Bookmarks Issue: 

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

A-EatsShootsLeavesA panda walks into a cafe, orders a sandwich, shoots a pistol, and leaves. The excuse for his misdemeanor? Following a badly punctuated wildlife manual, he "Eats, shoots and leaves." In this humorous examination of English punctuation, Truss offers valuable lessons. Not quite sure when to use the comma, colon, or semicolon? Read on. In between jokes, the self-proclaimed "stickler" delves into punctuation history, a product of the age of printing. (The "dangerously habit-forming" semicolon appeared in 1494; the apostrophe debuted a few years later.) And the dash’s virtue? Emily Dickinson loved it—and you can never misuse it. Without proper punctuation, Truss concludes, "there is no reliable way of communicating meaning"—for the well-mannered bunch, that is.
Gotham. 240 pages. $17.50.

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Any good grammar book can dictate rules, but you can’t help but be seduced by Truss’s passion. … This book changed my life in small, perfect ways, like learning how to make better coffee or fold an omelet." Mary Ambrose

NY Times 4 of 5 Stars
"For those who are tired of seeing signs like ‘Bobs’ Motors’ and think an ‘Eight Items or Less’ checkout sign should read ‘Eight Items or Fewer,’ boy, is this book for you. … This book makes correct usage so cool that you have to admire Ms. Truss for the same reason." Janet Maslin

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A cheery, chatty mini-tome, it offers numerous examples of the role that punctuation plays in enlivening and clarifying language. … My one regret: that there’s not more on the comma-dash and its cousins, the colon-dash and semicolon-dash." Michael Upchurch

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Truss’s tone is so relentlessly larky, and her imagery so parochial, that American readers will find much of this book incomprehensible, let alone unfunny. … Her scholarship is impressive and never dry." Edmund Morris

Critical Summary

When in doubt, use the dash (never opt for parentheses—which Truss finds annoying). A schoolteacher-turned-writer, Truss created a media sensation in the U.K., where her book topped the bestseller lists. Americans find Truss’s (Truss’?) slim book passionate, persuasive, insightful, and obsessive. (Is the improper use of "it’s" and "its" grounds for murder? Truss believes it is.) The thing is, we very-PC Americans abandoned Brit humor 250 years ago, so racist jokes and phrases like "It’s a real fag" become, as the New York Times Book Review notes, "a perishable export." But luckily, the rules of punctuation travel far and wide. And in this entertaining and informative account for writers and readers and solid citizens alike, Truss shows that "proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking."

A-DeluxeTransitiveVampire.epsThe Deluxe Transitive Vampire A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed | Karen Elizabeth gordon (1993): The 1984 "classic," updated.

A-ModernAmericanUsage.epsGarner’s Modern American Usage | Bryan A. Garner (2nd Ed. 2003): Extolled by David Foster Wallace in a 2001 Harper’s essay, Garner’s reference work offers opinions and summaries of a language constantly in flux.