BOOK REVIEWS (2014) – Lynne Truss’s (2004) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

10 January 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

These days, we see now a widespread modeling of expressive illiteracy* (in text messages, digital communications, the written word generally, &c), whether because this represents an actual decline of literacy in general or an increase of opportunity to witness a now-more-visible wealth of it through computer-mediated sending and receiving.  Such illiteracy, while ostensibly fostering an environment of individual expression, serves also to support a social sphere of misunderstanding, disconnection, social atomization, and thus political neutralization. This kind of illiteracy does not (as noted below) encourage us to formulate our thoughts so that in the automaticity of our responses we become merely reactive entities in our social world, rather than responsible and responsive ones.  The Powers appreciate this immensely.

*By illiteracy, I mean unintentionally ineffective written expression. This points to those modes of expression that unintentionally distort an intended expression due to idiosyncrasies in the usage of the medium that the message gets delivered in. I do not mean by this that people have failed to learn standard spelling, how to punctuate correctly, and the like, because I do not agree that a person’s failure to conform to some conventionally enforced set of (white supremacist, patriarchal) expressive practices warrants the term illiterate, particularly where illiterate tends to connote to stupid as well. If I visit China, and can read, write, and understand nothing, am I therefore illiterate?

Framing/Background for Replies

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[0] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Lynne Truss’s (2004)[1] Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

As a preliminary note, while in other replies to books one might have accused me of unduly taking too seriously a humorously meant book, here I recognize that Truss’s humor does indeed intend to address some serious issues through a wry lens; and I have taken up that spirit as well, however much the fairly consistent deadpan otherwise suggests.

This British book, on the correct use of punctuation but also about the necessity of representing at least the central function of language to convey well and accurately (however punctuation subsequently evolves), immediately presents me with the essence of the dilemma: in my header above, should I actually have resorted to “Truss’s” or only “Truss’”.

The issue doesn’t sort out as clearly as a first glance might suggest, since the British usage for possessive apostrophes differs from its abuses in the United States.[2] It all hinges on whether the double S at the end of Truss’s name gets a third one after the apostrophe, even in British usage. And now we come to the dilemma: I don’t care. Or, more precisely, my aesthetic delight or perversity in piling up three esses in a row, albeit set off by an apostrophe along the way, trumps any will I might have—and even any utterly obvious requirement, when writing  a reply to a book on punctuation usage, to look up the rules and get it exactly right. And I might at some point take a peek in—I still have my copy of the (2010)[3] Chicago Manual of Style—but not yet, not now.[4]

One imagines that Truss must have copyedited her book no less than a trillion times, because as any Internet grammar Nazi knows, if you would throw a white glove at some illiterate typist online, one had best do so immaculately—the only time when Jesus’s silly “let he who is sinless cast the first stone” applies. Truss does begin with a militant stance, which softens—perhaps as the fiery zeal of crusading dwindles over the course of the book—to something more revivalist by the end, but I’ve no doubt that her book provided the occasion for no small number of grammar Nazis. Nonetheless, her book does aim to teach (inasmuch as one may teach a messy quasi-consensus) correct punctuation.

Historically, I have preferred the role of the grammar Nazi resistor, all the more so in those cases where the would-be stickler (as Truss calls them) takes to task errors of usage incorrectly. In other words, such  stickler’s purpose serves not to instruct but to bully. It doesn’t usually take much sensitivity to recognize the difference, for example, between a misspelling and a typo and berating one for the latter as a case of the former only exposes the Nazi’s ignorance or cruelty. And if I take such would-be Nazis to task, I do so to remind them that—even if the target of their bully has actually erred—that the stickler’s greater knowledge (claimed, missing, or otherwise) warrants they take a teaching rather than ridiculing attitude toward their perceived lesser. In this they might follow Truss’s example.

