Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
This is how I know I’m a real English teacher – I have a shelf dedicated to books just about English. The history of English, the uses and misuses of English, and even the history of the alphabet we use. This is something I never expected to have in my personal library, that’s for sure.
But that’s all to be expected; I’m an English teacher, and people like me are supposed to read books like this. It’s professional development, or something. The weird thing about this book, a book dedicated to punctuation, of all things, is that it was popular with people who weren’t English teachers. Everyone was shocked by how well it sold, the author included. A book written as kind of a primal stickler scream somehow struck a chord with the general reading population. Perhaps there is some hope for our species after all….
The reason it sold well, of course, is that it’s well-written and entertaining to read. Far too many books about language are written by dusty intellectual Linguists who exude smugness with their impenetrable jargon and are completely inaccessible to the general public. I have those books on my shelves as well, and nothing this side of a double shot of NyQuil is as good at getting me off into slumberland. Ms. Truss, however, writes like one of us. She’s an ordinary person who loves her language and who just snaps every time she sees a sign like, “Apple’s – $1”. I share her pain.
The book is a well-mixed combination of history, usage and style. The tiny marks that make the written English word behave the way it does have come to us along a remarkable number of paths. In the last millennium or so, marks have been added, changed and removed over time as necessity dictated. One of her fears (and the impetus to write this book) is that we may be changing English to a new form that requires less of that rigid, form-fixing punctuation.
Or people just haven’t bothered to learn.
As she notes throughout the book, punctuation is one of those things that few people ever really get to learn. Our English teachers give it a once-over in elementary school, and then we never get a review of it, so we spend most of our lives just throwing around commas and apostrophes and hoping we get it right. More often than not, we don’t. And we’re afraid to ask anyone, lest we look like ignorant yobs.
But to master punctuation means more than just being a pedant and a nerd. Heavens, no. Mastering punctuation means controlling your language, which is controlling your thoughts. The vast difference between a sentence like, “The convict said the judge is mad” and “The convict, said the judge, is mad” should be enough by itself to illustrate how important proper punctuation is. In a language like English, so dependent on rhythm, timing and stress, punctuation is the substitute for our voice. It tells us when to speed up and slow down, which points need to be stressed and given special attention, and which points (like this one) can be safely disregarded, if one so chooses.
It would be very easy for Ms. Truss’ obvious frustration with the misuse of punctuation to overwhelm her and poison the book. Admittedly, she does at one point put together a kit for those who would be punctuation guerrillas and risk prison to set the world straight, but by and large she stops short at advocating actual lawlessness.
Ms. Truss understands that punctuation abuse isn’t something that people do intentionally – it’s largely a matter of ignorance, and she wants to help. What’s more, she’s funny. For example:
In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.
Every section in the book has sharp and clever humor, a description of something as simple as a comma made in such a way that you find yourself laughing out loud on the train.
Of course, whenever you get into this topic, you run the risk of finding yourself forced to one side or the other of the “proscriptive” versus “descriptive” debate. You know, the people who want to tell everyone else how to use language versus the people who want the speakers to decide for themselves how it is used. The latter smacks of classical democracy, and as both an English Professional and a person with a healthy distrust of The People, I’m hesitant to sign up for it. I like rules in language. I like having a common set of guidelines we can turn to in order to make sure we’re all getting the meaning that the speaker or writer is trying to convey.
Unfortunately, for people like Truss or myself, it’s all too easy to cross that line from being the person who appreciates a bit of order to that person who writes letters to the editor because some headline writer used a colon where a semicolon would do. And I’ve seen internet flame wars go wild over this pro- or de- divide. People who could politely disagree with each other about Sarah Palin’s international policy experience will find themselves screaming bloody murder over whether or not you should put two spaces after a period.
What has to be remembered is this: there are rules to language, like it or not. Those rules, however, change, and no single one of us has any power to impel or obstruct that change. The best we can do is to make sure we are writing with clarity and precision so that our intended audience understands our thoughts with the least amount of effort on their part. Regardless of what you think of the rules, if the reader has to stop and ask herself, “Wait, what did he say?” then you have failed. So learn the rules. Once you’ve learned them, you’re free to do what you wish, but make sure you have them down cold.
So, if you’ve always wanted to know about how to use a semicolon, or you’re not sure if your commas are in the right place, or if you’ve ever driven someone to madness by dropping an apostrophe into a possessive “its” – and you know who you are – then this book is the one you need. Enjoy.
“Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko.”
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves