The problem with punctuation is threefold. Its rules are seemingly arbitrary; it's boring; and no one knows how to do it. – Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense: A FUNdamental Guide to Punctuation
I like music scores. I think they’re beautiful, often more so than the music, once you get to hear it. They’re so precise. They tell you the pitch, the tempo, the dynamics, the tone, the volume and all of this information is communicated merely by the insertion of a series of squiggles and strokes above and below the notes. They can even tell you what fingers to use, what part of the instrument to play and how. It’s amazing frankly that anything is left for the player to interpret. I often despair that written English doesn’t have more ways of ensuring that what gets said is what gets read. Imagine, for example, the inimitable Stephen Fry reading this paragraph aloud and then William Shatner or Joanna Lumley: their voices go up and down, they pause for different lengths of time and they choose to emphasis different words. Would they soften their voices for ‘up’ and deepen them for ‘down’? Would they insert a dramatic pause after the word ‘pause’ and if so for how long?
I can only remember one teacher in all my years at school devoting any quality time to teaching us about sentence construction. Her name was Miss Stirling and the year would have been 1969. She was a tartar—an absolute tartar. Years later I passed this tiny shrivelled-up old biddy at a bus stop and only realised who in fact it was after I was a few paces past her. How I could possibly have been as afraid of this woman as I was I have no idea, but she ruled with an iron fist, brooked no dissention and was obsessed—this is no exaggeration—with morphology, syntax and punctuation. And I will forever be grateful to her. I only wish I could have studied with her for the rest of my school life because from Primary 7 on, the emphases shifted onto other topics and it was just taken for granted that we knew how to string a sentence together. Of course we were introduced to the basic concepts of sentence construction much earlier than this but Miss Stirling made me—I cannot speak for my classmates—truly appreciate the mechanics of language. She was old school—she believed in prescriptive grammar (grammar that adheres to a discrete set of rigid rules to be memorised, practiced, and followed religiously)—rather than bending the knee to the newer descriptive grammar theories which tended to be more flexible, reflecting actual usage and self-expression over "correct" structures.
An issue that academics nowadays love to discuss is whether standards are falling in grammar, punctuation and spelling. The general consensus is that they are so much so that when Brighton College, in East Sussex introduced compulsory lessons in spelling, punctuation and grammar into the curriculum it made the newspapers:
Headteacher Richard Cairns decided to act because a generation of pupils - and many young teachers - had been failed by English lessons which focused on books rather than grammar.
The school said too many English departments opted for the "instant gratification" of lessons in literature instead of rigorous lessons in the basics of written language.
As a result, a generation of pupils are baffled by the apostrophe, the colon and the semi-colon, and struggle to use paragraphs properly. – ‘Falling standards behind private school's compulsory grammar lessons’, Daily Mail, 8th October 2006
Three years prior to this a book was published that much to the surprise of its author, and no doubt the delight of its publisher, went onto to become a runaway bestseller. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is a non-fiction book written by Lynne Truss, the former host of the BBC Radio 4's Cutting a Dash programme, in which she bemoans the fact that the rules of punctuation these days have become so relaxed as to be virtually comatose. Needless to say it wasn’t long before Louis Menand dashed off an article which was subsequently published in The New Yorker wherein he points out many of the punctuation faux pas in the book.
As regular readers of this blog will be able to attest, I have a fondness for all kinds of punctuation marks and use them with great relish if not downright abandon: commas, semicolons, colons, various dashes, ellipses, apostrophes, miscellaneous quotation marks (including cometes franceses – «…»), brackets (both square and round), exclamation marks, question marks and periods. I am blessed with a wife who edits my work before you ever get to see it who has a far better grasp of correct British punctuation than I (despite being an American) and who tidies up my sentences when I get carried away although she is not beyond adding still more punctuation where she deems it necessary. She actually owns a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the American edition, which, apart from the insertion of a publisher’s note explaining why, “has been printed exactly as it was in its original British edition, complete with British examples, spellings and, yes, punctuation.” Truss’s style is entertaining. She likens those who, like her (and me), get royally offended by greengrocers' apostrophes and the like to “the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation.” She goes on:
No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to “get a life” by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.
The title of the book is an amphibology—a verbal fallacy arising from an ambiguous grammatical construction—and derived from a joke on bad punctuation:
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.'