And, of course, the first example any of the punctuationally high-and-mighty learn—either intuitively or through the sort of dreadful humiliation that leaves its mark forever on the history of a writer (a belligerent refusal to use semicolons, for example)—involves punting when in doubt of one’s super-righteousness. I mean—and forgive me, sticklers, for giving away one of our most essential tricks—if you cannot decide the proper usage in a given sentence you attempt, then don’t attempt it; write it otherwise. Not sure if “we went to my and her house” flies; punt: “we went to my house first, then to hers,” which may, in any case, suggest more of your sexual itinerary to all of the eagerly listening boys as you relate this around a campfire in the first place. However, as the phrase “Truss’s book” shows, the ready replacement “the book by Lynne Truss” becomes too cumbersome as  substitute, and you may feel relatively complacent that as soon as you start seeing a lot of references to “the author’s book,” this may well signal some problematic letters at the end of the author’s name.

I dwell on this right off because writing “Truss’s book” brings into the foreground much that Truss addresses throughout her book: not so much how we constitute correct usage, but why we do (or should), and what happens to cognition, social life, and (of course) writing when we don’t. And also because, in the endlessly oscillating quibbling, for every stickler who laments the evolution of (English) usage someone else wants to herald misusage as the fruitful wave of the already-upon-us future. This requires Truss to take a stance, because it means (as a stickler) we expect a pristine text, and it means also that any reply I write at least glows in the light of that sticklerhood.

Of course, only the most adamant ideologue would say that usage should never change (the hyper-stickler of language) or that all conventionality in language denotes merely oppressive tyranny (hyper-rejectionist of that sticklerism). Truss settles finally (perhaps, again, out of a kind of despair) on something like a middle ground, where one always finds commonplaces and supposed commonsense. In a context of two absurd or untenable poles (hyper-sticklerism, hyper-rejectionism), the middle ground always begins to seem reasonable, but really, inasmuch as it consists of the admixture of two untenable ideas, we might remain less sanguine about their union. A different angle might disclose something more.

She cites, at one point, George Bernard Shaw’s entirely serious objection to the second B in “bomb,” and reproduces the calculations he provided to demonstrate how much time and human productivity might get saved by dropping the letter.  She adds, “Yes, GBS can be a pretty stark reminder of how far one may lose one’s sense of proportion when obsessed by matters of language” (186). We should not at all fail to notice the wry and delightful abbreviation of George Bernard Shaw’s name in this aside. And later, Truss reproduces a passage from a satirical article lamenting the illiteracy of emails, which reports, “A study of 1,254 officer workers in Leonia, N.J., found that e-mail increased employees’ productivity by 1.8 hours a day because they took less time to formulate their thought” (quoted in Truss, 199).

It seems this refers to a real study, since Truss writes later:

Note the way the Washington Post news story explained the benefits of email: it “increased employees’ productivity by 1.8 hours a day because they took less time to formulate their thoughts”. If we value the way we have been trained to think by centuries of absorbing the culture of the printed word, we must not allow the language to return to the chaos scriptio continua swamp from which it so bravely crawled less than two thousand years ago (201, italics by Truss).

Perhaps Hirschfield made up this study, because immediately after citing it, he adds, “(The same study also found that [employees] lost 2.2 hours of productivity because they were e-mailing so many jokes to their spouses, parents and stockbrokers” (quoted in Truss, 199), in which case while he’s had us on splendidly, nevertheless not only does Truss’s point remain, but this may also point perhaps to a “real” or “underlying” concern we could really concerned about.

Foucault (1977)[5] documents the articulation of the disciplinary society, one impulse of which involves optimization of time use. And whatever advantages accrue to us—not having to formulate our thoughts, saving time with emoticons and Internet acronyms and abbreviations—the trend appears more ominously in the structural aspects of society. In a business setting, this points simply to the total optimization toward profit in all things—so the productivity saved at work becomes that much more blood squeezed from the turnip of the employee. If so, our hope against this lies in the 2.2 hours spent e-mailing jokes, though s we all know such personal internet usage has gotten clamped down on hard. One might need yet a further (non-fictional) study to establish if 1.8 hours of productivity saved gets lost due to any communicative errors in such unformulated thoughts.

