The Future of Languages: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation

For several months, the top-selling non-fiction hardback book in the UK has been Lynne Truss' book on English grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. John Heelan sends us two reviews, with the comment: "I have read the book and found it not only entertaining but also useful in avoiding some grammatical howlers".

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Who would have thought it! A book on punctuation at the top of the best-seller lists. The title refers to joke about a panda who goes into a cafe, orders a sandwich, then pulls out a gun and fires it. The panda had read an encyclopaedia entry on itself which contained the unnecessary comma. Lynn Truss's attitude to punctuation is enthusiastic, robust, and uncompromising, as her subtitle makes clear. She wants you to become angry at the misuse of apostrophes and indignant at misplaced commas. She teaches via anecdote, which is probably why the book is so popular. There are no stuffy grammar lessons here, just accounts of bad punctuation, explanations of why they are wrong, and exhortations to keep up standards. She likens punctuation to good manners - something which should be almost invisible, but which eases the way for readers. And in fact for all her slightly tongue-in-cheek militancy, she takes a non-pedantic line where there are areas of doubt or where punctuation becomes a matter of taste and style. She takes you on a lively and entertaining tour of the comma, the semicolon, the apostrophe, the colon, and the full stop. Then it's on to the piquancies of the exclamation and the question mark. There are several interesting but mercifully brief detours into the history of punctuation- and I couldn't help smiling when she confessed that her admiration for Aldus Manutius the elder (1450-1515) ran to being prepared to have his children.

Her style is very amusing and, appropriately enough for a book on language, quite linguistically inventive. She knows how to get close to you as a reader and isn't scared to take risks. For all her vigilance however, I think she misunderstands one example of the apostrophe - and the point of the joke it is making. A cartoon showing a building with the sign Illiterate's Entrance could be using the term 'illiterate' as a collective singular. She thinks it should read Illiterates'. But we won't quibble. She ends by looking at the chaos of random punctuation which now predominates much of email messaging - and feels apprehensive. But I don't think she needs to worry. For every hyphen or ellipsis to punctuate a gap in thought and sense, there is a new word or a new linguistic invention to compensate. Language may well be a self-compensating and even self-correcting system after all.

Anyone who is unsure about the basics of punctuation will learn some valuable lessons here, and those who already care will have their feelings and understanding confirmed in a very entertaining manner.

Oliver Pritchett reviews Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

I have always had a great affection for the semicolon; it has a certain discreet charm. On the other hand, there is just one word to describe the colon: bossy. A colon says: "Pay attention, this next bit is really important." If the colon is a fanfare, the semicolon is more like a polite cough. It is a nasty shock to discover that it has enemies. Gertrude Stein, who might, in her time, have been considered a bit of a bossyboots herself, suggested that semicolons were simply commas with pretensions. Others have even claimed that semicolons were middle class. (I was tempted to put an exclamation mark at the end of the last sentence to draw attention to the absurdity of the notion, but good manners restrained me.) As Lynne Truss says in this witty, clear-headed and altogether enchanting book, "If they are middle class, I'm a serviette."

This is not just another of those grammarians' gripes about greengrocers, and, in spite of the reference in the title to zero tolerance, Lynne Truss remains utterly good-natured throughout. She says she is not a pedant, but a stickler - which is a description that many of us would be happy to adopt. She does say that people who put an apostrophe in the wrong place, when they ought to know better, deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave, but it's probably mostly in fun. Although she is given to the occasional expression of fierce bravado, I suspect that she is civil to her greengrocer. This is a celebration of punctuation, full of jokes and anecdotes and information. It also introduces us to a new hero, and, as a fitting act of deference, I am going to put down a colon before writing his name: Aldus Manutius the Elder. This Venetian printer, who lived from 1450 to 1515, was the inventor of the italic typeface and also the first to use the semicolon.

I should mention that Eats, Shoots and Leaves is also extremely helpful to anyone who is looking for guidance about commas, brackets, dashes and the rest of them, and who is perhaps intimidated by the whole business. Most of all, it makes you love punctuation; you want to conserve what is still left and perhaps even call for more of it. Is it time to campaign for the British to adopt the Spanish upside-down question mark, which appears as an advance warning of a sentence with a query in it? Should we demand more tildes? Reading this book put me in such a good mood that I came close to taking a wishy-washy liberal view and almost forgiving the people who use that modern punctuation atrocity, the "forward slash". This is the one that is so beloved by presenters of Radio 4 programmes when they nag you to visit their website. It makes me feel like hurling potato's (sic) at the radio.

RH: WAISdom is a realm of highly literate people, but it proclaimed a day of national mourning for the WAISers who do not know the difference between"its" and "it's". Language changes. I have decided not to ban sentences like "Everyone shook their head". In the old days it would have been "his", but now that would be condemned as male chauvinism. "His or her" is cumbersome. so it can be replaced with "their".

