OK, I’m the last blogger on earth to get around to writing about Louis Menand’s scathing New Yorker review of the hot new language-scold best-seller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (whose title, as everyone points out, needs a hyphen after “Zero”). But I’m not going to let it go unmemorialized here, because Menand is an excellent writer with no patience for ignorant cant, and people keep asking me about the book. Since I have no intention of actually reading the damn thing, I’ll quote enough Menand to convince any doubters that she’s not worth bothering with. He begins with a catalog of her own misuses and mistakes:

The preface, by Truss, includes a misplaced apostrophe (“printers’ marks”) and two misused semicolons: one that separates unpunctuated items in a list and one that sets off a dependent clause. About half the semicolons in the rest of the book are either unnecessary or ungrammatical, and the comma is deployed as the mood strikes. Sometimes, phrases such as “of course” are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not. Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’”). Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors

Parentheses are used, wrongly, to add independent clauses to the ends of sentences: “I bought a copy of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage and covered it in sticky-backed plastic so that it would last a lifetime (it has).” Citation form varies: one passage from the Bible is identified as “Luke, xxiii, 43” and another, a page later, as “Isaiah xl, 3.” The word “abuzz” is printed with a hyphen, which it does not have. We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so. (An American would not write “Who said ‘I cannot tell a lie?’”) A line from “My Fair Lady” is misquoted (“The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning”). And it is stated that The New Yorker, “that famously punctilious periodical,” renders “the nineteen-eighties” as the “1980’s,” which it does not. The New Yorker renders “the nineteen-eighties” as “the nineteen-eighties.”

He continues with a complaint about the absurd decision “not to make any changes for the American edition, a typesetting convenience that makes the book virtually useless for American readers,” and goes on to a hilarious dissection of her motives in writing the book:

Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation? Truss, a former sports columnist for the London Times, appears to have been set a-blaze by two obsessions: superfluous apostrophes in commercial signage (“Potatoe’s” and that sort of thing) and the elision of punctuation, along with uppercase letters, in e-mail messages. Are these portents of the night, soon coming, in which no man can read? Truss warns us that they are—“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 chaotic scriptio continua swamp from which it so bravely crawled less than two thousand years ago”—but it’s hard to know how seriously to take her, because her prose is so caffeinated that you can’t always separate the sense from the sensibility. And that, undoubtedly, is the point, for it is the sensibility, the “I’m mad as hell” act, that has got her her readers. A characteristic passage:

For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.

Some people do feel this way, and they do not wish to be handed the line that “language is always evolving,” or some other slice of liberal pie. They don’t even want to know what the distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause might be. They are like people who lose control when they hear a cell phone ring in a public place: they just need to vent. Truss is their Jeremiah. They don’t care where her commas are, because her heart is in the right place.

Go get ’em, Louis. And I don’t want to hear any mutterings that he and I are renegades battering down the walls protecting Language from the barbarians. It is those who care more about invented rules and silly shibboleths than about good writing who are the true barbarians.


  1. With a nickname of “Susie Comma” as editor of my high school magazine and a still unvanquished affinity for semicolons, I am the last to point a dainty digit at others. However, if I were to write a book about punctuation I would at least make sure it was correct. I believe, as you say, that it is the manner in which it is presented that is the selling point; in fact, the “Miss Manners” tongue-in-cheek repartee that makes it a must-have for the chic coffee table.

  2. I have not read the book but I must admit to a certain sympathy with her reaction to “Book’s”.
    I have similar reactions to “it’s” used improperly. See the UseNet newsgroup “” for others who wince at such blasphemy.

  3. You know, I got all excited that there was a best-selling book about punctuation, picked it up, leafed through it, and was….really disappointed by the writing style and the elementary nature of what she writes about. I so wish that The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon got one-half the publicity instead, because that’s a book that’s actually fun to read.

  4. I’ll have to take a look at it.

  5. aldiboronti says

    Truss was a humour columnist before writing a sports column (in fact, it was on that basis that she was given the sports brief; the newspaper wanted humour injected into the column. Whether or not she knew anything about sport was a secondary consideration.) She’s also written a couple of comic novels.
    Ditto with the book on punctuation. The publishers cared not a jot whether she knew whereof she spoke. They noted that her ‘light’ touch moved papers and books.
    Such are the ways of publication these days; always have been, I guess. I note with alarm that Bill Bryson’s next subject is Shakespeare.