Of course, having mentioned Foucault, we all know that the fun has stopped around here. So it goes. Because Foucault’s disciplinary society comes with a panopticon, an apparatus of surveillance, and I hardly need to connect the dots in the wake of Snowdon’s disclosures—to say nothing of Wikileaks—and the now obviously looming abuses by the NSA. So the very technology of e-mail enables a habitual resort to unformulated thoughts that easily get swept up (if not handed over) to the panopticon, the surveilling bodies. More than this, however, to say we do not formulate something means we more or less automatically, and thus more and more unconsciously, express ourselves. We become automated, and thus our function becomes automatable (although this remains still mostly in the realm of science fiction). And there now exist supposedly humane economic schemes that advise the total automation of all production, which means the sort of surplus labor that African Americans in the United States have suffered from since the so-called emancipation, and which recently found  “solution’ to that problem of surplus labor in (1) mass incarceration and, (2) following at least some lip service to scaling that back, a reduction of social services. This describes a recipe for starvation—a kinder, gentler concentration camp—all of which proceeds under the banner of total optimization of profit to the detriment of everything else (people, environment, culture, world).

I only sketch the main trusses of this social arrangement, and so also only the barest outline of a response, with an illustration first. I heard a remarkable statistic recently: 98% of all guilty verdicts get arrived at without a trial. This immediately shows the necessary course of action; to contact everyone jailed and advise them in every case to demand a trial. This will so utterly overburden the judicial system that it will have no choice but to change its tune almost immediately. Similarly, the course of action for dealing with the panopticon does not involve attempt to hide but overwhelming the sensors with data—already lots of entities know this and take it as their strategy.[6]

Truss’s book has many marvelously wry passages. In her discussion of the life of the apostrophe, she writes:

If only the apostrophe’s life had stayed that simple. At some point in the 17th century, however, printers started to intrude an apostrophe before the “s” in singular possessive cases (“the girl’s dress”), and from then on quite frankly the whole thing has spiralled[7] into madness. In the 18th century, printers started to put it after plural possessives as well (“the girls’ dresses”). Some historians of grammar claim, incidentally, that the original possessive use of the apostrophe signified a contraction of the historic “his”; and personally, I believed this attractive theory for many years, simply on the basis of knowing Ben Jonson’s play Sejanus, his Fall, and reasoning that this was self-evidently halfway to “Sejanus’s Fall”. But blow me, if there aren’t differences of opinion. There are other historians of grammar who say this Love-His Labour-Is-Lost explanation is ignorant conjecture and should be forgotten as soon as herd. Certainly the Henry-His-Wives (Henry’s Wives) rationalization falls down noticeably when applied to female possessives, because “Elizabeth Her reign” would have ended up logically as “Elizabeth’r Reign”, which would have had the regrettable result of making people sound a) a bit stupid, b) a bit drunk, or c) a bit from the West Country (38–9).

Meanwhile, in the wit remain important points. Referring to the oft-lamented expressive (il)literacy of computer-mediated communications (e-mails, text messages, chat conversations, &c), Truss cites Crystal’s (2001)[8] claim that it comprises

a genuine “third medium”. But I don’t know. Remember that thing Truman Capote said years ago about Jack [Kerouac’s novel On the Road]: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”? I keep thinking that what we do now, with this medium of instant delivery, isn’t writing, and doesn’t even qualify as typing either: it’s just sending. What did you do today? Sent a lot of stuff. “Don’t forget to send, dear.” Receiving, sending and arithmetic – we can say goodbye to the three R’s, clearly” (191–2).

Crystal also writes how—in Truss’s summary—“ the internet encourages a playful and creative (and continuing) relationship with the written word. ‘The human linguistic faculty seems to be in good shape,’ he concludes. ‘The arrival of Netspeak is showing us homo loquens  at its best’” (quoted in Truss, 196).

