Eats, Shoots and Leaves makes for a sometimes amusing, sometimes very interesting history of grammar; but then Truss goes and spoils it all with the odd incomplete lesson. The result is a work that is neither here nor there. As a writer, I found much of the history of grammar genuinely informative – the more you know about where rules come from the better you use them – the humour was okay but not quite me. (Many of the examples of misuse have a made up quality to them; they are so very bizarre.)
Somebody hoping to improve their English, must surely finish disappointed given the patchy approach to explaining the conventions of the language. Most unfortunate, is an error in explaining the apostrophe (despite a lengthy rant on the subject); this also illustrates the flaw in Truss’s approach.
For those that are interested, the error concerns the word “its”. We are correctly told that when something belongs to a thing (i.e. an it) we use “its something” with no apostrophe. This is one of the occasions where Truss offers no explanation for the rule and you’d think she would, given that this is a special rule. I suspect that she simply doesn’t know why, because she goes on to rubbish the comments of one of her Daily Telegraph column readers. They told her that “one’s”, as in “one’s something” (where something belongs to oneself) should not have an apostrophe. The Telegraph reader was correct; “its” has no apostrophe because “it” is always singular and so nobody is going to mistake the word “its” for meaning lots of things, because if there was more than one thing you’d describe them as “they” or “them”. Similarly, nobody is going to confuse “ones” for meaning lots of people, because “one” is, by definition, singular and if there were one of you, you’d say “our”. So to conclude, if “its” is correct, and we to be consistent, then “ones” is also correct and Truss is wrong.
(originally posted to Amazon February 4, 2004)
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