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Punctuation today: notes from the 2006 bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”

Modern linguistics is based largely on a descriptivist view of language, describing common usage. Many grammarians follow a more prescriptivist view: if we don’t prescribe, language will falter.

I read a host of pop linguistics books this year, challenging my prescriptivist publishing origins with a small library of descriptivist perspective. I also consumed podcasts, articles and other interviews with experts on the matter. (Most recently this conversation.)

Along this exploration, I was familiar with several of the most-cited grammar classics (King’s English and Elements of Style among them). But I hadn’t read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, published by Lynne Truss in 2006. So I changed that late last year.

I wanted to share a few notes below.

I’m enamored by the descriptivist and prescriptivist divide.

The central message from linguistics is that language has always evolved, more like fashion, and that for 50,000 years there have never been immutable rules, like math.

But as a middle-school student, I adored an English teacher who was very clearly an ardent prescriptivist, and became one myself. (Though, tellingly, I really struggled in high school when I came across another presciptivist teacher who held none of my middle school teacher’s charm or love for language.) Moreover, professionally, I’m a trained and passionate journalist, who adores the development of house style and the popularity of a foundation in AP Style.

So I took last year to deepen my understanding and perspective on this little-discussed cultural divide. Here’s where I am to date: I am inspired by and subscribe to the descriptivist worldview of linguistics, but I cheerily support the defense of culturally rich house styles.

This bestselling book from Truss follows a centuries-old tradition of snobby grammar books (that I do love), with her “Sticklers, unite” rallying cry. Truss writes with voice and fire, condemning those who break the rules she feels most passionately about. Some of those I subscribe to, some I don’t. I really did enjoy this book and think Truss (though certainly classist in her own way) has a lot value for those who want to take seriously writing — and being considered writerly.

In addition to pushes into forming opinions and specific notes (as listed below), she made a hell of a case for me to rethink my distrust of the semicolon.

Likely the critical point is Truss comes from publishing, a student of house styles, and very distinctly not from the academic tradition of linguistics, which is much more interested in common usage.

Here are a few takeaways from the book that I will most remember:

  • She quotes King’s English perspective on grammatical “berks and wankers;”
    Berks don’t care about language rules, and wankers care too much. “Too much of the former gets us late Latin (disappearing); too much of the latter gets us Mediaeval Latin (precipitating late Latin) (p. 30)
  • Her (on-going) beef with the lack of an apostrophe in the 2002 movie Two Weeks Notice is overindulged for me, exactly because that phrase has evolved. So though I follow her point for wanting it to read “two weeks’ notice,” I would just as readily read the phrase today as “two-weeks notice,” with a hyphenated adjective phrase, and, therefore, as such a familiar cultural concept that it now a single noun phrase.
  • I admit I hadn’t considered that the familiar “O” prefix for Irish names (like, O’Henry) was an anglicization of the “ua”  prefix meaning “grandson of,” similar to how “Mc/Mac” is from a prefix for “son of.”
  • There are examples of how apostrophe use has faded in some cases that she doesn’t bemoan (ABCs rather than ABC’s) from the 1980s (yes, 1980s, not 1980’s) but she will hold fast to uses familiar to her today. (p. 46)
  • Grammarians frequently use the phrase “Keats’s poems” or “Keats’ poems” as a battleground.
  • Truss ultimately defends house style, noting she believes editors must respect an institution’s use of apostrophes for their name, noting that the British anchor uses “St. Thomas’ Hospital,” not Thomas’s (59)
  • Punctuation was developed by publishers hoping to aid reading aloud, so Greek publishers and playwrights pushed forward a ton the basics that the Chinese has begun. Otherwise writing was mostly business transactions. The first writers were accountants, remember.
  • “Commas help the reader know how to hum the tune.” (71)
  • “The use of commas cannot be learned by rule,” said legendary grammarian and editor Sir Ernest Gowers (82)
  • The semicolon was first printed in 1494 by celebrated Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius, right alongside double-entry bookkeeping. (111)
  • Cecil Hartley in his 1818 Principles of Punctuation describes the use of the comma, semicolon, colon and a full stop as essentially asking of the reader for increasing moments of pause. (112) Truss thinks there’s more to it but I find it an effective way of understanding.
  • Instead Truss likes Lewis Thomas’ view that the semicolon gives a sense of expectancy that something more is coming and that a full stop says author has given everything you need for that. I don’t think this is vastly different than Hartley.
  • The iconic H.W. Fowler says that the colon “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the previous words.” (115)
  • Irish playwright behind Pygmalion George Bernard Shaw’s heavy use of the colon and semicolon has been described as if he’s using them as musical notation (117)
  • The “annunciatory colon” is one that delivers a kicker to a complete sentence. It’s as if the magician’s assistant pauses before removing the trick complete under the table cloth.
  • Semicolons do a similar thing as an m-dash but the former is more formal when the latter is best as an interjection (122) For me, the central defense of a semicolon is it must have a clear reason to be used over a period
  • Slightly related, I appreciated this refresher in how publishers differentiate the dash (-), the en-dash (–) and the em-dash (—), which is essentially both visually and in usage about the distance between the words they are conjoining.
  • “A semicolon is a compliment from the writer to the reader” (124) so don’t overdue it.
  • She also defends the “policeman semicolon” to bring order over unruly comma lists.
  • Fitzgerald said using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke (137) though its use has been defended, including in specific voice
  • She frequently mentions the difference in the British vs English use of punctuation, like an apostrophe being put within quotes by the Americans. (153)
  • Truss generally wants all terminal marks (period, exclamation, question) inside quotes only if they are driven by that quote. Contrast whether the sentence is asking the question (Will you be bringing your “favorite cat”?) or the quote itself is (She said “do you like cats?”).
  • I appreciated her section on various brackets,( < { [ including parentheses. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said a reader has to “dismount from an idea and get back in the saddle at every parentheses” so keep them short. These brackets are like bookshelves that elevate an idea above the story (162)
  • The book makes a distinction for “computer-mediated language,” like text messaging and word processors, quoting David Crystal as a third medium  between speech and writing. It’s a centaur. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac: “that’s not writing, it’s typing” (191)
  • Emoticon is the latest advance in punctuation
  • An “Appositive colon” is one that separates title from subtitle, whereas a “segmental colon” separates introduction to an unmarked quotation.
  • She describes the success of punctuation being part of the culture that pulled out from “Scriptio continua” in Latin from priests who thought the difficulty was the point.

(Panda photo by Melody via Unsplash)