As a publishing academic well-entrenched in the status quo, we might well question if such self-congratulatory pronouncements hold water or can get taken seriously.  On an analysis that bears in mind the radical atomization of our current society, a culture that makes a reward of hyper-individuality in the course of divide and conquer, then this supposedly playful and creative relationship with the written word becomes symptomatic of, if not actually a part of a strategy of inducing, further decline—let us imagine ourselves, all each in a panopticon of solitary confinement, hooked up Matrix-style to devices to run the machines, but at least have the ‘freedom’ to text “CU L8er” on a cellphone or what not. This might equally well describe a page of errata out of Lem’s (1974)[9] Futurological Congress.

I put this in such grotesque terms because Crystal’s pronouncement seems too damn chirpy. Not even the most cursory examination of sending on the Internet (neither writing nor typing) almost ever bears witness to a playful or creative relationship with the written word; creativity does not occur thoughtlessly and playfulness without attention becomes inconsiderateness (unless done alone). Truss seems more on the right track to identify how the new instantaneous modes enable thoughtlessness, in both senses of the word. And this again invokes the spectre of automativity—of heightened reactivity to the detriment of responsiveness or the ability to reply.

We can say, when a grammar fascist like Shaw declares “the man who cannot see that [the first typographical example provided] is the best looking as well as the sufficient and sensible form, should print or write nothing but advertisements for lost dogs or ironmongers’ catalogues: literature is not for him to meddle with” (quoted in Truss, 187), that he goes too far in some direction,[10] but surely Crystal goes too far in the opposite direction. Truss returns to her motivation for writing her book by reprising her visceral responses to misused apostrophes, and it might help to remember that here.

For all of the previous grammarians, who advanced whatever reasons they gave for wanting to set in stone or establish for setting in stone various usages for punctuation, whether as a rearguard action against a decline in proper usage, whether simply to note for the writer’s current era the transitions from old usages toward new (either gracefully or curmudgeonly), most had some underlying concern with (written) expression as a living aspect of culture. To take Crystal’s giddiness in perhaps its best light, he attempts to reassure those who see a slide into darkness going on. Or, if I take the basis of his point (not necessarily his argument itself) a step further, from his ivory tower he aims to twit those of a linguistic anal retentiveness for taking on such high-and-mighty airs. In other words, we may take what he says as telling George Bernard Shaw either to relax or to leave off with his reactionary counter protests against the greater access that “the masses” now have to the expressive (written) sanctum.

But Truss’s original motivation concerns much less the psychic disturbances she experiences when seeing illiterately written signs. In fact, if Crystal’s point were true, then Truss would (I’d venture) find herself more engaged and intrigued by a playful and creative encounter with language. But that does not happen. In part, because such signs (as signs of the times) point to other more worrisome things, some of them detailed above. Just as statistics on sexual assault seemed to spike in the 1970s, when more and more people (women mostly, of course) began to report the crime and the crime (if grudgingly) got more seriously taken, we can say also that computer-mediated culture generally makes visible far more of the already prevailing state of affairs that we’d previously seen. What really seems unfortunate: we do not have the internet activity of the 1960s and 1970s to compare against now, for then we would have much more a valid baseline for comparison.  As it stands, the hypothesis runs that people seems noticeably less educated and intelligent now—something that standardized tests bear out.

As I noted at the outset, the kind of illiteracy Truss seems most concerned to emphasize does not encourage us to formulate our thoughts such that in the automaticity and swiftness of our sendings we become merely reactive entities in our social world, rather than responsible and responsive ones. This proposes, in is most extreme case, that language should become a language of one, a contradiction in terms, but such a state of affairs would utterly suit a surveillance state. In the panopticon, one only has oneself to speak to—picture of total political neutralization (even though one might remain, even in that condition, metaphysically free).