Glenye Cain writes: "I have to agree that the persistent dropping of final commas in a series drives me nuts. Having just gotten copies of my own book, I was horrified to discover that my copyeditor inserted a couple of equally distracting--and, to my mind, wrong--style points, which I won't bother to list here. They'll probably only bug people like me, anyway! But one thing she did let stand was my requirement that items in a series be separated by commas. On another issue, I practically had to beat her into submission to get her to correct "caesarean," which she had inexplicably changed to "cesarean," a spelling I can't abide. We could agonize on other egregious (and common) punctuation sins, like using quotation marks for emphasis rather than for their intended purposes, another one that drives me batty. Or, as many signs would have it these days, "batty"."

RH: Calm down, Glenye. How dare you misuse the word "nuts", thus insulting Brazil, the country where the nuts come from, beloved by many WAISers. As for "batty", that does back to the days when bats were thought to be evil and were ceremoniously crucified. In fact, bats are beneficent, and they should be welcomed in the belfry. It is unWAIS to slander nuts and bats, You may WAISly disagree with them. Please tell us about your book, Glenye. Incidentally "gotten" is Elizabethan English, which has survived in parts of America. We moderns say "got", but not "gotcha", which is triumphantly antisocial. Is "copyeditor" one word? "Bug" is an interesting word, meaning a hobgoblin. WAISers are free to disagree with hobgoblins, who, being imaginary, cannot reply.-

Istvan Simon writes: "I share the desire expressed in this forum to improve and promote the use of correct English. Nonetheless, I can't resist posting a famous quote, which came to my mind as I was reading the recent posts on this subject. It is said that a secretary was correcting Winston Churchill's speeches for such things as dangling participles and similar mistakes. The Prime minister sent back to the secretary one of these corrections with a note: "This is a situation up with which I will not put".

I admire Winston Churchill as perhaps the greatest political leader of the 20th century, and always loved this quote".

Jim Tent, whose restoration to good health we welcome, writes: "My father received his secondary education at the Newton Country Day School for Boys of Boston, 1914-1918. I was hardly so lucky and went through a New Jersey public school system including high school, 1958-1962. However, we learned certain rules of grammar and punctuation that have never left me but which are now, alas, antiquated. Therefore, it was Mr. Higgins's cat who caught the mouse. Commas always preceded the "and" at the end of the list. We chortled when someone said "Winstons taste good like a cigarette should." We knew when to use lie and lay. In the present tense the latter was applied sparingly. Hence the joke. The theology student left the church with his mentor, but he hesitated on the steps to survey the grounds following a recent downpour. "Look at all those puddles laying about," he stated. The prelate looked askance. Then he asked his student. "Oh, and what are they laying?" Suddenly aware that he was in trouble, the student replied: "Dust." Alas, times have changed".

RH: All this is simply moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic. I demand a revolutionary change, the adoption of a new, rational spelling. Spanish had Nebrija and the Spanish Academy; hence the more rational spelling of Spanish. I understand that Turkish spelling is rational, thanks to Kemal Attaturk, but I do not know Turkish.



From: Ronald Hilton []
Sent: Wednesday, September 08, 2004 6:00 PM
Subject: Re: The future of languages: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

David Crow writes: "Even if the phrase "eats, shoots and leaves" described a series of actions rather than the dietary habits of pandas, it would still be incorrect since it is missing a serial comma, which, according to Messrs. Strunk and White, always precedes the "and" before the final element of a series. That is, the phrase should read "eats, shoots, and leaves". The omission of the serial comma appears to be the fault of sloppiness in the print media, which also omit the possessive apostrophe at the end of proper nouns ending in "s" (i.e., "Prof. Powers' book" instead of "Prof. Powers's book"). But I fear that serial commas, possessive apostrophe, and other minutiae of grammatical correctness are lost causes. (Don't get me started on plural pronouns with singular antecedents.)" RH: If Strunk and White, whoever they are, think they control the use of commas, they are presumptuous. Should I have written "Strunk, and White? What do other WAISers think?

Gene Franklin writes: "On page 84 of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss states that the American standard usage is to leave the Oxford comma in and the British usage is to leave it out. The author advises writers to follow which ever practice helps make meaning clear. I go with Truss. And if Mr. Crow has problems with the usage of plural pronouns, put me down as wanting to give the lie to anyone who says such things as "I'm going to lay down and rest."
RH: Indeed, British usage is to leave out the comma. I follow the British usage in the interests of brevity.