  6. Oh man that’s depressing. (Commas deliberately omitted, either in homage to or in defiance of Truss, take your pick.) I guess I should blame not her but her publisher, then — I don’t expect anyone to turn down a paycheck.

  7. Also not having read the book, I agree with hat that it’s a terrible book, but having read Menand’s review, I thought that it was pretty bad too. It seems to me that he could have dispatched Truss in a third the space, and some of the stuff he said seemed like padding. He who lives by the word, dies by the word.
    I actually hate every single one of the Mr. Language Persons out there (except for the master himself, Dave Barry). I hate them even when they’re right. Slimy rightwingers like Safire, George Will, and Bill Buckley seem to gravitate that way, but that’s not my only reason.
    And it’s not just the chemical imbalance in my brain either, smartypants.
    No, I do not consider hat to be a Mr Language Person yet, but I’m monitoring him.

  8. You’re right on the money, zizka. Menand’s piece was way longer than it needed to be. He conflated a review with an article on voice, and one thing had almost nothing to do with the other.

  9. If grammarians were all as entertaining as Lynne Truss, then evryone would be a grammarian. Isn’t the crucial point here that ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ is aimed at those who have never thought about grammar before?
    My own question on Lynne Truss’s American tour is – did she and her publishers release a ‘proper’ American edition – i.e. one edited for AMERICAN ENGLISH? I’m not sure if I’m hoping the answer is yes, or no: on the one hand, it’s a bit of a rip-off if it’s advocating British English. On the other hand, as a Brit, it makes me chuckle to think that soon we will be inundated with yankee tourists using British English grammar – or, as we like to think of it here, “proper English.” Tee hee!!!

  10. I bought and read the book last year. It’s best not taken too seriously, except perhaps to be analysed as a publishing/cultural phenomenon. I don’t think that in fact the book is aimed at those who’ve never thought about grammar before. I read this review recently. I don’t necessarily agree that punctuation is quite that simple. But this, I think, is spot on:
    ‘Truss wants you to read her book not to learn the rules of punctuation but to join her in bewailing, as you review these rules, the sorry ignorance of those who don’t know them. It’s to feel superior, and smug, and, well, almost … English.’
    This is an American reviewer, of course, who wonders how it works if you are in fact English. The answer is that it works in pretty much the same way: you can consider yourself a better class of person, not one of those common sorts (hairdressers! greengrocers!) who don’t know where to put their apostrophes.
    And grammarians and, um, Language Persons can, of course, achieve a similar superiority effect in relation to Truss herself. Which is probably why they need to write overly long review articles to make sure that we know just how superior they are…
    So, there you go: read it if you want to feel a nice warm smug glow; don’t bother to read it if you seriously want to improve your grammar.

  11. The best possible outcome of all this would be for the author and the publishers to take into account the errors, correct them, and republish with a brief apology. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves excited many with its promise, perhaps, because the time has come to defend the standards of the language and enforce them. I wonder if anyone has thought to send the publishers a copy of this thread?

  12. zizka, Jonathan: You’re right, of course, that after dispatching Truss he wanders off into a totally unrelated discussion of voice, but since I enjoyed it (and am given to unrelated excursuses myself, or excursus with a long second u if you will) and since everyone else who discusses the review has taken him to task for it, I didn’t feel the need to mention it.
    Annie: Heh!

  13. I would say that his “meandering” anticipates the “attack” by Mullan and Frederick in the Guardian:,6000,1252098,00.html

  14. Marie Watterlond says

    I read both the book and the review, and my first nit to pick is that she’s right about the “printers’ marks” since the term refers to marks used by all printers. A lot of the rest of his complaints relate to the different usage for some punctuation in the UK as opposed to the usage in the US. I liked the book and felt I had found a kindred spirit–someone with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek! And yes, Dave Barry is one of my heroes. (Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is not incorrect usage, by the way, as a thorough perusal of most Supreme Court opinions will confirm. Of course, those old guys in black nightgowns aren’t setting themselves up as language authorities, only the Court of Last Resort… well, don’t get me started.)

