First, a warning: I’m running where angels fear to tread.
In the author’s own words:
Sticklers never read a book without a pencil at hand, to correct the typographical errors. In short, we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves (p. 5). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
If I’m ever blessed enough to have Ms Truss scan this piece I hope (for her sake) she does so with an eraser and not a pencil or correction fluid.
Why punctuation must be important to marketers
If you want to be a better marketer, sharpening up your language skills is a worthy investment of time and neuronal nudging.
Because if you communicate clearly you’ll be easier to understand, easier to work with and you’ll make it easy for people to buy from you.
Whether you’re writing a letter on behalf of the boss, writing copy for a Facebook ad or writing a script for a YouTube video, you must strive to communicate clearly.
I’ll delve into some of my favorite marketing books on this website, dissecting them as I do this one. That includes work by Drayton Bird (a hero of mine), David Ogilvy (a hero of Drayton’s), Joe Sugarman, Bob Bly and other copywriters.
But this common sense thought came to me: “let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.”
And where better to start than with the book the title of which has for years gripped me, but which I’ve avoided for fear of having to change my grammatory ways?
Let’s take a look at one of the most popular books in recent years dealing with something super important: punctuation.
The book’s called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
It’s been praised on platforms like Amazon, with over 4,000 reviews and a 4+ rating.
The author, Lynne Truss, does a great job of making punctuation understandable, and she does so in fine British style, with humor I suspect I missed quite a bit of.
Even so, it’s a great read, it’s easy to grok and it’ll help you be better at punctuation, which should help you be better at communicating, which should help you sell better.
Let’s jump in.
Eight ways to use an apostrophe
To get the apostrophe wrong makes you look like a proper noob.
But you don’t have to look like a rookie.
Ms Truss’s book does a great job of teaching you when to use the apostrophe.
She goes out of her way to introduce you to this little rascal that hangs around words like there’s, it’s and run’s. (Just kidding, not run’s!)
She starts by sharing a story about a pop band the name of which contained an apostrophe for no apparent reason other than to irk sticklers.
There’s an irony here…
The pop band, though long dissolved, is STILL remembered, cast in Kindle, due to their silly name.
In fact, they made it onto the New York Times best seller list (through her book)!
There’s no such thing as bad press after all, right?
The band’s not remembered for their vocal aptitude but for their linguistic ineptitude. Big difference.
Ms Truss ventures into a detailed history of the apostrophe, going all the way back to the 16th century, just before most of us were born.
What was the job of the apostrophe in Shakespearean times?
She explains that well on p. 38.
But it’s only when printers started using the apostrophe in the 17th century, says Ms Truss, that things “spiralled into madness”.
In the 18th century, maybe due to excessive opium consumption, these printers went bonkers and loaded this poor little tittle with even more work.
Possessive versus contractive
It’s one of the greatest battles of our time, that of the possessive versus the contractive.
Do possessive determiners or possessive pronouns need apostrophes? Ask Ms Truss. She’ll tell you what the authorities have to say on the matter.
She even lists possessive determiners and possessive pronouns in her book, making it easy for you to not have an excuse when next you forget what those things are, much less whether they need an apostrophe.
What about a plural possessor that doesn’t end with an s? Or what if the possessive is a regular plural ending in s?
And time, dates and quantity? How are apostrophes used in those?
And when is it not only permissible, but general practice, to exclude apostrophes?
And are apostrophes used for plural dates and plural abbreviations? P. 45 has the answers.
By the end of of the first chapter you’ll never get your “it’s’s” mixed with your “its’s” again.
Just as you thought she explained in great detail every which way to use an apostrophe, she throws a cat into the tumble dryer.
Because that’s life. On one hand you have the rules standing their ground; on the other you have exceptions throwing stones and LOLing at the rules.
What makes the exceptions difficult to understand is that a different set of rules apply to modern names, as opposed to names from the ancient world.
But you’ll be surprised to see what counts as names from the ancient world and what’s considered modern.
And of course, Jesus’ name is also an exception.
To find out what the rest of those exceptions are you’ll do well to turn to p. 55.
And although it seems like she’s splitting hairs, knowing these exceptions will help you stand out from other marketing writers.
Pause for a relatively short moment
who would have thought the pause had such a long and significant history?
