Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

by Lynne Truss
ISBN: 1592400876

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A Review of: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Michael Kinsella

"Dancing with abandon, turning a tango into a fertility rite."
Marshall Pugh, The Chancer

Apostrophe, comma, colon, semicolon, question, quotation and exclamation marks, italics, dashes, brackets, ellipsis, hyphens and solidus are all tackled with gusto by Lynne Truss in this showpiece of a book. And in order to sex-up a subject, which at its most basic level is about different kinds of interruption, Truss quotes from Thomas McCormack's book The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist (1989), arguing that punctuation should "tango the reader into the pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken line would convey." This comparison with Latin dance would like to be very suggestive. It is as if Truss wants to promote punctuation as having deep tribal rhythms and ecstasies, when, in actuality, putting marks upon a page is really about being "a stickler" and about the preservation of "standards".
To be punctilious about punctuation might be redescribed, by a Freudian, as a form of sublimation. Truss confesses, "while other girls were out with boyfriends on Sunday afternoons, getting their necks disfigured by love bites, I was at home with the wireless listening to an Ian Messiter quiz called Many a Slip, in which erudite and amusing contestants spotted grammatical errors in pieces of prose. It was a fantastic programme." If to be fascinated with punctuation is about not being sexual, then punctuation is, in itself, an insistent signal that sabotages the sensual. James Joyce knew this. And so Molly Bloom's final monologue in Ulysses has no punctuation marks at all.
If punctuation must be compared to dance, it is certainly not doing the tango. But it might be likened to the starched and mannequin-like performances of the strictest ballroom. The feigned mannerisms of ballroom dancing seem, to me, to be closer to Truss's favourite definition for the function of punctuation-"a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling." For her, the analogy with good manners is "perfect," and she goes on to argue, with an after dinner etiquette, that punctuation marks are like "truly good manners"; they are "invisible"; "they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves." And her comparison of questions or quote marks with good manners, for example, gives some indication that the ideal reader of this book would prefer Jane Austen and the delicate ceremony of afternoon tea to the seduction of Latin rhythms.
Truss's exorbitant expressions of discontent about poor punctuation-it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement'; part of one's despair'; It hurts, though. It hurts like hell'-not only disclose that she is a terrible idealist in search of a punctuation Utopia, but that her punctuation fetish seems to be a covert way of talking about what it means to be English and of discussing England's history, politics and its relationship with the United States. For Truss's examples of punctuation use and maltreatment suggest that beneath her story about "the tractable apostrophe" or the classical colon, for instance, rage those old debates that are partly about national identity-which interrupt her tale as interesting as they are.
Reflecting on England's religious history, Truss argues that "huge doctrinal differences" hung on the placing of a comma. For example, "Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" could also be "Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise." The first is the Protestant version of Luke, xxiii, which "lightly skips over the whole unpleasant notion of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to heaven with Our Lord," whereas the second, "promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were) and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for the Catholics." Britain's union with Ireland is touched upon in the case of the Irish rebel, Sir Roger Casement, who was also "hung on a comma." Charged under the Treason Act of 1351, Casement's defence argued that the law was unpunctuated and therefore open to interpretation. But the magistrates, after consulting the original statute, discovered a "helpful virgule", confirming their interpretation of the law and his guilt. A similar example is made with New Labour's infamous dossier on Iraq which reproduced the punctuation errors from a thesis by an American doctoral student. Another case, filed by Truss, demonstrates the importance of healthy punctuating and how, if we ignore rules, we do so at "our political peril as well as to our moral detriment." Yet, the rules of punctuation-such as whether a full stop should come in or outside quotation marks-do not just show how Britain and America are separated by their comma practice. The different usages define their divergent histories. And there are so many examples of Americans misusing punctuation in this book that we might suspect Truss of blaming the United States for things becoming so "outrageously slipshod."
Eats, Shoots and Leaves is in many ways a lament, an elegy for a lost world without proper punctuation, for the loss of "the Queen's English" and the fact that the bulk of its shares are now the property of the U.S. And Truss's sense of loss is about the decay of the values she cherishes. She remembers how, as a teenager, she blasted an American pen-pal "out of the water" because of the punctuation and spelling errors in her letter; she cites, with indignation, the misreading of a line from Macbeth, in a production in New England, where, all because of a misplaced comma the actor proclaimed "Go get him, surgeons" instead of "Go, get him surgeons." The American writer, Gertrude Stein, does not escape whipping. She is described as the "energetic enemy to all punctuation" and denounced for her description of the comma as "servile", the semicolon as "pretentious", for being "uninterested" in the question mark and for condemning the dash and italics.
Although there is fun to be had teasing out the furtive repressions, politics and punctuation policies of Eats, Shoots and Leaves-even if it is a little at Truss's expense-her entertaining and instructive account on the uses and abuses of punctuation is not, at heart, anti-American. It is, rather, a "rallying cry" that goes in fear of the abandonment of standards, a "small islander's" account of the invasion of Coca-colon and "emoticon" cultures. She may be overly pessimistic about the effects of text messaging, email and the internet, yet surely they have helped punctuation speciate by giving, for example, the military-like full stop, which calls a sentence to a halt, a rather transgressive, camp side, online, called dot. We might even want to temper Truss's claim that "proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking." And if where we place punctuation, and the marks we prefer is partly a matter of taste, as has been argued in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, we might want to think of more versatile and illuminating terms with which to describe our practice. Perhaps, in this way, we could imagine flirtatious, democratic or superior punctuation, rather than having a "zero tolerance approach" with its tyrannical implication of correct and incorrect usage.

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