  15. They don’t care where her commas are, because her heart is in the right place.
    If you change “where her commas are” to “what the facts are”, you have the basic description for a follower of all those populists…

  16. Stu Clayton says

    “Populists shoot and leave”, is that what you’re saying ?

  17. That wasn’t what I had in mind, but it works, too 🙂

  18. heart is in the right place

    This idiom never works for me. It always causes the reaction “it shouldn’t be there!”

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Why shouldn’t a heart be in the right place ? Where else is it normally ?

    All the saying means is that the person’s “feelings/beliefs/sense of right and wrong” are as they should be. Of course different people have different sets of those things, and indeed hearts are not always in the same anatomical location.

  20. I know what is the intended meaning, it just doesn’t sit with me well.

    The heart should be slightly to the left, in anatomical sense. And in metaphorical as well. Cue Thatcher.

  21. No!! Don’t invoke the She-Devil!

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Left ventricular orientation and position in an advanced heart failure population

    # Orientation and position were weakly correlated with multiple significant predictors, and the relationship between HF progression and LV orientation and position could not be determined. #

    The article uses “in silico” to mean “in a computer simulation”. What a load of pretentiousness.

  23. In silico, aside from sounding atypically pretentious for a computer term, seems to place undue emphasis on the material from which chips are made. It’s a bit like calling experiments done with live organisms “in carbono”.

  24. The title ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ isn’t telling me anything about punctuation, it’s the lack of any context that’s important. If you came across the phrase elsewhere there would be a context, and if it wasn’t pandas I’d mentally add the comma. She wrote an entire book on a mistaken premise.

    And a better way to avoid ambiguous phrasing than adding commas is adding words. Eats his neighbour shoots some pool and leaves the dessert.

  25. Nemanja, in silico is patterned after in vitro, which puts the same emphasis on the material.

  26. Keith, if I’m not mistaken glass is made from siliicon just ilke computer processors , so “in siilico” is most naturally read as a category comprising both computer simulations and in vitro experiments. By contrast, “in vitro” very sensibly points to the conceptual distinction from “in vivo” – an isolated environment; the glass is metaphorical, the boundary can be made out of any suitable material. By contrast, “in silico” is literal, as if the simulations were somehow done mechanically in the sand. “In simulatio”, “in machina” seem like much more natural choices.

  27. January First-of-May says

    She wrote an entire book on a mistaken premise.

    Pretty sure the title was an explicit reference to a much older well-known joke. And since it’s a joke, it doesn’t actually have to be plausible.

    (Granted, I hadn’t actually read the book, so I’m not sure how does it interpret the joke.)

  28. @nemanja: Glass is largely silicon dioxide, and it contains more oxygen than silicon. Silicon used for integrated circuits is by no means pure (its response to doping it is the point of using it), but it is overwhelmingly silicon.

    In silico does sound stupid to me though

  29. Speaking here as a EE major, this just isn’t how anybody would ever describe modelling done in software. It’s confused about the layer of abstraction where their simulation takes place.

    And point taken about glass, to be quite honest i knew silicon was used, at any rate “in silico” seemed to point at a commonality between the methods so it was not the best term. It has a very reddit-before-reddit flavor of some egghead trying and failing to come up with a latin term, and that term being adopted nonetheless.

  30. It has a very reddit-before-reddit flavor of some egghead trying and failing to come up with a latin term, and that term being adopted nonetheless.

    Excellent description!

  31. Pretty sure the title was an explicit reference to a much older well-known joke.

    It was. And, of course, a title is not a “premise” anyway. The premise of the book was that punctuation, correctly applied, adds nuance to text and removes ambiguity. This seems uncontroversial, however dilettantish the resulting book may have been.

  32. “Joke” here being used very loosely for something with a tedious and convoluted setup with next to no payoff.

