Lynne Truss's book Eats, Shoots & Leaves opens with a bracing statement of authorial intent:
People who use the apostrophe incorrectly should be fucking destroyed.
Well, no. To be fair, Truss uses slightly more invective:
People who use the apostrophe incrorrectly are fucking arseholes and I sodding well say that they should sodding well be hung, drawn, quartered, run over by wild horses, garotted, shot, and destroyed.
These subtle inflexions, I think you'll agree, change the meaning in small but important ways.
It is interesting to think about the career of Truss before the publication of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Born in the rough neighbourhood of Kingston Upon Thames, she was educated in the mean streets of Tiffin Girls' School, where she learned the ladylike arts of assassin, ninja, commando, and, during a brief but memorable excursion as a school-girl to Cuba during the revolution, paramilitary fighter. 'It was in these formative years,' Truss writes, 'That I learned the way punctuation could influence things in simple, everyday life: for instance, the throwing of Molotov cocktails, fighting against the enemy in the street, and so on.' She goes on to cite an interesting example of a telegram she received from Castro:
'The fascist's centre must be eliminated!'
As Truss points out, when she was attending a tea party with Fidel later, she discovered that the dictator had mistakenly put the apostrophe in the wrong place and, as a result, Truss had directed all her paramilitary efforts at the elimination of one fascist centre; Castro had meant to refer to fascists in plural. 'It was from this time onwards,' writes Truss, 'That I saw that Castro was no better than any of the other abusers of the apostrophe out there. I was utterly disgusted.'
Seeing through the wily old Cuban's public persona, Truss returned, disillusioned, to London, where she established herself as a local hooligan, and quickly rose through the ranks of social class to become chief thug in a local band of vigilante sub-editors who worked for The Times.
When Truss began work on Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she drew inspiration from a charming anecdote her uncle told about an armed and dangerous Panda in a London restaurant. 'If only we could all learn to be like that Panda!' Truss wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow anarchist in late 2002.
Truss's approach to grammar in this book is nothing if not original. In the first 60 pages, she outlines her plans for an 'Armed Vigilante Squad of Grammar Defenders' to roam the streets with balaclavas, batons, truncheons, clubs, swords, and red pens, in order to enforce what she calls 'A New Grammatical World Order'. The scheme is set out in some detail, complete with suggestions about what to do if captured by 'Those ungrammatical fascists in the police force.' She also offers vivid examples from her own experience: at one point, she tells how she encountered a shopkeeper erecting a sign with a comma splice in his own window.
I rammed his sodding head right through that window repeatedly, until he begged me, tears streaming down his face, to forgive him. He cried out to the heavens that he would never splice a comma again, and more: that he would always ensure, from now on, that not a hyphen, no, not even an em dash or en dash would be out of place. 'You'd better not be kidding me, sunshine', I told him, there and then.
Apart from giving several original suggestions for parsing incorrect grammar, Truss also adds the words 'defenestrated', 'decimate', 'rampage' and 'spiflicated' to the grammarians lexicon.
However, the fundamental attractiveness in this book lies in Truss's typical English reticence:
When occasion demands, I can never decide if those people who use double quote marks instead of single quote marks should be thrown into the lions' den, or run over by wild horses. I usually listen to my heart.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a well-written book with considerable charm and much to recommend it. However, I fear that I must point out that in the concluding chapter of the book, in which Truss publishes a list of grammar offenders, there is a misplaced period. This error has been reported to a local squad of grammatical panda bears, and they are currently sending out a deputation to discuss matters with Ms Truss.
Nevertheless, this is an important and edifying work that is well worth buying. Four out of five stars.
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