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves (p. 73). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In chapter two, That’ll Do, Comma, Ms Truss spends a considerable amount of time on this mark and how it’s to be used.
What is the function of the comma? Is it to irritate the reader? Perhaps.
I’ll admit I’m a comma addict. I take a packet of commas with me everywhere I go, sprinkling them here, there, and everywhere.
But what’s the modern trend with commas? Are they still that popular? And what do lawyers, those modern day beacons of morality, think of the comma?
On p. 71 Ms Truss says that the comma performs a crucial duty inside the reader’s mind.
If you don’t use it correctly you’ll break the reader’s rhythm.
And by breaking their rhythm you’re putting one more obstacle in their way, however small it may be.
If you create a myriad small obstacles your reader will sit with a bucket full.
And they’ll dump that bucket-full of obstacles on your head by not buying from you!
“But Jansie, surely you’re exaggerating the importance of the comma? Surely Ms Truss doesn’t think of it as that significant?”
Ms Truss goes into great detail about the comma’s history in this chapter, but not before establishing the importance of the difference its position in a sentence can make.
On p. 73 Ms Truss touches on a Bible passage the meaning of which changes completely based solely on where the comma is placed.
It’s the difference between immediate eternal bliss and purgatory!
As a fundamentalist Bible believer I can assure you, a comma makes a gargantuan difference.
On p. 81 Ms Truss quotes Sir Ernest Gowers, who said, “The use of commas cannot be learned by rule.”
Then she goes on to show us that rules do exist for the comma and that those rules are flexible and sometimes even easy to snap.
Six rules for using commas
Ms Truss lists six rules for the comma. These are the areas these rules apply to:
- Direct speech,
- Interjections and
- Paired commas.
When it comes to breaking up lists, how should the comma be used for doing so?
What are the words you should be able to replace it with in order for you to say you’ve used it correctly?
Ms Truss deals with this from p. 82 onward.
The Oxford comma
So you’ve got the use of the comma down pat?
Not so fast.
Ms Truss introduces the Oxford comma, a squiggly little brat more at home in the US than in the UK.
You might argue against it, but Ms Truss makes a good case for the Oxford comma. That’s not to say she’s for it, but she’s looked at commas from both sides now, and she’s gracious about The Oxford’s usage.
For adjectives, the rule is similar to that for lists.
You need to be able to replace the comma with one of two words for it to be viable.
It gets tricky because there are cases where adjectives can’t do with a comma. P. 86 demonstrates that clearly.
When you need to join two complete sentences, use a comma.
But you need to be careful that you don’t use a comma when you’re actually supposed to use a semicolon.
Ms Truss touches on this on p. 87.
There’s also a comma error only celebrity writers are allowed to make. Ms Truss tells you all about it.
The gap-filling comma is a simple rule that gives your writing a feeling of haste.
That’s often a great thing in sales copy, so you’d want to know how to employ the gap comma correctly.
Sadly, Ms Truss doesn’t give many examples when she speaks of it on p. 88.
According to Ms Truss, on p. 89, a comma before direct speech is on its way out in favor of other methods to indicate speech.
The book was published in 2003 and I still notice many commas before direct speech.
But I’m keen to try out the non-comma methods in future. The alternatives make sense.
What are interjections?
the act of uttering exclamations
The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “interjection (n.),” accessed January 25, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/interjection.
This is an easy one, since no exclamation (followed by more words) can stand without the help of a comma.
This is the hardest part of comma usage, and it’s especially important to get it right if you’re to keep your reader steadily floating down your river of words towards the end goal of having them smash their piggy banks and handing over their cash.
Ms Truss spends a considerable number of words on explaining this punctuation form, ensuring you understand how to use it correctly, and why you should care.
How does it work?
It involves using commas in such a way so that, when a specific part of the sentence is removed, the sentence remains intact.
You’ll see examples on p. 90.
To further complicate the comma pair issue, in some cases you may use only one comma. But it’s actually a comma pair. Read from p. 93 to see what I mean.
The (bonus) final rule for using commas
Ms Truss has a final rule she says you won’t find in any books by grammarians.
I think she’s right. At least, I can’t imagine a rule like that actually popping out at me from any other book but hers.
I’m afraid I break that rule quite easily and quite often.
