Sunday, 9 June 2013

Like the full stop, the best is kept till last.

This is a review of  Eats, Shoots and Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, Profile Books, London, 2003.

I read this amusing, informative and educational book dealing with all aspects of punctuation at the beginning of August 2004. It was borrowed from Dermot Hourihane. It deals with all aspects of punctuation including stops, commas, colons, semi-colons, apostrophes, question marks, exclamation marks, ellipses, hyphens and the dash. The areas which concern the author most are the apostrophes, the comma, and the colon and semi-colon (what about the last comma here?). Clearly many of the differences of opinion about the usage of punctuation exist because these differences do not necessarily interfere with the readability or the meaning of the written word. It is therefore clear that the aficionados of style and syntax should not become too belligerent about differences of emphasis and of opinion. However, there are many interesting points raised by Ms Truss and some are important from the point of view of clarity. Some of these points do not arise very often and certainly do not concern the contemporary user of the internet, of texting and mobile phones where no rules of syntax or punctuation appear to exist. I shall go through the book seriatim and I shall deal with the points which interest me most.

On page 30 she first mentions the Oxford comma. I had always been concerned about this use of the comma which is widely popular in the United States but much less so in Europe. The only justification for the Oxford comma is when the word and precedes the penultimate word: I went to the chemist, Marks and Spencers, and NatWest. But: I went to the chemist, NatWest and the post office.

Her chapter dealing with the comma underlines some of the misuses of this punctuation mark. She uses a comma before a quotation but I wonder if this is necessary. I have never done so; I used go straight on to the quotation without any indication, apart from the inverted commas. In my view it is an unnecessary addition to the sentence where the quotation mark (or the italics as I tend to use for short quotations) is sufficient to indicate the change in content. The absence of a comma in no way alters the readability of the sentence. Nowadays I use neither italics nor inverted commas for quotes but I simply invert the quotation in a new paragraph unless it is very short. In such an event I include the quotation in the full sentence and mark it in italics. Is this acceptable or should italics be reserved for titles?

She does not refer to the use of the Oxford comma to provide a little emphasis, almost as an afterthought, as when one substitutes the comma by a conjunction before the second of the three nouns, as in the quote from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey poem Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods, and mountains; ---. (By the way, this wonderful poem of Wordsworth’s should be the national anthem of all environmentalists.)  Should the hyphens at the end of the line preceding the brackets have a full stop and should I have used a stop within the brackets? I think the first full stop should not be necessary as it is clear that the sentence was intended to continue but the second deserves a full stop as it is a completer sentence.

Clearly the apostrophe is the punctuation mark which causes the most trouble. It is used in eight different situations. Its commonest misusage is when it is used instead of the plural as in 1980's instead of 1980s. This is a misusage which is extremely common among secretaries and which I frequently need to correct. The author wonders if the apostrophe is likely to endure and feels pessimistic about its misuse in so many situations. She even suggests that it may be on its last legs and now urgently needs help from those who really care. An interesting and common misuse is in the word it’s in its possessive form instead of its true contractive form. I have carelessly made this mistake myself in the distant past but never, yes, never again.

One of the reasons she feels pessimistic about the apostrophe is because few people appear to use it properly and therefore it may outlast its usefulness. However, there are situations where the very meaning of a sentence may be altered because of a missing or redundant apostrophe. She mentions that in possessive plural words ending in s the apostrophe takes its place before the added s while in plural words which do not end in s, such as children, the apostrophe is placed after the s. She asks the reader how much more abuse must the apostrophe endure. The apostrophe must be the least understood of the punctuation marks. It is of course useful in indicating the plural of single letters – F’s – and of the plurals of words – Do’s and Don’t’s.. My own modest opinion is that the apostrophe provides too many essential functions which cannot otherwise be easily supplanted and that it must remain firmly in our language if it is to maintain its dominance as the most powerful language of our time.

In longer sentences finishing with a quotation I am concerned whether the period comes before or after the terminal quotation mark. The English tend to place the dot after the quotation mark while the Americans tend to have it before the mark. She says the American system doesn’t make sense and I think she clarifies the position when she states that, when the punctuation relates to the quoted words only, the stop goes inside the inverted commas; when it relates to a sentence ending in a quote, the mark is placed after the quotation mark. This seems to be a logical solution. I would favour consigning the quotation mark to the limbo of words and punctuations and to use italics or add a new inverted paragraph if the quote is of any great length.

