Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave?


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

EatsShootsAndLeavesThree 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.

  1. The first one.
  2. The second one.
  3. 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.

The answer is C, of course. At the end of the ten-question mini-assessment Dignall—perhaps with her tongue in her cheek—says, if you got all the answers panda1right:

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:

  1. Juliet wondered whether her soufflé would turn out despite her having sunk a couple of gins while preparing it.
  2. 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 panda2the 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.


Elisabeth said...

I learned the basic rules of grammar in the old school way, Jim. I remember having to parse sentences, to break them up and label their component parts. I was not good at doing this as a child and it annoyed me somewhat but it must have trickled in somehow.

These days I rely on my instinct. My instinct tells whether something works or not, but I prefer a little flexibility is all of this. My husband is more fanatical about grammar and good on him for it. For me it follows often, near enough is good enough, but having said that, I also care about correct grammar when necessary.

I have not read Lynn Truss's book and I'm not sure I would. I have books on style in my library. More recently I did a year of editing at a tertiary institution, which included a semester's worth of grammar. I found it so hard and so finicky.

If it is so subjective - and in many ways it is - and when you consider the variations in style adopted by so many different magazines and publishers, I wonder that anyone can imagine there's only ever one form of English grammar. Not that you're saying this.

But I do not enjoy thought police, grammar police or food police of any sort. I suffer far too easily from guilt. Still I'm glad there are people out there who write about grammar because it helps remind others, that it is important but hopefully only in a fluid and flexible way.

What's that they say? You need to first learn the rules in order to know when you can safely break them.

Thanks, jim.

Tim Love said...

This mentions topics that have long interested me.

I like the idea of developing a standardised notation system for texts along the lines of musical scores (Frost wrote that "Poets have lamented the lack in poetry of any such notation as music has for suggesting sound.") but I guess YouTube's bypassed this issue to some extent.

Having done programming and Latin, I'm ever haunted greengrocers' apostrophes. Alas, I'm sloppy when I use quoted speech because the rules about punctuation at the end of the quote seem silly to me.

Dave Eggers, in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", wrote how exciting it was to hear Clinton speak - "you could hear the semi-colons!"

Debra San's "Literary Punctuation: A Test" in Literary Imagination 8.2 (2006) spends a page on the difference between

I formed them free, and free they must remain
Till they enthrall themselves


I formed them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves

Careful punctuation's useful in long sentences to help the reader parse the clauses, but as you say, there's still some subjectivity. I've recently read a 3-page analysis of a Henry James sentence - "The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which, however, there was still something of langour, the attractions of easy strolls"

Jim Murdoch said...

I would be completely lost without Carrie, Lis, in many ways but high up on the list are her editorial skills and the fact that, to a great extent, we’re on the same page when it comes to the use of punctuation. I was amazed at the number of semicolons that she added into Milligan and Murphy for instance and she tried to explain to me why but it goes in one ear and out the other, not because I’m not interested or don’t care—far from it—but simply because I can’t keep it in my head without constant repetition these days. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m about as good as I’m going to get. My biggest problem is the fact that I think in very long sentences with lots of asides and they can be real buggers to lay out on a page. Like you I have several books on grammar and Carrie has the Chicago Manual of Style which she refers to but for the most part I think we’re fighting a losing battle and most people wouldn’t know if we were getting it right or wrong these days. Which is a shame. I aim for consistency. If I’m doing it wrong then I aim to do it wrong consistently.

Ah, programming, Tim, yes, love it. There is virtually no room there for personal style other than line breaks and indents. I love especially the fact that my editor colour-codes my code even if it does all vanish when I upload it. Latin I only took for a year. I’m glad that I did but I don’t remember a damn thing about how they punctuated sentences. Love the Henry James sentence. I tend to visualise sentences like this as code:

The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe,
    happy in the conceit of reasserted strength,
stood in the garden of the hotel,
    with a deliberation in which, however,
         there was still something of langour,
the attractions of easy strolls.

who said...

