Author Topic: Harvard English Professor Thrashes Truss’s ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’  (Read 9580 times)

Joe Carillo

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This forum featured last week a British English professor’s blistering critique of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication. Prof. Geoffrey Pullum’s article, entitled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” argues that The Elements of Style, an enduring worldwide bestseller that happens to be written by Americans, “does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.”

Prof. Pullum’s blast brought back to mind another bestselling English-grammar book, this time written by a British writer and journalist, that had taken a similar drubbing, this time from a noted American English professor. That book is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, former host of the BBC Radio 4’s “Cutting a Dash” show. In her book that became a runaway bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, Truss lamented in a tart-humorous vein what she described as the sorry state of punctuation in both the United Kingdom and the United States. She exemplified this state of affairs in this bad-punctuation anecdote about the Chinese panda that became the basis for the book’s title:

"A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

'‘Why?’ asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"‘Well, I’m a panda’, he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’

"The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'"

For the introduction to and excerpts from Eats, Shoots & Leaves, click this link to the Barnes&Noble website.

Now, in his 2004 review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves in The New Yorker, Harvard University Prof. Louis Menand excoriated the good-punctuation advocacy book for committing several dozen punctuation errors itself, icily remarking that “an Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness.”

Menand sums up the book: “Eats, Shoots & Leaves presents itself as a call to arms, in a world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.”

To read the full text of Prof. Menand’s thrashing of Truss, click this link to his New Yorker article of June 28, 2004, “Bad Comma: Lynne Truss’s Strange Grammar.”

Now, do you think Prof. Menand is right or unjustly harsh in thrashing Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves?

To share your thoughts about his critique whether pro or con, click the Reply button to post them on Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

« Last Edit: May 09, 2009, 01:09:39 AM by Joe Carillo »