Trudy Balch writes: "Use (or not) of the serial comma can depend on what style guide you or your publication are following. The Strunk and White guide, as well as the University of Chicago Manual of Style, always use the serial comma. The Associated Press Stylebook--followed by many newspapers--does not use commas in simple series suchas "red, white and blue." I don't know about other style guides. Of course, that doesn't excuse dropping the final "s" in possessives such as "Prof. Powers's book"! But Mr. (or Ms.) Panda's copyeditor should have been paying more attention to the meaning of that now famous phrase". RH. We have discussed the use of commas. I prefer Prof. Powers' in the interest of brevity and to avoid a hissing sound. I don't care of the `pànda shoots me, but that would disqualify him/her/it/them from becoming a a member of WAIS. What does the panda think about "copyeditor"?

Randy Black writes: "As a journalist who first learned from the little book, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White in the 60s at the University of Oklahoma, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Crow regarding the use of commas in a series. In fact, Strunk (1869-1946) states clearly ìIn a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.Thus, one would correctly write red, white and blue.
The exception: He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

Further, while Strunk and White was the standard for journalism students when I went through school, and had been since its first publication in 1918, the commonly accepted standard text for journalists today is the Associated Press Stylebook which also states the same usage rule in its 2004 edition, as it has for many, many years".

David Crow writes: "Strunk and White are venerable masters of the English language; Truss is an upstart. I'll go with Strunk and White any day. As for plural pronouns, my objection is not to them per se, but to their use when the antecedent is singular, as in, "Everybody wants to have their cake and eat it, too." According to standard grammar, the correct version should be, "Everyone wants to have her cake (or his cake, or his or her cake) and eat it, too."

RH: As pointed out there is a difference between British and American usage regarding commas. Does David really want us to use the "correct version"?

Hank Levin writes: "I am a bit older than Jim Tent and went through New Jersey schools too (Millburn High School). We had a considerable number of writing assignments that required following formal rules of grammar and punctuation. I will never forget having to learn according to rules and recitations. For example, Mr. Bauer would call out: Mr. _____. State the coordinate conjunctions.î This meant reciting them in exactly the following order: ìand, but, for; or, yet, nor; so, whileî. Recitations meant reciting stanzas or poems or specific Shakespearean sonnets that had been pre-assigned. The funny thing is that I still remember almost all of this stuff". RH: As a small boy I to had to learn passages of poetry by "heart" (memory). At the time I resented it. but it gave me a sense of the beauty of good language. I suppose all that has gone.

From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer writes: "I beg to disagree with Mr. Crow. Inasmuch as there is no universally accepted rule about commas in enumerations, no one can say that the "omission of the serial comma [is] the fault of sloppiness . . ." This is not a "minutia of grammatical correctness", but rather an open question.

In legal writing, the only accepted form for a very long time, decades if not centuries, has been "this, that and the other" -- without the last comma, rather than "this, that, and the other". This form (without the last comma) has been gradually penetrating American usage and cannot be said to be incorrect. I have even seen grammars which describe this as the only correct form. I personally prefer the older form with the additional comma, agreeing with the logic of Margaret Nicholson in her wonderful A Dictionary of American-English Usage, New York, 1957:

"In enumerations, this book recommends [emphasis added] a comma before the and in enumerations, in the interests of clarity. Without the comma before and, the following sentence would be ambiguous:  'Since then he has been pulling out counterproposals for treaties, plebiscites, and special conferences, like rabbits from a hat.'" Nicholson, op. cit., p. 94.

Strunk and White's famous grammar glosses over many controversial points. For the thinking philologue who wants to make up his own mind, I highly recommend Nicholson (and the older Fowler upon which the Nicholson guide is based), which generally presents both sides of these controversies, in an opinionated but highly informative and insightful manner.

We educated native speakers of English have no excuse for not speaking and writing English perfectly, or nearly so. In one compact volume like this Nicholson guide can be found practically everything about grammar and usage in the English language which an educated native speaker might struggle with. There is no such single volume for Russian -- the controversies and fine points of grammar and usage would fill an entire library. With Nicholson, an unabridged Webster's Second, and an OED, one has practically everything one needs to know about the English language outside of the body of English language literature itself. I find the OED particularly valuable, in fact absolutely irreplaceable, because instead of simply asserting meanings for words as do modern dictionaries, the OED cites actual usage of words from classics of English literature, to boot from periods when English was less conventional than it has been for the last 200 years or so and when given words had, therefore, a greater range of possible meanings. Only with the OED can one really get at the heart of English words.