    Truss or her publisher had enough self awareness to sell the book in a kind of hardbound booklet format, to resemble a humor title and not as serious advice or instruction. But it was quite apparent that she shared the prescriptivist scold’s enthusiasm for enforcing nonsensical rules. I really only retained that she was extremely agitated about the movie Two Weeks Notice, and yet never managed to explain what additional infomation the missing apostrophe in that common phrase could possibly supply (apart from identifying the author as a tedious pedant)

  33. In silico at LH. “We do not yet make computer chips out of flint.”

  34. In silico seem like it’s not from silex (flint) but from silicum (New Latin for silicon).

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    If you run your simulation on a proper computer with thermionic valves you can claim that it’s in vacuo.

  36. If you wrap the computer in mistletoe it’s in visco.

  37. I’ve occasionally run into in operando to describe a diagnostic technique that allows you to see the innards of, say, a nanoelectronic device while it’s performing some process.

  38. David Marjanović says

    silex > silice
    silicium > silicio

    carbo > carbone
    simulatio > simulatione

  39. David Marjanović says

    From the OP:

    Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’”).

    That’s rich from a user of the Oxford comma.

    Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors.”

    This, on the other hand, trips me up, and I have to go back to the beginning of the sentence and try again to parse it.

  40. Trond Engen says

    I thought this was going to be about structural engineering.

    Still not too late, I suppose, even if I ended up researching etymology. I learn from Etymonline and Wiktionary that truss “in structures: supporting framework composed of connected straight elements” is from French trousse “bundle”, but the further etymology is uncertain, maybe from Latin torque. Wikipedias cross-linguistic sidebar gives a strangely diverse set of European terms. Russian uses another borrowing from French, Фе́рма < ferme < Lat. firmus “firm”. The French themselves instead call it le treillis < Lat. trichila “pavillion” < Greek. Spanish uses either armadura “strengthening” < Lat. “armament” or celosia < Lat. zelus “eager” < Greek. German does it by homegrown elements, Fachwerk < Fach “division, delimited part (of a whole)” + Werk “work, something made”. Only the smaller languages on the outskirts keep the diversity at bay. The Scandinavian words (e.g. Norwegian fagverk) are transparently from German, and Portugues treliça is from French.

    Spanish armadura is interesting in connecting to the German and Scandinavian terms for reinforcement in concrete, Norw. armering. “Strengthening” is explanation enough, but there are other connections that make this less obvious. Reinforcement is handled conceptually as an inner truss. Somewhere in my reading I found that either Englsh truss or French trousse was once also used to mean “reinforcement of concrete”, but I forgot to take notes of where. Reinforcement is sometimes bundled.

    French trousse can also mean “medium sized rope”, borrowed as Dutch trosse “rope” and further into German and Scandinavian (Norw. trosse “mooring rope”).

  41. And Russian трос ‘rope, cable, hawser’ (from Dutch).

  42. Trond Engen says

    Yes, I almost wrote “and beyond” on pure presumption, but thought better of it. I decided I wouldn’t go down another rabbithole of research.

  43. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought Latin struo from *PIE *strew was related. The German strotzen (cognate to strut but meaning “to spread out” goes back to an s-mobile proto-Germanic form but is NOT related by DWDS to *strew (I suppose there is a problem with ew> u, despite the semantic closeness).

  44. David Marjanović says

    Never heard of strotzen meaning “to spread out”, that’s ausbreiten. Strotzen occurs only, as far as I’ve noticed, in narrow contexts like vor Kraft strotzen “you can see there’s a lot of power in there” – a meaning quite similar to “strut”.

    I suppose there is a problem with ew > u

    That would just be the zero-grade; the problem I can see is to get to *strutt- we’d need some kind of *strewT-nó-, and I don’t know where the “root extension” would come from.

  45. PlasticPaddy says

    You are right, although the sense “angeschwollen sein” exists for the modern strotzen. But as you say, this does not mean “spread out”, I think I have interference from English “stretch” and should have checked????

  46. PlasticPaddy says

    There is also Latin trudo, which is traced to a PIE *trewd, but reflex in Germanic seems to be different (I. e -drießen in modern German). The PIE is not claimed as s-mobile (and English “stretch” comes from another root meaning stiff).

Speak Your Mind