She discusses in some detail the uses and abuses of the colon and the semi-colon. In my writing I seldom use the semi-colon (although in this review I have already used it, perhaps in response to Ms. Truss’s encouragement!) and only then when the second sentence is a close continuum of the first. She uses the semi-colon much more liberally when she is writing generally around a subject. I find the repeated semi-colon to be rather indigestible and I feel better served by a comma or full stop, depending how close the relationship is between the subject matter of the contiguous sentences. Although she uses the semi-colon widely in the text of the book, she states that it faces a losing battle, which does not surprise me. Truss states how much notice should we take of those pompous sillies who denounce the semi-colon?   Despite her distain of such critics, it is clear from her text that many writers, editors and journalists are dismissive of the frequent use of the semi-colon nor do I disagree with this trend.

The colon is obviously useful when writing titles or to indicate sequences, although the dash is better in my view and gives a better flow to the text. Many of her examples of the use of the colon are from works of fiction, and it is unlikely that a writer of non-fiction will frequently need to use colons and semi-colons, whatever about apostrophes. She uses a colon as follows: this much is clear, Watson: it was the baying of an enormous hound and I loved Opal Fruits as a child: no one else did. This use of the colon is more effective and dramatic than I loved Opal Fruits as a child but no one else did. She finishes by quoting a classic use of the colon is as a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements. An example: Man proposes: God disposes – better than a simple comma which lacks the implied emphasis or Man proposes and God disposes; or Man proposes. God disposes. The colon may be more dramatic than the use of a dash. The colon is also used following the names of actors or characters. But there are almost always alternatives to the colon and it is likely that one could write and write well without ever using either the colon or semi-colon. Nevertheless, her 38-page chapter on the subject ‘Airs and Graces’ is worth reading even if one disagrees with the author’s enthusiasm for these punctuation marks

She provides information about brackets. The common round brackets () are described as brackets in England but as parenthesis in America. The square brackets [] are used in particular situations such as [sic] and sometimes in the use of ellipses to indicate missing words or to trail off in an intriguing manner. Brace brackets {} appear to be used mainly in mathematics and she states that angle brackets < > are used in palaeography, linguistics and other technical areas. She thinks that brackets lift up a section of a sentence, holding it a foot or two above the rest, ----. Bracketed sentences should not be too long; otherwise they lead to dissipation of the reader’s understanding; nor should they be used too often. Neither should italics.

She deals with the hyphen on page 168 and describes its many uses, some of which are contentious or a matter of fashion. She confirms that it cannot be eliminated, despite the forebodings of some, and she refers to the example of the pickled herring merchant and the pickled-herring merchant. Another example is extra-marital sex and extra marital sex. The popular use of the hyphen is in danger because of the internet and such writings as those of Joyce, and such un-hyphenated compounds as snotgreen and scrotumtightening, which are becoming a routine part of language (If not in practice!). Personally, while I have sometimes found the latter conjunction of two words, I have never found a use for them. and I cannot be blamed for joining the unruly mob of latter day linguists. Many phrases require a hyphen to avoid ambiguity, including words such as co-respondent, re-formed and re-marked. I may be at fault at times when I write: he was a two or three-year (or two-or three-year) old boy with one or more hyphens. However, written without any hyphen, the meaning would probably be clear to most, except perhaps to the two or three year old. Perhaps a good alternative would be a two or three-year old.

The question mark is not used with rhetorical or indirect questions such as can you let us have your old clothing. There is some doubt about its use with titles and notices.

This book is one of many written about good English, syntax and punctuation, and is both interesting and instructive to non-professional writers like myself who responded to Churchill’s advice you should always be writing a book; it gives you something to do during your spare time. Truss refers to George Bernard Shaw and his iconoclastic ideas of the use of the English language. I imagine that a discussion between Ms. Truss and GBS would soon become heated on the subject of punctuation, although I guess Shaw would be too much of a gentleman to argue with a woman. In his own biography it was stated that he was always courteous to the gentler sex. His views of language confirm that the rules enunciated by Ms. Truss and other experts need not be applied too rigidly unless they are essential for clarity...

I have several books in my library on the subject of English. These have accumulated over the years. One is the Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers and revised by Sir Bruce Fraser. First published in 1948, my copy is a Pelican paperback, which was published in 1974. In the introduction, the author states Write so as to be clear with a minimum of stops, and use stops for clarity. Other books which I read with great interest over the years included classics by Fowler, Partridge, Gowers, Brewer and Rodale, and the three paperbacks, ‘Good English’, ‘Better English’ and ‘Best English’ published many years ago by PAN and now missing from my library. They made fascination reading.

I have a nostalgia for the life of a Cambridge or Oxford don, with rooms in College, attended by a loyal and ancient factotum, with my pipes and antique leather chair, unencumbered by wife or child, with the stimulus of young men about me and a regular visit from my lover, and my days otherwise spent poring over books about language and above all about the greatest language known to Man, English.

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