It’s a simple rule. You’ll see it on p. 95.
The colon and semicolon
If there’s one thing that makes many writers’ stomachs churn it’s the colon and semicolon.
They’re easy to abuse, so perhaps better left unused if you’re not sure where they fits.
Ms Truss loves them, but she tells of famous writers, one of them George Orwell, who avoided the semicolon like a Molotov cocktail.
Then there’s the (apocryphal?) story of an author who was congratulated for not having used a single semicolon in one of his novels, only to reveal that the typewriter he used didn’t have one.
If you simply can’t get a grasp on these punctuation marks you’re not alone.
Ms Truss says these marks have been confounding the human race for hundreds of years, and she does a fine job of clarifying much of it.
They’re also considered middle-class, which is apparently an insult over yonder.
Thoughts on Cecil B. Hartley’s dictum
Cecil B. Hartley came up with a rhyme to help us know when to use commas, semicolons, colons and periods.
It’s specious at best, but seems to have been accepted as fact.
Fortunately, Ms Truss has the good sense to skewer Mr Hartley’s adage.
You’ll see her blunt, yet justified, attack on his poem on p. 113. If you were a fan of his little decree she might persuade you to think otherwise.
What’s the role of these marks?
The colon and semicolon—and Ms Truss gets passionate on these marks—has crucial functions in the English language.
They’re not merely optional and, says Ms Truss, if they’re middle-class, she’s a serviette (British for napkin). Seems being called a napkin is a bad thing.
The colon and semicolon are there to do two things, one of which is to fulfill expectation. The other you’ll find on p. 113.
How to use the colon and semicolon
We’ve established that these are good things for writing, but where should you use them?
Ms Truss quotes Henry Fowler, who said that the colon “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.
That’s an excellent job description of these marks!
She goes on to mention a letter by George Bernard Shaw to T. E. Lawrence in which Shaw strikes at Lawrence’s apparent inability to use the colon correctly.
I must admit, I prefer Fowler’s stolid summary of the colon to Shaw’s shouting.
But Shaw got it perfectly right on how we’re to use the colon and semicolon.
Go to p. 116 to find the answers.
She follows Shaw’s rant with excellent examples.
The chapter on the exclamation starts off with a story about a story, written by Anton Chekhov, about a man who’s offended by someone for his supposed inability to use punctuation correctly.
Like many of Chekhov’s stories, this one also ends in a strange way. And this is something I personally feel when reading Chekhov, but I get the sense of not always knowing what he was trying to convey.
Whether something’s lost in translation, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s my Afrikaans eyes not used to reading English-translated Russian stories.
But at the same time, I enjoy reading Chekhov. It’s almost like he deliberately tried to leave you feeling empty.
The exclamation mark
What’s the point of the exclamation mark?
And what’s worse than having an editor remove and exclamation mark from your work, if ever you’re published?
You’ll find the answers starting on p. 137.
You’d better be careful about not using the exclamation mark too much, else you’ll be frowned upon by the likes of H. W. Fowler.
And there’s hardly anything worse than to be frowned upon by a grammarian with his legacy.
The question mark
Here’s an interesting question: when don’t you use the question mark in a sentence?
Ms Truss makes it clear when to use the question mark, but then explains something on p. 141 I didn’t know. (I’m ashamed of calling myself a writer of copy sometimes.)
Modern usage has also started seeing the question mark’s use in situations when it’s not needed. Apparently the Aussies are to blame for it.
Why italicize text? Is it used for emphasis? That’s certainly one of its functions.
And how do you emphasize a word inside a sentence that’s been wholly italicized? P. 146 reveals the answer.
Ms Truss makes an accurate observation about inverted commas. She says some writers use it as if they’re trying to distance themselves from the text they’ve placed between these marks.
It’s like an air of superiority.
“Ugh, I’d never use a word like that in real life. It’s simply too vulgar for my tongue. I’m far too refined to be so uncouth and ribald.”
It’s a form of virtue signalling, and if you want to see really good examples, simply open Twitter. Twitter is the epitome of virtue signalling. Twitter’s website should be between two fat inverted commas to indicate that everything that happens on there is superior to everyone and everything else.
Inverted commas are abused something terribly these days. They’re used for “everything”.
