Book Review: “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss is a witty, funny, and accessible author whose love of the English language shows on every page. All of this makes Eats, Shoots & Leaves a delight to read. If you are looking for a great quick-reference to brush-up on some of the lesser known intricacies of English punctuation, or simply looking for some authentication for your tendency to employ “corrective graffiti,” then this is your book.

Lynne’s main argument is that correct punctuation is important because it clarifies meaning. She cautions us all against sloppy punctuation and warns against the potential for disaster if we do not heed her warnings. While she is justly dismayed by the apparent pervasiveness of punctuation errors, and what these errors say about the state of English education, I finished this book feeling like she had not convincingly made her case.

Let me first state very clearly: Yes, proper punctuation is important. But is our current state of punctuation usage in a disastrous decline? I do not believe that it is. And despite how much I enjoyed this book, between the anecdotal evidence offered and her cause célèbre, the apostrophe, I am inclined to say that the situation is nowhere near as bad as Lynne would like us to believe. Moreover, the importance of proper punctuation has more to do with how we represent ourselves in society than it does in clarifying meaning. If we want to be taken seriously in academics, business, our social lives, etc. it behooves us to write clearly and follow the rules.

The lack of punctuation while text messaging has struck one of Lynne’s many grammar nerves. What surprises me about including this in her argument is that her data contradict her conclusions:

[We] asked people in the street…if they used proper punctuation when sending text messages and were surprised – not to say incredulous – when nine out of ten people said yes.

A full ninety percent report that they use proper punctuation. Aside from her upwelling sense of incredulity, how does she handle this contradiction? She dismisses the data:

I didn’t believe those people. Either they were weirdly self-selecting or they were simply lying for the microphone.

Did I read that correctly? Yes. While it is possible that all of her respondents are some sort of secret grammar gremlins, clandestinely shirking punctuation rules while texting in private but publicly professing compliance, it is archetypally priggish to assume this of others rather than reassess one’s own presuppositions.

Despite the prominence of apostrophe usage in Lynne’s book, it is the weakest example to argue for the meaning-based importance of punctuation. I say this because it is the least useful in clarifying meaning and, in most cases, we could do without it and still understand each other quite well. For example, one of the conventions of apostrophe usage is that it is used to indicate time or quantity. The missing apostrophe in the expression “two weeks notice” serves as Lynne’s overused example of grammar faults.

If, as Lynne argues, punctuation is the stitching of our language, what happens if we don’t use our stitching? What are the consequences of missing this apostrophe? According to Lynne, disaster:

Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and the buttons fall off.

Indeed. The representation of meaning carried by the apostrophe in “two weeks’ notice” holds the meaning together lest all of us be confused. It is clear that without this apostrophe there is some ambiguity as to whether “two weeks” refers to time or….what?

Nothing. Apostrophe usage in this case is purely a stylistic convention. Many of the other apostrophe rules – indicating possessive, indicating omission of letters and figures in dates, indicating plurals of letters and words, etc. – fall under this same category. There is a notable exception to this in apostrophe usage that distinguishes “we’re” from “were,” which have distinct phonologies. On the other hand, the use of “it’s” as a possessive comes from a confusion between two of the rules – indicating omission of letters and indicating possessive. The offense here is forgetting that apostrophe use in possessives does not apply to pronouns and determiners (“its” plays both roles). So, yes, there are times when the apostrophe has an important role and is called upon to assist context. But is it necessary to clarify meaning?

“What, though, does it mean to say everyone, or almost everyone, speaks incorrectly?” asks English professor Jack Lynch. We can ask the same regarding “uses apostrophes incorrectly.” In the case of “two weeks notice,” we are witnesses to the “indicates time or quantity” rule becoming inoperative. Our language history is changing before our eyes. It is a shift towards elimination because, as a stylistic convention, it is, quite frankly, useless.

Clearly, there is something else that has greater influence on our ability to understand what others mean than simply punctuation. We don’t, after all, speak our commas and apostrophes. That something else is context. “Two weeks notice” and “two weeks’ notice” sound exactly the same, as does “the boy’s mother” and “the boys mother.” Context provides the clues that guide meaning.

Let’s face it. If you find an entry for “panda” in a wildlife manual that reads, in part, “eats, shoots and leaves,” and you think that this means the panda fires a gun and walks away, then punctuation has interfered with your ability to understand the meaning of the entry. (That, or you’re being a self-righteous pedant). Again, a strike against the “clarifies meaning” argument.

While I enjoyed the journey through English punctuation rules lead by Lynne, I do not share her offense at the state of the English language and its users. More importantly, I don’t think she convincingly stated her case, to put it mildly. Sure, there are times when punctuation does clarify meaning. However, context is king when it comes to meaning and it relegates punctuation to a mere footnote for the occasional difficulty. The importance of proper punctuation, therefore, comes not from its relation to meaning but from what it signifies about our place in society, whether we want to be taken seriously when writing, and how much effort we are willing to put into learning the nuances of the rules.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin