Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Lynne Truss. New York: Gotham Books. 209 pp. $17.50 hbk.
A panda walks into a café. 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 bearlike mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
This joke is the basis for the book's title and gives the reader fair warning of what's to come: Eats, Shoots & Leaves is not your ordinary punctuation text; it's more humour (the author is British and proud of it) than instruction. Author Lynne Truss worked as a literary editor, novelist, and journalist before hosting Cutting a Dash, a BBC Radio 4 series about punctuation, in 2002. The success of the radio shows led to the writing of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which surprised her and the rest of the literary world by topping the charts in Britain and eventually the United States. Since then, Truss has become somewhat of a celebrity, praised for her witty, droll, and very British humour, as well as her passion for punctuation.
The book is indeed funny, bawdy even. Truss laments the fact that she never volunteered to have the babies of Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515), the historically ignored Englishman who invented the italic typeface and printed the first semicolon. She is mightily amused at the difference a comma makes in lines such as "Now I must go and get on my lover," which should actually be "Now I must go and get on, my lover."
There are numerous anecdotes about punctuation errors the author has seen and suffered in her daily travels; in many cases she issued a public reprimand so as to maintain her coveted reputation as a "stickler." We've all seen and laughed at such mistakes, but they're still fun to read: signs for "BOBS' MOTORS" "ANTIQUES" "MENS COAT'S" "hot DOGS a MEAL IN ITS'SELF." Truss writes of seemingly endless greengrocer (aka grocery store) errors: "orange,s and apples' and pear's" are all on sale in "Dicks" grocery. Truss even has a specific term for such errors: the greengrocer's apostrophe, used mistakenly to form a singular possessive instead of a simple plural.
This book is almost more about Truss herself than it is about punctuation. True, there are chapters about the apostrophe, comma, semicolon, dash, and hyphen, but there is no indexing in the book that allows the reader to look up any specific topic, nor are the chapters written so that one can easily locate punctuation rules or usage examples. …