What can we learn from Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Part one: grammar refuseniks

An awful lot has changed since the ‘Chief of Grammar Police’ Lynne Truss wrote her best-selling polemic on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But after its 2003 publication to considerable acclaim came an unexpected destabilising of much she and her pedant cadets fought hard to achieve…

While Truss was busy informing people of the difference between it’s and its, along came another boom for the personal computer, coinciding nicely with the inexorable rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, not to mention blogging.

Tablets and smartphones have made citizen journalists of anyone with a point of view. Consequently, all over the web lie examples of poorly punctuated and phrased pieces of writing. But the weird thing is, a great number of readers do not seem to mind. If they find compelling what is being written, they are not concerned about the standard of English. Does this mean Eats, Shoots & Leaves is no longer relevant?

Question of Truss

Although many identified heartily with Truss at the time, a counterpoint rose in the years immediately following Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ publication. In 2007, the comedian and writer Marcus Brigstocke appeared on TV show Room 101 filled with vitriol for those he saw as “sanctimonious, self-righteous grammar bullies”. Paul Merton didn’t exactly disagree.

Brigstocke was approaching the issue as a person with dyslexia – and to a degree I sympathise with his rage. He was particularly moved by the opening pages of Eats, Shoots & Leaves where Truss reacted to a sign advertising CD’s and Video’s by calling it a “satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes”.

This is not the only outpouring in the book. While a full reading reveals Truss to have a nuanced view of grammar, it’s easy to see how the more dramatic passages captured the headlines and might prove off-putting to someone with low self-esteem regarding their grasp of the written word.

Poor punctuation “rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence” and is an “unequivocal signal of illiteracy”. Conversely, Truss also wrote of the comma that its use in certain circumstances was “not a matter of right or wrong. It was just a matter of taste”.

Rule or reason?

And therein lies both the rub and the reason for the march of the grammar refuseniks. People armed with laptops and smart devices may have decided that all grammar, punctuation and spelling questions are a matter of taste – reinforcing the view that language is ever changing, but also perhaps in reaction to extreme pedantry.

I think we could show more respect for those who are creating content by writing and sharing their opinions online, regardless of whether they have a robust understanding of grammar and spelling. If they didn’t have a blog or a Twitter account, many might not be writing at all. It is possible for us to improve punctuation if we have the enthusiasm for it – and focusing positively on the desire to write is where we should start.

Which is why a book like Eats, Shoots & Leaves is by no means redundant 11 years after publication: the chapters on punctuation marks, including apostrophes, commas and hyphens, are incredibly illuminating and clear – possibly clearer than in any other guide available. If you’re hoping to improve your written English, it’s worth reading over the passages that sting a little. Truss could make a pedant of you yet.

Next week:
What can we learn from Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Part two: pedant power

Editor's pick

Most popular