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.
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."
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.)
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.
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 Amazon.com 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.)
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?
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.)
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?
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...."
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.”)
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.
Los Angeles, California
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Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.