Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
New York: Gotham Books, 2004
She is no J. K. Rowling, but no one ever said it was as easy to interest people in learning the proper use of the semi-colon or the em-dash as in learning the "skill sets" taught at Hogwarts. My own reluctance to pick up Lynne Truss' best-selling book on the peculiarities of punctuation, however, had more to do with its semi-fascistic subtitle than with its subject matter.
Zero tolerance is one of those oxymorons that borders on the Orwellian and gives rhetorical support to people engaged (sometimes hypocritically and sometimes unwittingly) in assaults on liberty in the name of some allegedly greater good. Examples? Nancy Reagan's ridiculous "war on drugs." The attacks on academic freedom and free speech launched by the "politically correct" thought police. With respect to this book, I am pleased to report that the text does not live up to its billing. Lynne Truss, while prickly on many issues, is actually quite tolerant. She understands perfectly well that, like every other aspect of language, punctuation is a work persistently in progress. Though staunch in defence of some conventions, she understands the "rational and historical necessity to be flexible."
What energizes her is not the evolutionary change that is essential to any dynamic human enterprise. There is, after all, a place for different dialects in the spoken word and for waxing and waning fashions in punctuation. She is mainly rankled by the witless and uncomprehending misuse of, for example, commas as in the jocular title. (Should anyone on the planet not have heard it, the humour is found in the story of a panda who, upon finishing lunch in a restaurant, pulls out a gun, fires it in the air and makes for the exit; challenged, she explains that she is a panda and, according to a poorly punctuated book on the subject, she "eats, shoots and leaves.")
There are good bits of information here. Being ruefully unfamiliar not only with my native language but with the history of grammar in general, I was fascinated to learn that punctuation is a relatively modern invention. Generally, I discovered the debt grammarians owe to the church and the theatre, where punctuation was introduced to ease the jobs of priests and other actors by telling them where to pause in reading a text aloud or performing a play. Specifically, I was informed that the semi-colon was invented by Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515), that English did not acquire the apostrophe until the sixteenth century and that it was not used to indicate a possessive for another hundred years. Although she falls far short of presenting a systematic study of the matter, such small historical appetizers make me interested enough to search out a larger meal.
Some problems more serious than the migraines that must have plagued scholarly monks reading the Bible were the doctrinal difficulties that an absence of punctuation entailed. Forget that in addition to an absence of punctutation, "for a considerable period in Latin transcriptions there were no gaps between words either, if you can credit such madness. Texts from that benighted classical periodjust capital letters in big square blockslook to modern eyes like those word-search puzzles that you stare at for twenty minutes or so, and then (with a delighted cry) suddenly spot the word "PAPERNAPKIN" spelled diagonally and backwards." The crucial comma in Luke 23:43 is a splendid example.
One version reads:
"Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in paradise."
The other reads:
"Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in paradise."
The first version is Protestant for, says Truss, "it lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date …and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for Catholics, who believe in it." Imagine the loss of work for hermeneuticists and all who toil composing exegeses on this or that fine point of theology (to say nothing of pre-nuptial agreements, constitutional law and contractual small print) if only the original text had been scrutinized by a careful copy editor!
As with all judgmental remarks, of course, I am willing to confess that I largely admire this little book because it caters to many of my prejudices displays some of the same conceits that I do. I am, for example, not much charmed by "Netspeak." I regard text messaging as, perhaps, the final technological assault upon letter writing, if not upon literacy. As well, to borrow a phrase from Shania Twain, out of context: Emoticons "don't impress me much." An emoticon, Truss explains, is the formal name for a smiley, and a smiley is this: , which is a mass marketed version of this
Such curmudgeonly commitments to good taste, social order and the manners of Samuel Johnson will die hard, I fear, but Lynne Truss wears her schoolmarm blouse lightly, with a couple of the front buttons undone. She is droll, though American critics often complain that her British allusions are lost on them, and frequently shrink in horror from her political incorrectness on those occasions when they do get the joke. She is pointed and punctilious in some respects, and downright vulgar in others. And, "mirabile dictu," when I casually mentioned her book in a recent college class, a young woman in the front row pulled a copy from her purse. Although I suspect that only students who eagerly sit in the front row (or skeptically seat themselves in the far back corner near the door) will wind up willingly among her youthful readers, but it was refreshing to see that she does, in fact, have some.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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