Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Struss is one of those ubiquitous books that one sees everywhere but never sees anyone reading. Nobody ever recommended it to me and I’ve seen “reviews” that give it 5 stars or 3 stars but no explanation for why it deserves one or the other. I figured it was time for me to just borrow a copy from the library and see for myself.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I began the introduction because the author is writing to a British audience and her guidelines for punctuation are different from those in the United States. I can understand it would be too challenging for the publisher to revise the book accordingly and I see no reason why the author should be asked to write a second American edition. What the publisher should have done is invited an American to revise the British rules, replace them with American ones, and re-release it giving the book dual authorial credit to both Truss and this American writer so that Americans could enjoy this book for themselves.
The humor is wry, as one would expect from a British author. Her examples are not necessarily familiar every turn of the page but it doesn’t take much imagination to get her point. And an exclamation point/mark by any other name is still doing the same function over here or there. Unfortunately, I can easily see American readers becoming even more confused than they already are about how to properly punctuate and, believe me when I say, we don’t need anyone adding to our confusion.
We are screwing it up perfectly fine with only one set of rules to understand without muddying it all up with a second.
I really wish I had read someone’s review about the book that explained that this book is firmly entrenched in British rules because I probably would have happily skipped it altogether. Sure, I would have missed out on some of the wonderful history of punctuation through the ages. Why did we get rid of the rhetorical question mark, for instance?
Towards the end of the book she does make a strong case for how punctuation has changed and will continue to change and that nothing in language should be taken for granted. She also denounces emoticons as a lazy writer’s way of giving meaning to poorly written text. If you take the time to think about what you want to say and write it with clarity and precision, your reader will know if you are joking (without a smiley face) or perturbed (without an angry face) or even chagrined (without a dunce cap face).
Would I recommend this book? Yes to anyone who follows the British standards for punctuation; yes, to anyone else who enjoys learning a bit of history about language and enjoys their humor on the dry side; no, to anyone who is trying to better understand the American way of punctuating a sentence because not once will the author explain to you why there should be spaces between the “dots” in an ellipsis and so many other rules we try to follow. If you need to read this book to learn the rules here in the United States, you need to turn elsewhere.