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Review of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," by Lynne Truss

Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Not everything has gone haywire in a world that converts this haughtily subtitled book--"The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation"--into a bestseller." (I'll leave it to the reader to discover the meaning of the title.) First in England, now in America, it has perched, proud, aloof, atop massive tomes about war, spies and lying presidents. Witty, smart, passionate, it gives long over-due attention to "the traffic signals of language."

     Miss Truss (one longs to call her "Miss Truss" because she evokes the snippy teachers who eventually became our favorites) issues a rallying cry to all devotes of her just cause, "sticklers" who champion correct punctuation: "... fight like tigers."

      To hearten the troops, she evokes punctuation's noble history, praising heroes, denouncing enemies. In an early English grammar, Richard Mulcaster found even a possible element of survival in the comma, "a small crooked point, which in writing followeth some small branch of the sentence, & in reading warneth vs to rest there, & to help our breth a little."

     It wasn't always easy. Bernard Shaw demanded banishing the contractive apostrophe. Umberto Ecco eschewed the semi-colon, but recanted, attributing his transgression to a lack of the mark on his typewriter. While warning against "embalming the language," Miss Truss grants only limited absolution for aberrant behavior, "only if you're famous."

      Would I be an apostate in Miss Truss's (she insists on three s's) view because I dropped the contractive apostrophe entirely in my first novel? If so, I would explain that I did that, and performed other syntactical tricks--artfully--to suggest the slurred rhythms of rock-n-roll at the time of that novel, and the breathless speech of my protagonists. (I did it so effectively that I was labeled "semi-literate;" and I drew a stern protest from Levi-Straus & Co. for spelling "Levi's" as "levis." Promising not to do so again, I was rewarded with three new pairs of the famous pants.)

     Miss Truss celebrates even the seemingly lowly hyphen; she proffers as example of its grandeur the phrase "extra-marital sex," inviting the deduction that if the hyphen is removed, grounds for divorce become a happy sex life.

     Bravely, Miss Truss identifies villains, including some copy editors as saboteurs. (In one of my novels, I described the "most beautiful woman in the world" wearing a dress that "adored" her body. The sentence appeared with "adorned" substituted for my thrilling "adored.") She unmasks academics who pretend to understand each other's jargon. She lambastes the clumsy, nasty "instant reviews" that loves to attach like bubble gum to books. And cyber non-language? CU L8r (:-) LOL. Letters for words! Emoticoms instead of emotion! (I once returned, unread, a term paper submitted with a one-word note: "Enjoy!" followed by a smiley.)

     Miss Truss is so haughtily right--most of the time--that one exults in finding her wrong, especially since she rushes to thwart such by narrating an incident when she was thought by "gleeful" readers to be wrong but wasn't.

     Gleefully, I point out that she disastrously dangles participial modifiers, even, in one such instance, omitting a necessary comma: "Carved in stone ... in a Florida shopping mall one may see the splendidly apt quotation from Euripides." Did Miss Truss become so instinctively unnerved by the omitted comma after "mall" that she punished herself by casting herself in stone?

     Glee overflows! She sends her beloved commas into disarray by frequently misusing "so" as a conjunction. Dear Miss Truss: "So," being an adverb (and an insecure conjunction only when coupled with an implicit or actual "that"), requires either a semicolon to precede it between independent clauses or a period followed by a capital "S" to introduce the resultant sentence. (I draw coveted stars on the margins of assignments when a student punctuates "so" correctly.)

     And, oh, oh, Miss Truss, how could you allow the subtitle of your very own book to flaunt the hyphenic ambiguity you rage against! Without the necessary hyphen in “zero-tolerance,” one is left to wonder: What is a zero approach? Wait! Did Miss Truss slyly connive to catch lax sticklers?

     Despite her dangling modifiers and misused "so's," Miss Truss writes grand sentences that often exemplify the point she's making: "Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again...."

     "Hope occasionally flares up and dies down again," Miss Truss laments, having seen dangerous signs that much of writing has become clicking and sending. Still: "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." (Oh, oh, oh, no, no, Miss Truss, no! “Less” should be “fewer.”)

     At the end of this splendid book, Miss Truss illustrates the timely relevance of punctuation. She reminds that a document proclaimed in 2003 as the British Government's authoritative dossier on the dangers purportedly posed by Iraq was revealed to be a graduate-student's twelve-year-old thesis because the fraudulent version reproduced the original-paper's incorrectly used commas (while substituting the word "terrorists" for "opposition groups"). It was that fake plagiarized "dossier" that had been used, in part, to justify a disastrous war.

John Rechy
Los Angeles, California
July 2004

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