One particular battle I’ve had with people using inverted commas too often is that they make what they’re placing inside those hideous things look like sarcasm.
So “100% satisfaction guaranteed” to me actually reads “yeah, right, 100% satisfaction guaranteed. Pfffft!!! Absolutely!!! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!”
Quotation marks must be used correctly if you don’t want the reader to question your motives.
There’s a battle raging between American grammarians and British grammarians about the placement of the inverted comma at the end of a sentence.
Ms Truss looks at this on p. 152.
I prefer the British method.
From p. 152 Ms Truss lays down a few handy rules to help us understand when to use inverted commas and tops it off with a rule of thumb on p. 155, but it’s not applicable to US English.
Dashes and brackets
You might think the hyphen found on your keyboard is fine for those moments you need a dash.
And because we’re more concerned with sales than with actual punctuation it’s probably OK to abuse the hyphen.
But on p. 158 Ms Truss goes to great trouble in explaining the difference between a dash and a hyphen. I’ll admit, I didn’t know about the difference between the two.
Or maybe I did; I just didn’t care much. To be honest, I still don’t really care. It’s too much effort to make a proper dash on a computer keyboard. The hyphen will have to work overtime.
Ms Truss tries to explain on p. 160 what the difference is between double dashes and brackets (parentheses in the US), but it looks more like personal preference than grammatical science.
The use of brackets
Ms Truss explains the different types of brackets available to the writer, where they’re from and where they’re used.
One of the more obvious reasons for using brackets is to clarify information. That means there’s a place for them in the top drawer of the marketer’s toolbox.
Around p. 160 she explains various other uses for these punctuation marks.
And this is where we get to sic, the much loved editor’s note derived from the Latin phrase, sicut. What does it mean and when should it be used? Although, this is probably not one you’ll use often, unless you’re an editor.
I love ellipsis…
And I use it wrong all the time.
To me it looks like the perfect way to indicate that whatever precedes the ellipsis is spilling its guts into the next line.
But there are actually only two legit uses for the ellipsis. Mr. Truss teaches us what those are on p. 165, much to my disappointment.
It’s funny how Ms Truss mentions that the chapter called A Little Used Punctuation Mark is an “after-thought-y” chapter, yet affords this tiny punctuation mark its own chapter.
This little mark, which I happen to like, was hated by prominent men on both sides of the pond. Men like Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill both had ugly things to say about the poor little hyphen.
Ms Truss, however, abolishes the thought of abolishing the hyphen with a powerful argument on p. 168.
If you don’t use the hyphen when you should, the meaning of a sentence changes completely.
But of course, as with all punctuation marks, the hyphen’s not free from abuse.
Ms Truss cleverly highlights phrases where the hyphen is absent, making for amusing imagination TV.
When should you use a hyphen?
Ms Truss mentions a few words that cannot do without a hyphen.
Here’s an example: what’s the difference between a re-formed rock band and a reformed rock band? Quite possibly a world of doctrinal difference, at the least.
She lays down further rules on p. 171.
“And having no price, it has questionable value”
That’s a quote from Ms Truss in the final pages of her masterpiece.
It correctly summarizes one of the main problems of the online world: if everything is so readily available, is anything worth anything? (Of course, my personal dislike for leftist platforms like Twitter is justified by her quote.)
That’s why you should strive, now more than ever, to communicate clearly with your target audience.
Mrs. Truss makes an erroneous claim on p. 181:
Finally, you can’t write comments in the margin of your screen to be discovered by another reader fifty years down the line.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves (p. 181). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Many software programs allow you to make notes. It might not be visible at first glance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make notes.
As I worked my way through the Kindle version of her book it was clear where people wholeheartedly agreed with her.
On Google Docs you can make notes too; the same goes for MS programs.
This makes me wonder: what if she wants to update her book to reflect this sort of change?
It’s easy to change the Kindle or other e-book format. But if she does, would that mean she’d have to update the print edition too?
As we’d say in Afrikaans (slang), “hierdie girl mag maar!”
There’s a reason this book became a bestseller and it’s not just because a bajillion grammar sticklers bought it.
If you’d like to be better understood by your target audience, which should translate to more dollars in your pocket, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a must-read. It’s witty and obviously written by someone who knows her stuff (to say the least) when it comes to grammar.
Get the book! Now! …