This is a grammar book that’s been at the top of the best seller lists in Great Britain and in the United States. A best-selling book focused on punctuation? Kinda freaky, eh?
The trick is that Eats, Shoots & Leaves is written which such humor and helpfulness that its success also feels good. I want Lynne Truss to become fabulously wealthy and a role model for budding word geeks everywhere.
Its commercial popularity is due to more than a “revenge of the nerds'” buying ecstasy. The chapters contain real guidance for writing clearly while offering an iconoclastic tartness to counteract the potentially dry nature of the subject.
It’s as if your sixth-grade teacher had had a sense of humor and a practical understanding of real-world language.
Truss writes in the preface:
Personally, I clung on to one thing when Eats, Shoots & Leaves began its rush up the charts. Since the rallying cry for the book had been chosen pretty early on, I referred to it continually to steady my nerves and remind myself of my original aspirations — where were certainly plucky but at the same time not the least bit confident of universal appeal. “Sticklers unite!” I had written as this rallying cry. “You have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion (and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with).”
Except, she does have a sense of proportion. While she delights in her agony over bad punctuation and the general decay of Western Civilization, she also doesn’t lay down lists of rules as pearls of wisdom strewn in front of her swinish readers. In fact, she often suggests that you can use punctuation according to your personal style.
My favorite example of her “there’s no single right way” wisdom concerns apostrophes and names that end in “s”. She writes that Fowler’s Modern English Usage states that:
…modern names ending in ‘s’ (including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’, the ‘s’ is required after the apostrophe:
But with names from the ancient world, it is not:
If the name ends in an ‘iz’ sound, an exception is made:
And an exception is always made for Jesus:
Complex enough for you? She concludes, “However, these are matters of style and preference that are definitely not set in stone, and it’s a good idea not to get fixated about them.”
In a few short paragraphs, then, Truss reveals some truly arcane grammatical minutiae and gives the reader permission to do what feels right.
Maybe it was only the nerd in me that made me giggle, snort, and tune out the outside world as I read this grammar book. Or, maybe it was the enjoyment of Truss’ insight on how to communicate more clearly in today’s world of email ellipses and dumbed-down dashes.