Excerpt from Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Eats, Shoots and Leaves

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2004, 240 pages
    Apr 2006, 240 pages

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves is not a book about grammar. I am not a grammarian. To me a subordinate clause will for ever be (since I heard the actor Martin Jarvis describe it thus) one of Santa's little helpers. A degree in English language is not a prerequisite for caring about where a bracket is preferred to a dash, or a comma needs to be replaced by a semicolon. If I did not believe that everyone is capable of understanding where an apostrophe goes, I would not be writing this book. Even as a book about punctuation, it will not give all the answers. There are already umpteen excellent punctuation guides on the market; there is even a rather delightful publication for children called The Punctuation Repair Kit, which takes the line "Hey! It's uncool to be stupid!" – which is a lie, of course, but you have to admire them for trying.

The trouble with all of these grammar books is that they are read principally by keen foreigners; meanwhile, native English-speakers who require their help are the last people who will make the effort to buy and read them. I am reminded of a scene in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks when an oily Hugh Grant offers to help ignoramuses Allen and Tracey Ullman (newly wealthy) with any sort of cultural education. "Is there anything you want to know?" he asks Allen, who has been sullen throughout the interview. And Allen says reluctantly, "Well, I would like to learn how to spell Connecticut." What a great line that is. I would like to learn how to spell Connecticut. If you've similarly always wanted to know where to use an apostrophe, it means you never will, doesn't it? If only because it's so extremely easy to find out.

So if this book doesn't instruct about punctuation, what does it do? Well, you know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation. It's about how we got the punctuation we have today; how such a tiny but adaptable system of marks allows us to notate most (but not all) types of verbal expression; and how (according to Beachcomber) a greengrocer in days of yore inspired Good Queen Bess to create the post of Apostropher Royal. But mainly it's about making sticklers feel good about their seventh-sense ability to see dead punctuation (whisper it in verge-of-tears tones: "It doesn't know it's dead") and to defend their sense of humour. I have two cartoons I treasure. The first shows a row of ten Roman soldiers, one of them prone on the ground, with the cheerful caption (from a survivor of the cull), "Hey, this decimation isn't as bad as they say it is!" The second shows a bunch of vague, stupid-looking people standing outside a building, and behind them a big sign that says "Illiterates' Entrance". And do you want to know the awful truth? In the original drawing, it said, "Illiterate's Entrance", so I changed it. Painted correction fluid over the wrong apostrophe; inserted the right one. Yes, some of us were born to be punctuation vigilantes.

Reprinted from Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Lynne Truss, 2003. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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