By writing English "perfectly", by the way, I mean following a defensible and coherent set of rules -- not necessarily one or another particular set of them. For example, and agreeing again with Nicholson, and contrary, I think, to Strunk & White, I do not mind writing sentences ending with prepositions:

"It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late, be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern. . . The fact is that the remarkable freedom enjoyed by English in putting its prepositions late and omitting its relatives is an important element in the flexibility of the language. The power of saying '[a] state of dejection such as they are absolute strangers to (Cowper)' instead of '[a] state of dejection of an intensity to which they are absolute strangers . . . ' is not one to be lightly surrendered." Nicholson, op. cit. pp. 444-445. That is why I write above the to me natural-sounding phrase ". . . which an educated native speaker might struggle with" rather than the stilted, awkward, and unnatural ". . . with which an educated native speaker might struggle".

RH: "Say not the struggle naught availeth" or "Say not the struggle availeth naught".

Randy Black writes: "From the Associated Press Stylebook, copy editor is two words but proofreader is one word. This discussion about the use of commas in a series can generally be attributed to the need to save „space.‰

A copy editor‚s teachings, along with all journalism students, is to save space, thus „less punctuation is better.‰

We were taught in „proper‰ English classes to use a comma before the and in a series. Journalism students were and are taught otherwise for the reason noted in the prior sentence. Fewer commas and other punctuation? Room for more words (and more advertising).

It was an ongoing struggle for me in college when I majored in journalism but minored in English. Ms. Cain‚s issues with her book are understandable. She is writing literature while her editor may be proofing using the rules of journalism. Not the right course, in my mind. Nonetheless, it‚s her book and her preferences should rule.

I am particularly fond of these three quotes by Mark Twain regarding proof readers: [proofreaders-RH]

"Yesterday Mr. Hall wrote that the printer's proof-reader was improving my punctuation for me, & I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray." --1889

"In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proof-readers." --1893

"Will you make an order in writing & attach it to my MS., & sign it & back it with your whole authority, requiring the compositor & proof-reader to follow my copy EXACTLY, in every minute detail of punctuation, grammar, construction, and (in the case of proper names, spelling). . . I am thus urgent because I know that the proof-reader is insane on the subject of his duties, & it makes me afraid of all the guild."--1894.

RH: I respect journalists' parsimony with punctuation to save space, but notice that they like paragraphs of one or two sentences, presumably thinking that is all an ordinary reader can take without a rest. Think of the loss of space!

Disagreeing twice in one day with another WAISer is proof that Cameron Sawyer is filled with the spirit of WAISdom. He writes: "I hate to disagree with esteemed WAISer David Crow twice in one day, but here I cannot help it.

Pace, Strunk & White, but the construction "everybody wants to have their cake and eat it, too" is in fact considered by many authorities to be permissible, and neither they nor David has any right to say categorically that it is incorrect. This construction even has deep historical roots and there are many examples in the OED: "everyone in the houses were in their beds" -- Fielding; "a person can't help their birth" Thackeray; "nobody in their senses" -- Bagehot, all cited in Nicholson, American-English Usage, New York, 1957, p. 586.

I would not write this way myself, however, not because I consider it to be categorically incorrect, but because this construction is ugly. Since "everybody" is singular, there is a jarring disagreement between the number of the subject and the correspondent pronoun. This usage has become popular in the last decades exactly because the use of an abstract masculine pronoun, when there may actually be female persons involved, seems presumptuous ("sexist" might be the epithet most often hurled at this construction), and the arbitrary alternation of masculine and feminine pronouns (advocated by some politically correct guides) seems stupid. So in fact there is no construction for this case which would satisfy everyone. 

I personally prefer the more elegant construction and am willing to risk being considered politically incorrect, so I say "everybody wants to have his cake and eat it, too." But David, we cannot say that this is the only correct usage. Nicholson, herself a woman, advocates using the masculine pronoun, substituting the feminine not randomly, but in particular cases where the referents are likely to be female according to the context. An elegant rule, but not acceptable to everyone, and probably actually forbidden to many poor reporters governed by some or another "Handbook of Nonsexist Writing" adopted by their editors".

RH: The panda says their is no comma after Pace.

I warned you that Republican v. Democrat confrontation would involve the comma crisis. David Crow writes: "I must, in turn, respectfully disagree with Mr. Black. Although he correctly quotes Strunk and White, he applies their advice erroneously. In the example Mr. Black gives, the last term in the series is "blue", not "white". Thus, the comma is used after white, but not blue: i.e., "the red, white, and blue flag", not "the red, white, and blue, flag". 

As for the AP Stylebook, I would hesitate to use it as a guiding authority for anything other than print journalism. 

On a related subject, I have often wondered if there is any relationship between one's points of view on grammar and on politics. Prominent language columnists such as William Safire and William F. Buckley, Jr., are politically and grammatically conservative, broadly opposing both social change (or advocating change back to a previous state of affairs) and linguistic change. My own combination of grammatical conservatism with political liberalism is, I suspect, not very common".


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