Reads Eats Shoots & Leaves and Curses/Englisches Buch über Interpunktion

When Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ appeared in Britain last November, I was sure I didn’t want to read it, because the hype was suspicious.

cover

But I had the impression that more and more people whose opinions I thought I trusted, and even including Americans (it had not then been published in the USA) raved about it, I was driven to buy a copy, a big mistake, for I have not been able to get on with it – but at least I know that now!

It sold remarkably well – 700,000 copies? It was in good time for the Christmas market, so I wonder if 700,000 copies have been read. The book even has its own website. Anyway, now I have seen a few less excited discussions, I suppose my work has been done for me. Scribe at The Discouraging Word was not 100% in favour, although his entry was tongue-in-cheek against the denigrators of strict punctuation. (Picayune punctuation rules, May 7th, and see also January 6th. I see the American edition has ‘a foreword by Frank McCourt, Author of “Angela’s Ashes”‘!

Well, it’s not the author’s fault that the book has been overhyped, and she certainly deserves admiration for her commercial success – I remember being told this once when I was complaining about another great commercial success, Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’ (it was long my desire to write a satire on this called ‘A Year in Franconia’, but I realized no-one would have wanted to buy it).

I attempted to teach punctuation for twenty years, and this must be part of my reason for irritation. Every so often a new and interesting book on punctuation comes out, and there are a number of good old standards, so why should this one, that consists at least 50% of extraneous material, be so praised? I know many people like to read something light and amusing, but I prefer my punctuation discussion less packaged. The problem starts with the title joke, on the back cover. I have read this joke a number of times on the Internet over the years, and I too thought it was funny the first time I read it, but Truss spoils it. She’s one of those people who can’t tell jokes. ‘The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual…’ This punctuation reference, cheekily inserted to refer to the book, does not occur in the original joke and it is a spoiler – not only superfluous but detrimental to the humour. ‘The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.’ – Good jokes don’t need ‘sure enough’ pushed in, nor “confused waiter” instead of just “waiter”. (For the joke as it appears, see continuation of this entry).

There was a Guardian review by Stephen Poole on December 13th 2003 that I concur with. (LATER NOTE: not sure if I concur about ‘Eric’ Fowler – who he?)

bq. Truss tries very hard to be funny, and she is often successful. …And if we are to be brutally honest, her regular quotations from others who have written on this subject – true giants such as Eric Fowler, Kingsley Amis or George Bernard Shaw – serve only to show that pedantry works best when allied to an economical wit and rock-solid prose, rather than Truss’s own consistent style of overheated whimsy, which becomes oppressive even in such a brief book.

The question I am left with is: who was the book written for? On the dustjacket it says

bq. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset about it.

I wonder. It seems to me it is a book for people who haven’t thought much about punctuation and haven’t got enough to read. Definitely a popularizing book, but popularizing by ladling jokes on. The picture of the author inside the back cover says a lot:

trussw.jpgFrom the back cover of Lynne Truss’ book:

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.”

11 thoughts on “Reads Eats Shoots & Leaves and Curses/Englisches Buch über Interpunktion

  1. Paul: Did you miss where Margaret says ” I too thought it was funny the first time I read it”? So did I, for that matter, but after umpteen repetitions, this wouldn’t get a chuckle out of me even if it weren’t so badly told. Say, have you heard the one about why the chicken crossed the road?

    Margaret: My condolences. I’m glad I resisted the temptation to get the book.

  2. LH, I imagine Paul means the book as a whole, whereas I meant the panda joke. I must admit to not having managed to read the whole book. Sometimes I remind myself of a Larson cartoon showing three isolated people with a few balloons in a huge empty hall, labelled something like The World Conference of People Who Didn’t Like Dances With Wolves.

  3. Well, I read the book quickly, it doesn’t take long. At least the author has put the focus on punctuation, which is something that few university students these days have ever heard of. The same goes for grammar, of course: “What’s a genitive?” asked one of our student interns last year (third-year German student, BTW). “How about possessive?”, we said. “What’s a possessive?” And so on.

    Incidentally, and I’m not the first to ask this; but shouldn’t “zero tolerance” be hyphenated here? (i.e. zero-tolerance approach).

  4. Robin: Yes – perhaps that’s for Volume 2!

    To quote the end of the Guardian review I linked to, one of the dangers of the book is that it makes the reader over-fussy:

    ‘Doesn’t a zero-tolerance approach to punctuation properly mean that one should not tolerate any punctuation at all? Also, according to Truss’s own preference for hyphenating adjectival compounds, there surely ought to be a hyphen between “Zero” and “Tolerance”. Otherwise it could be read as saying something obscure about how we should tolerate zeros being used as punctuation marks. You see how this kind of thing is catching?’

  5. I agree that her style becomes tiresome, but I liked it because it touches on a subject of great interest to me in a playful manner. I didn’t learn that much from it, but it did amuse me. I think I was very excited about it because people around me who wouldn’t normally read about language or punctuation enjoyed it and it allowed for a few interesting conversations on a subject seldom mentioned otherwise.

  6. Céline: yes, I see your point. It’s very much popular journalism, and probably that’s necessary to interest people who haven’t thought about it before. That’s why I can’t see it as written for ‘people who love punctuation and get upset about it’. I suppose would have helped interest some of my students. I found it hard to accept that people training to be translators were not interested in the nuts and bolts, although that’s probably the norm.

  7. It’s written for persons who wish to luxuriate in unearned feelings of superiority. Hasn’t Truss worked for both the Torygraph and Radio 4?

    For punctuation, I generally recommend Larry Trask’s brief and authoritative Penguin guide, but I don’t suppose anyone has ever taken any notice.

  8. Des: yes, you’re quite right, now you mention it, I think I had that feeling too, without being aware of it. – I don’t think the Telegraph is all that bad a paper, or at least it wasn’t till a few years ago. The dustjacket says she has written three novels and numerous radio comedy dramas, was the TV critic of the Times for six years and a sports columnist there for a year. She reviews books for the Sunday Times and wrote or writes for Woman’s Journal. This book followed on a Radio 4 series called Cutting a Dash.

  9. The Torygraph (unlike the Murdoch Times) is OK – you know where you are with it. But no good could possibly come of a Radio 4 series called Cutting a Dash, and duly hasn’t. Let’s start a write-in campaign for Fowler’s Modern English Usage as “Book at Bedtime”. That’d show ’em!

  10. I think I have the Trask somewhere, but I can’t remember what I used to use – I tried to put together the problems specific to Germans. The main problem seemed to be that some students would write essays with no commas at all, although they could just as easily make a mistake of omission as of commission.

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