Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Truss)

Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Penguin House, 2003.

Good punctuation, like good manners, should be invisible (Truss 3).  It shouldn’t draw attention to itself. As Truss notes, punctuation “points” our writing. It’s to keep the story from stumbling.

The Apostrophe

Neither possessive determiners nor possessive pronouns require an apostrophe (40).

“The confusion of the possessive ‘its’ with the contractive ‘it’s’ is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler” (43).

Commas and Style

Commas do not simply serve as proper punctuation markers. They also indicate the pacing of a passage.  Take this sentence:

“They tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop” (85).  As Truss points out, “This was a decelerating sentence. The commas were incrementally applying the brakes.”

Have you ever noticed how an experienced writer sometimes uses a comma splice?  Did he suddenly forget the rules?  Not exactly.  A comma splice, “done knowingly by an established writer…is effective, poetic, dashing…Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful” (88).  Proceed with caution.

While a semicolon functions like a period in that it combines two independent clauses, it has the stylistic effect of leaving the reader expecting more (114). Be careful, though: “They are dangerously habit-forming” (115).

Rules of Colons

Use a colon when two statements are placed “in dramatic opposition” (117). A colon can also have the stylistic effect of an “abrupt ‘pulling up’” (117-118).


This isn’t a how-to of grammar.  To be sure, there are rules.  Most of them, however, can be found in any grammar text.  The book is funny, to be sure, but not nearly as funny as the editorial blurbs suggest.  What the book does deliver are hints on how to use grammatical rules for style.

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