Monday, November 17, 2008

I lapsed into a comma.

Title: Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Author: Lynne Truss
Bookmark: an actual bookmark

There was a time when I was just a pup and getting a handle on the written word when I put commas between every word in a sentence. Some would say that it was because I didn't yet know how to properly use them, but the truth of the matter is that I hadn't yet mastered the difference between letter-spaces and word-spaces, and without some sort of mark denoting the break between words, my writing was a nearly unintelligible block of solid text with occasional periods or question marks.

Then Mom started drilling me with rules like which which, there, and whose was which, how to spell "friends" and "believe", and her personal favorite, "Ain't is NOT a word."

Thus began my descent into grammatical madness. I had to stop reading our local paper because the amount of errors was distracting. I didn't even have to read the page; a glance would immediately detect four punctuation errors, six misspellings, and an unfinished sentence before I saw any actual words. The pattern-recognition part of my brain was so highly tuned to sentence structure that I saw breaks in the pattern before the pattern itself. After reading one of my recent posts about frustration with mankind's general rampant illiteracy, Kate recommended this book and sent me a link to an "unrelated" blog. The author of the book is a proudly fierce stickler for punctuation, and jokingly (I hope) advocates an end to apostrophe abuse:

Here are the weapons required in the apostrophe war (stop when you feel uncomfortable):

  • correction fluid
  • big pens
  • stickers in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
  • tin of paint with big brush
  • guerrilla-style clothing
  • strong medication for personality disorder
  • loudhailer
  • gun
I'll grant Truss this much: the lady has done some serious research, and peppers the book with surprisingly interesting historical tidbits about the origin and past use of various punctuation marks, and employs vast, verdant expanses of examples to illustrate her points. The self-referential nature and sly humor behind most of these examples makes a book on rabid, fervent love of punctuation surprisingly readable... for a book on rabid, fervent love of punctuation.

I got through the first half to two-thirds of the book pretty easily, then I had a visitor for a few days, then some great weekend weather, then I got an email from the library kindly reminding me that they'd like their book back, and I had to force my way through the rest of the book. It helped to read that portion first thing in the morning, before I started work, rather than at night, when paragraphs extolling the virtues of the semicolon laid me out on the couch and left me for dead.

It's entertaining if you have no trouble reading slightly dry material about the marks throughout our sentences, but it is also mercifully short. As much as I agree with her on most points, Truss takes a few too many pot shots at American and Internet usage for my liking. This is not to say that I don't agree with her on the Internet side, but many of her criticisms of American punctuation use were contrary to the rules I learned in school so many years ago. Sorry, Ms. Truss, but contrary to what you have heard, the opening of a letter is most often followed with a comma; the colon is reserved for business letters.

I think the real problem with the book is that the people who really need to read it--those blundering oafs who use a comma when they want an apostrophe, a space when they need a hyphen, "whose" when they need "who's", and an apostrophe when they want nothing at all--won't ever go near it. The people who will read it are the ones who already know most or all of the rules in the book, and will gain only some humorous lines about her desire to bear the children of the inventor of the apostrophe and italics, and some interesting parenthetical history (literally). Making this required reading in schools would be a nice touch, but by the time students reach this reading level, it may be too late for them. Perhaps the answer is to make it required reading for the teachers.

Speaking of teachers, here's another related article I found recently.

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posted by reyn at 1:26 PM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Does she talk about the one grammatical error that makes smoke come out of my ears? Every time I read "would of" instead of "would have" (or "could of," "must of," "should of" etc...) I want to reach through the page and strangle the writer. I've even seen this mistake in published works (including a book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett).

11/18/2008 8:17 PM  
Blogger reyn said...

She sticks very strictly to punctuation errors. The closest she comes to word choice or spelling errors is the barest mention of capitalization, and a brief paragraph or so on who's/whose--and I suspect that even that is only because of the apostrophe.

She can't really be blamed, though--someone setting out to illuminate all of the stupid mistakes made by writers, publishers, editors, and common folk communicating with each other would surely go insane after a quick 10,000 pages.

11/18/2008 8:20 PM  

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