One may see in this a curious disparity—the more personally idiosyncratic one’s communications become (and thus the more they become incoherent to anyone else) so that one’s sense of freedom increases, the more this destroys the real basis of political power in the world, because it makes understanding (and thus coordination, or cooperation) impossible or functionally illusory. On an individual level, we might celebrate in some sense the “chaos”—what information theory would call the entropy—of such idiosyncratic communications, because their very entropy, chaos, or potential would carry potentially more than one message and thus more potentials for action. But, on the other hand, this ignores the Power of Authority, of the panopticon, which declares by fiat what any given statement means, however idiosyncratic or not.  That “CU L8r” gets taken as a terrorist code, for instance.

If we would celebrate this fruitful chaos, then it must happen consciously—the automaticity of language cannot prevail, and this fact held much longer ago than our current state of affairs. I don’t see how this might come about without some degree of agreement between anyone communicating. We don’t have to align with the fussy grammarians, who would shit a brick over a missing oxford comma, but whatever conventions two people would agree to use would arise, all the same, by their mutual understanding, not by simply an accident of their sending and receiving.

Truss’s point ultimately involves effective communication, and by effective I don’t mean only efficient, and by communication I don’t mean information. Strictly on the basis of politeness, we may wish people would express themselves lucidly enough that we needn’t spend more time with a hundred emails trying to sort out, “What did you mean.” But also, in our own desires for authenticity in social life (or whatever we want to call that), then a demand by the one we speak to to express ourselves understandably serves that desire. And so when Truss insists that misplaced apostrophes create a confusion in what we express, we may feel grateful she takes such pains to ensure we mean what we mean. It is a testimony to the “chaos” of language (the entropic power of it) that misplaced punctuation elevates the number of possible meanings a message might carry (e.g., the difference implied whether we see “girl’s dresses” or “girls’ dresses”).

Truss’s point, overstated in the particulars at times, argues for a sociable understanding between expressers in language. Ultimately, so long as people connect through their expressions, however shellacked grammatically, I think she’d (if grudgingly) admit things seem moving along. But nothing of that sort currently prevails, so her point remains well taken and necessary. If she argues on behalf of traditions of punctuation, this seems less for conservative reasons and more because it represents (at the moment) a sort of path of least resistance, one that does (unfortunately) have reactionary aspects to it.[11] We don’t have to sign up for that part, but it does seem we have to agree to remain willing to work with one another to move toward an understanding of language usage between ourselves that resists the sort of current reactive automaticity that serves the panopticon and to support our responsiveness—or better still, or capacities to reply—to one another.


[0] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[1] Truss, L. (2004). Eats, shoots & leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, pp. i–xxvii, 1–209.

[2] Mark Twain, in his oft quoted and in some ways correct remark, remarks that “there is no such thing as ‘the Queen’s English’. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!” (quoted by Truss, 182). This doesn’t speak (or write), necessarily, to the Queen’s punctuation, but insofar as my experience as an editor both of “American” and British usage goes, I regularly found the sense and logic of British practice more sensible and logical.

[3] (2010). The Chicago manual of style. 16th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[4] I won’t disguise this refusal in some seemingly justifiable excuse—for example, that an insufficiently absolute consensus on the matter leaves it up to individual decision, or that ultimately it devolves to a matter of taste—and in fact, I do treat it as a matter of taste for , as I said, I like the three esses—because even the most lenient grammarian could still take me to task for no willingness to research that (messy an contradictory) lack of consensus.

[5] Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books.

[6] The disinformation of intelligence communities represents a historical instance, but such false rumors differ from 150,000 rumors, which will simply take too long to sort through in the first place.

[7] Who amongst you recognizes this as the proper British spelling?

[8] Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the internet. Ambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9] Lem, S. (1974). The Futurological Congress (from the memoirs of Ijon Tichy). New York: Seabury Press.

[10] Some would say, still not far enough.

[11] The argument, “You’re in the Untied States, speak English” represents another reactionary variant of this. When I got arrested (on false charges!) for drunkenness in Vienna, one officer dragging me to the paddy wagon declared the hilarious (not so much at the time), “You’re in Austria. Speak German!” to my babbling in English.


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