I completely understand the need for standardization and uniformity among groups of reader/writer populations, if nothing else but for organizational purposes. But if I can speak freely here, I think you touched on at least one reason why zero tolerance should be the industry standard (but I won't make mention of the specifically for the sake of not mentioning them)

If the dead are so convincingly able to fool me into mistaking them for the living, why would anyone care how the visual representation of your words on the upside down projector behind my eyes show via neon yellow highlighting distinguishs the portions added spur of the moment tonight from those written six hours ago and proofread by another who did not author them?

I'll tell you why, it's because when someone can fool the dead into believing that he mistakes them for living, when said dead tom foolery was mistaken for stump the dummy then at least one of the involved dead had to play out the final three moves or else it counts as a forfeiture which does not get scored the same as an honest loss.

The living humans, gnomes and esp trolls quit after the first check and they see that check-mate is at most only two more moves each (total of four) What's worse is when the dead prompt you to utter a sentence or two more at just the right moment when you see light come on, or more accurately goes off the exact second it registers in their pea brain that this game is one they just lost enticing them to not only quit but also knock the board and all pieces off the table.

If I did that, is it considered entrapment if I know there are at least two dead always recording everything that happens yet the living are under the impression that everything said/down will only ever be known by the two of us (and only me if am smart enough to know what just happened?)

And if not entrapment lets just say that what would be a good term to describing reading ones thoughts, originated by said "one" yet known by the observant before he recognizes them. Impossible some would say, for if the thought is truly someone elses' then how could an observer know the thought before they do?

And what if it's not my fault that even the professionals of an industry get simple fundamental principals wrong, theories that would hold true if not for the overlooked fact of the givens about the observer?

for instance, the belief that a distant star can be shining tonight and seen by me that has actually burnt out and now longer shining. While due to the speed of light a person can calculate how long it would take for the light to excite an electron in a plant's leaf (which coincidentally would be true about how the orgin of the light could be kaput yesterday but the electron not jump orbit til today) the fact of the matter is different when the eyes are the detector. For everything you detect does NOT physically enter your eye ball. Therefore the spirit of light is detected instantaneously.

But if you realized that, you would know how many scientific "discoveries" are in fact complete bullshit but nobody questions that fact because the benefits of said discovery are presently available, hence it had to have at some point been truthfully discovered.

Also, coincidentally, if you believe history than I would like to set down with you because I have a bridge I want to sell you (for real) at an offer so unbelievable that I don't want anyone else to get the offer first because it will not be passed up, and I want you to have it Jimbo

who said...

Whoahh! That is NOT the dictation I gave to my secret-arian to transmits mostly via transfer-resistors!

And further more that naughty little disobedient not only did not correct my typos and then enter it into ONLY into my personal files, but it looks like there were typos made by the typist. I swear to God if I find out she's been contracting out the work I contracted out to her for less money then I am paying her for significantly less then I receive through my contract, head will roll!!!

That is unless they don't, because as much as you would think that after one go around with things described as "you know that I know" that all parties involved understood the details that are known. But then again, I would think that if a dog feels me scratching a flea from it that it would inherently know it doesn't need to expend the energy to scratch with it's own leg, but low and behold.

So while I am baffled at those who after a "you know that I know that You know that I know" it's like something happens and their mind resets back into lie about it mode so they just keep lying thinking, boy that was close"

and when that happens I stop short of telling them the ISBN for the book originally printed where it belongs (in the non-fiction section) entitled YES! YOU TOO CAN EAT, AND AFFORD NOT TO SHOOT UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF HER EYES TWICE, SHOOT TWICE AND LEAVE

but now even the library shelves it in the fiction section (under fairy tales no less!) which I have to assume is because of all the typos posted due to my flawed understanding of thinking you get what you pay for. Because I can assure you that I was paid to type the author's story. So regardless if I was not expected to outsource the job for half of what I was paid, I can confidently say it was not the authors intention to have the actual typer receive less than 1/10 the amount paid to type it. Because if that was the desire they probably would have paid me a lot less and instructed me to do a shitty job.

If I get fired, then I won't be able to tell you, or anybody for that matter (especially not blogger) about all of the words I am no longer getting paid to type (which I never really was doing in the first place)

Jim Murdoch said...

