The Guardian


makes a difference

How has a book on punctuation become a bestseller? Lynne Truss, the author talks about commas, hyphens and the importance of correct colon usage.

I meet Lynne Truss at the offices of her small publishing company, Profile Books, where everyone seems in a happy spin about the success of her book on that not-obviously-best-selling topic: punctuation. ‘Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves — The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’ has struck a chord among book buyers and its modest initial print run has had to be multiplied many times in a rapid reprint, only a fortnight after first publication. Why should a book about how to use commas and colons properly have lodged itself at number one in the Amazon bestseller list? Truss herself seems truly mystified. “I don’t know who’s buying it. It is all quite extraordinary.” Are there really so many grumpy pedants out there? “It’s written for people who love punctuation and don’t like to see it mucked about.’’

She writes for those who winced at the posters advertising the film ‘Two Weeks Notice’ and who felt real pain when they saw in print the name of the pop group Hear’Say. Its absurd apostrophe, “hanging there in eternal meaninglessness’’, was, Truss says, “a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy.” Maybe her book’s success shows that it is not just a few reactionaries who care. She agrees. “It’s selling off the Internet and stickler-types probably don’t do their shopping on Amazon.’’ She wonders if there might be readers whose higher education has given them a guilty conscience about what they have not been taught, “suddenly thinking that perhaps it does matter and I wouldn’t mind knowing this stuff.’’

While Truss says that “despair gave this book its impetus,’’ she does not sound despairing either in print or in person. The title itself is a joke, about an irate panda who walks into a cafe, orders a sandwich, eats it, draws a gun and fires two shots into the air. The waiter finds the explanation for this erratic behaviour in a badly punctuated wildlife manual, which the bear leaves behind: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’’ The book tells you the rules, but is also full of jokes and anecdotes. “It is a sort of celebration of punctuation. You can’t help cheering it on, because it has done such a good job in its humble way.’’ She speaks of the delights of the semi-colon with relish. She has listened to “the man from the Apostrophe Protection Society’’ (yes, it exists) but does not sound like a member of any such group. “I was so worried when I wrote the book that people would assume that anyone interested in this subject would be small-minded.’’

Nor does she feel that she belongs to some better generation. She cannot remember being taught punctuation at her grammar school in the late 60s and early 70s. That was the time when it ceased to matter. She thinks things might be improving, partly because of the national curriculum: “It obviously is being taught at the moment.’’ But she does not believe that “the culture of correcting people’s grammar and punctuation will ever come back.’’ The old red pen on the homework — “that’s the way it’s learned.’’ She loves the old schoolbooks about usage and abusage by the likes of Fowler and Partridge, “even if everything they say has gone by the board now.’’ Indeed, her own buoyant and sometimes facetious style knowingly breaks plenty of the old rules. When she mentioned in the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper that she was to write a book on punctuation, a reader wrote to tell her that her own “howlers’’ (sentences beginning with “And’’ or containing no finite verb) disqualified her from the enterprise. But then her book has been successful because she does not fit the stereotype of a stern monitor of our language.

She learned most of her lessons about English usage from working in journalism. She was told that she got her first such job on the ‘Listener’ magazine because her main rival had confused “furbish’’ with “furnish’’ in his letter of application. She is tactfully kind about the grammatical standards of those working on newspapers, and fondly recalls the style guide with which she first had to work on the London Times. “It told me the difference between ‘continuous’ and ‘continual’, things like that — marvellous.’’“I don’t really know where punctuation is going. But this is a very good moment to look at it and see what state it’s in.’’ The Internet and e-mails have come along “very conveniently for people who didn’t learn punctuation and can therefore get by.” Punctuation helps give rhythm and a tone of voice to writing, and she thinks it no accident that readers of e-mails often find it difficult to pick up “the tone of the person who’s written it,’’ with all those dashes. “The grace notes get lopped off and it becomes very bald.’’ So people start needing exclamation marks and capital letters, “desperately trying to express a tone of voice.’’

Would she like to write more books about language and its proprieties? Yes, but without becoming “a grumpy old curmudgeon.’’ She notices that when she has written about punctuation she gets correspondence that soon veers into passionate complaint about spelling, grammar or pronunciation. Everyone has something that bugs them. “I have sympathy.’’ We talk about our grouses. Her’s is the use of “enormity’’ (post-9/11) to mean “large size’’. Can we fight for punctuation? “I hope so.’’ As long as people want to communicate in writing they will need “little marks, here and there — one hopes.’’