E is for Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Back Cover:   A panda walks into a cafe.  He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. 

"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit.  The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says at the door. "look it up." 

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"Panda.  Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves." 

Are you a stickler for punctuation?  Do misspellings and bad grammar and misplaced commas drive you crazy?  Yeah, me too. After 25 some odd years working as an administrative assistant (glorified secretary) in which, every single document that passed through my hands had to be absolutely perfect before it went out, I'm a stickler for punctuation. So when I came across this book the other day, I just had to read it.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a witty, interesting, story filled guide to punctuation.  There are several chapters including

1)  Introduction - The Seventh Sense

Truss wittily explains how one misplaced comma can change the whole sense of a sentence.

"The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation is not that it's an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied.   The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning." (pg 20)

2)  The Tractable Apostrophe.

The apostrophe seems to be the most misunderstood. She provides excellent examples for the correct ways to use the Apostrophe.  We've all experience the heart attack of the wrong use of its versus it's.  Let's not forget to mention your versus you're, there versus they're and proverbial possessive egg's versus the plural eggs.  

"The rule is:  the word "it's" (with apostrophe) stands for "it is" or "it has". If the word does not stand for "it is" or "it has" then what you require is "its".  (pg 42)  

She makes it sound remarkably simple, doesn't she.  And the feminist or hard working females of our species will heartily join in and agree

"In fact one might dare say that while the full stop is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon, and succumbing to burnout from all the thankless effort."  (pg 46)
3)  That'll Do, Comma

The comma, the place you pause, to breath, to emphasize a certain stop in the sentence.  One misplaced comma and you change the whole meaning.

"When it comes to improving the clarity of a sentence, you can nearly always argue that one should go in; you can nearly always argue that one should come out." pg 80

Comma's are quite busy little things as there are (not they're) commas for lists, for joining, filling gaps, before direct speech, setting off interjections and those that come in pairs.   Truss used one caveat when it comes to the comma

"The rule is:  don't use commas like a stupid person. I mean it. More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity." (pg 96)  

I love her. 

4) Airs and Graces

Ah, the endangered colon and semicolon that allows a sentence to run on and on.  Virginia Wolfe, Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw favored them both, allowing them to write wonderfully long, stream of consciousness sentences that by the time you reached the end, you forgotten where you began.  According to Truss, colons and semicolons give air and grace to our language.

5)  Cutting a Dash

The history and usage of exclamation points, question marks, italics, quote marks, brackets, etc.  They all help you make a point, ask a question, emphasize something or make sense of conversations or quote.

6) A Little Used Punctuation Mark

Hyphens - what are they good for?

7) Merely Conventional Signs 

Truss takes on the loss of grammar, emoticons and folks shortening, abbreviating, and leaving out the punctuation in emails and the curse of netspeak.   She totally had me there.  I've been know to refuse to do business with people who send me emails full of misspellings, poor grammar and punctuation. Seriously, if they can't get it right in an email, do I want to trust them with representing me in print?   I think people forget that even though it is an email, it still needs to be perfect.  It's a representation of them.

"If we value the way we have been trained to think by centuries of absorbing the culture of the printed word, we must not allow the language to return to the chaotic scriptio continua swamp from which it so bravely crawled less than two thousand years ago.  We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places.  Proper punctuation is both the sign and the clause of clear thinking.  If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable." (pg 202)

Amen, sister. Can I hear a hallelujah!  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and learned a few things along the way.  I highly recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.  Now I just need to learn to not put two spaces after every period.  That my friends is a whole other story.


  1. I LOVE THIS BOOK : ) I refer many a student to its wisdoms ;)

  2. Such a fun book -- and so accessible. I've had it on my shelf since it was published.

  3. First- I'm seriously thinking about all the comments I've left and now wonder how many errors I've made!! LOL

    Second- I must buy a copy of this for my library!

    Third- Your review was tremendously awesome!

  4. My dad referred me to your blog, probably based on this one post alone. I tend to be a bit of a grammar nazi myself, which is why I'm now a copywriter. I will definitely have to read this book. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I've had this book for such a long time! I love the recommendations and such that it gives, so I think I really need to pull it out and give it a try. Thanks for reminding me! :)

  6. @Klo - good idea.

    @Beth - she had a great sense of humor

    @Staci - Aw thanks. Yes, you must buy a copy. Not that you need it, but it is tremendously helpful

    @Sarah - Thanks for dropping by

    @Becky - It is great and helpful without being dry and boring.


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