Where do I start, who? Communication is difficult, even when we keep things as simple and straightforward as we can (not that with all your allusions and asides anyone could call your comment ‘straightforward’). I read what you write and I honestly wonder what’s going on in your head. It’s not a matter of attributing blame—you encode, I decode and much is lost in the translation—but rather of acknowledging the limitations of the systems we have to work with. Our eyes, as you say, see light from stars that no longer exist. And sometimes it feels like the people we talk to—or at least try and talk to—over the Internet are not hundreds or thousands of miles away but light-years.

Kass said...

"After protracted – but successful – contract negotiation, the infamous TV presenter finally resigned."

Why is the dash between successful and contract needed? Only an ignorant actor would need instruction about where to take a meaningful pause.

I look at punctuation like I look at the line break in poetry. It's a medium to get a point across. I like using "..." I like dashes immensely - (parentheses work because there is always something going on in my head at another level). - (and some Brits would put the period inside the parentheses.)

When there is even more going on (in my [addled] brain), I use brackets within parentheses.

I bought Eats Shoots, and Leaves for my editor son. He liked it, but enjoyed filling it with marks even more.

Jim Murdoch said...

The two dashes are needed because ‘but successful’ is an aside, Kass; the sentence would work just dandy if you took those words out completely. Of course the sentence would work just fine if you replaced the dashes with commas or stuck the words in brackets and that’s what drives me mad about punctuation: there are no absolute rules.

Like you, I’m also fond of brackets within brackets but I think that comes from programming and maths. The ones I really struggle with are pauses for effect … like here: should I have used a dash or ellipses or just left the reader to insert a dramatic pause because that’s what the context of the sentence calls for? And what if I was really big … … pause? What’s to stop me indicating it like I’ve just done?

I think as long as we’re consistent and use common sense no one can really bitch at us too much. I read books published in America and frankly never notice whether the full stops are inside or outside the brackets or quotes.

who said...

Yeah, I wasn't clear. I can understand the need for punctuation to have rigid rules as being crucial for programming. Or any other language the instructs machines.

But with living humans, and dead ones, it's not punctuation that detracts from an understanding. It's intentional misleading or having taboo subjects not allowed for discussion. For the taboo subjects to be discussed it has to be done subvertly.

Regardless of any thought lost, verification can reduce that to insignificance. Once a light source burns out, it is no longer seen by an eye. This is because the vision, or picture an eye shows your brain does NOT have to travel inside an eye.

Once a star begins producing light, even if it takes a year to physically reach the earth, the human eye can see it before it gets here (it doesn't need to arrive for the eye to detect it)

When the source burns out, the sight does immediately. So the stars we see are still burning.

I don't believe humans history due to discrepancies like mistaking sight and light, as having the limitations of sound. Sound has to physically travel to our ears before it can be detected. But not sight. We may still be hearing a star burn that no longer exists, but seeing one that no longer burns is a fallacy. A myth that only the living with no knowledge of the truth, has been fooled into believing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think we’ve drifted a bit off-topic here, who. Granted there are those authors who skimp on punctuation—poets especially—in the full realisation that this will add a layer of ambiguity to their work but I don’t see this as misleading, only leading so far, but that is the case with every written text; the author can only do his or her best to communicate what’s going on in their heads. This is why I prefer to over-punctuate by today’s standards, to try my damndest to make what I write as clear as I can. You make some interesting points about light and sound but writing is not physics and metaphors have their limits. A star’s light or a sound wave does not have an intention; a writer does and so, yes, some writers do set out to deceive their readers but I would like to think they are in the minority but that’s just me, always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Scattercat said...

I would just like to say that I loved this book when it first came out, and have, in fact, used my trusty Sharpie to correct posted advertisements when necessary.

Necessary. Not optional.

Jim Murdoch said...

As much as it annoys me, Scattercat, I wouldn’t have the nerve to do that.

Kass said...

Your consistent creativity with words and punctuation is what makes you unique.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Kass, I like to think I have my own unique style.

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