquer.
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
Love English, this book cracks me up.
Quick Tip by . June 21, 2010
Learned about this one from Levenger. Laughed like a maniac!
review by . June 20, 2010
I have never mastered punctuation. I have found it mind numbingly dull. With that said, I simply laughed out loud at this cranky little book. Truss even made me aware of what I was laughing at, which menas I learned a little, as well. I feel this book jumps out of the starting gate with a bang and took the lead as a "laugh-out-loud" candidate. I couldn't put it down but by the middle, it began running out of steam and frankly, I got a bit weary with it. I mean, how much more interest …
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Who would have thought a book about punctuation could cause such a sensation? Certainly not its modest if indignant author, who began her surprise hit motivated by "horror" and "despair" at the current state of British usage: ungrammatical signs ("BOB,S PETS"), headlines ("DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED") and band names ("Hear'Say") drove journalist and novelist Truss absolutely batty. But this spirited and wittily instructional little volume, which was a U.K. #1 bestseller, is not a grammar book, Truss insists; like a self-help volume, it "gives you permission to love punctuation." Her approach falls between the descriptive and prescriptive schools of grammar study, but is closer, perhaps, to the latter. (A self-professed "stickler," Truss recommends that anyone putting an apostrophe in a possessive "its"-as in "the dog chewed it's bone"-should be struck by lightning and chopped to bits.) Employing a chatty tone that ranges from pleasant rant to gentle lecture to bemused dismay, Truss dissects common errors that grammar mavens have long deplored (often, as she readily points out, in isolation) and makes elegant arguments for increased attention to punctuation correctness: "without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning." Interspersing her lessons with bits of history (the apostrophe dates from the 16th century; the first semicolon appeared in 1494) and ...
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ISBN-10: 1592400876
ISBN-13: 978-1592400874
Author: Lynne Truss
Publisher: Gotham

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