Hence the pandas on the cover. The question that keeps running round my head—in fact I remember it running around my head back in 2003—is: Why was this a bestseller? It has the look and feel of one of those books that appears in time for Christmas like The Wonder of Whiffling or The Meaning of Tingo: bathroom reading matter. And I am sure that many copies wound up in loos throughout the land. But a part of me wanted to believe—still wants to believe—that there exists a body of people out there, clearly more than we ever imagined possible, who actually care about how they structure their sentences. If you are one of them then you may well be pleased to discover that, as a supplement to Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Bathgate writer Clare Dignall has produced a workbook entitled: Can You Eat, Shoot and Leave? complete with an appropriately witty introduction by Truss herself in which she makes this observation:
The irony is that, years ago, when most people did know how to write, they mostly didn’t have to. Just twenty years ago, even in newspaper offices, people didn’t write much at all. Typewriters were not to be found on every desk. In fact typing was a job done, in those days, almost exclusively by secretaries: underpaid and overlooked women who had been trained in chalky school-rooms (with ticking metronomes) to type at a monitored speed, to lay out letters correctly, to check word spellings in dictionaries, and to amend the grammar of their better-paid superiors.
I remember that time although, to be fair, I did include punctuation and spelled out unusual words preceding each change with the word ‘typist’. I was also there when computers were introduced for the first time, although it was several years before we used them to type documents and I was still dictating letters in the 1990s.
The book is divided into eight chapters beginning with a short self-assessment to see just how much you need the book. An example, then:
Which one of the following is correct?
The three girl’s handbag’s were locked in the nightclubs cloakrooms.
The three girls’ handbags were locked in the nightclub’s cloakrooms.
- The first one.
- The second one.
- You couldn’t possibly answer until it is made totally and incontrovertibly clear whether there was one nightclub with several cloakrooms or whether there were indeed three nightclubs with a cloakroom in each.
Please tell me you haven’t found any typos in this book yet. No, seriously, put that pencil away.
Perhaps she read the New Yorker article.
This is not the 1960s though and although the rules still exist they have moved with the times. The fact is that people are more relaxed in general these days and that’s not a bad thing. Towards the end of the book she writes:
Whatever your preference, one thing is true: punctuation is, when push comes to shove, subjective. Yes, large chunks of it are rule-based and therefore can categorically be described as right or wrong, but, in the same breath, a hefty chunk of punctuation is up for argument. It’s the way in which you handle these choices that determine your own authorial (or editorial) voice. […] Note emerging patterns; they will eventually reveal your own—unique—punctuation signature. Be proud of it, for it is yours alone.
This agrees with what G.V. Carey says in the 1971 book Mind the Stop in which Carey defines punctuation as being governed “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste.” I am sure that ratio is up for debate. Having a personal style is one thing but if there is one thing that comes across loud and clear is just how bound up punctuation and meaning are. For example, what’s missing from this sentence?
After protracted – but successful – contract negotiation, the infamous TV presenter finally resigned.
It’s a hyphen that’s missing, not that that helped me. I stared at this for ages before giving in and checking the answers at the back. It should be ‘re-signed’ not ‘resigned’ but the problem I found here was lack of context because both make sense but only the context would make it clear what he did. He may well have been negotiating a move elsewhere and is resigning from his old position. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
I had a similar problem with this one:
Add a question mark to the following where necessary:
- Juliet wondered whether her soufflé would turn out despite her having sunk a couple of gins while preparing it.
- Mike, noting her inebriation, asked if the dinner preparations were going okay.
It’s a trick question. No question marks are necessary since both are indirect questions.
Each chapter sets down the rules for using the particular punctuation mark it’s going to test you on. I was particularly cheered to see the semicolon explained in a single page whereas it takes four pages to cover the multifarious uses of the humble comma and many of those are, unfortunately, judgement-based. By comparison the semicolon is “a clever, and rather elegant, little mark” and I am continually puzzled by people’s opposition to it.
This is a fun workbook but I wonder a little who will actually buy it. So much of the information is available for free online that you really have to ask yourself why go to the bother of purchasing an old-fashioned book. I came up with a single answer: convenience. Yes, all this stuff is available online—exercises too—but this slim book saves you the bother of having to produce your own. I think the publishers might be wise to bundle the two books in the future because the workbook really is the perfect companion to Truss’s book. Dignall’s tone is similar but she’s thankfully less earnest than Truss who I wished would get off her soapbox at times, if I’m being honest. She made her point in the first couple of pages and then simply kept underlining it but then perhaps she was preaching to the choir. Truss’s book is the more entertaining, but Dignall’s is the more helpful and not just because it’s half the length.
The panda from the joke that gave the book its title is back, only now he bears more than a passing resemblance to Po, from Kung Fu Panda, albeit a slightly-slimmed-down version. Let me leave you with some poor bugger in a panda suit promoting the book:
Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave? is published by Harper Collins in the UK and retails at £7.99. You can have a wee look at it over at Google Books.