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Lynne Truss


The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

If, like me, you are one of those people who suffer actual pain when you see a notice on a shop saying something like "Come inside for CD's. VIDEO's, DVD's and BOOK's", this is the book for you. As Lynne Truss puts it, when one sees the apostrophe being misused in this way we experience something like a bereavement. "First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger."

Being a stickler for accuracy in punctuation sometimes makes one feel like a pedant, a fuddy-duddy supporter of lost causes, the incarnation of Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells, but Truss's book is a triumphant proclamation of the Great Truth that punctuation matters. It's not simply a question of following obscure rules laid down in the distant past; like correct grammar, punctuation matters because if it is misused the sense of the text is veiled, altered, or even totally obscured. This book is written from the heart, with a great deal of passion but also abundant wit; I found myself laughing aloud at some of her examples.

The apostrophe and the comma, being the most frequently misused items of punctuation, get chapters to themselves. I have to admit, after long exposure to the Internet, that I am often tempted these days to give up and join the ranks of those who favour abandoning the apostrophe as a lost cause and doing away with it altogether, but Truss sternly dismisses any pusillanimous backsliding of this kind; she is sure that it can be saved. In passing, she casts doubt on the widespread belief (urban legend?) that the use of the apostrophe to indicate a possessive derives from a contraction of "his", as in "John his book". She also has an interesting discussion of the use of the possessive in phrases like "a friend of the happy couple's…". I've sometimes wondered about this one too, but the usage seems to be accepted as idiomatic English, whether logical or not. What does seem to me to be wrong is the use of the apostrophe in constructions such as "if's and but's" or "six's and seven's". This seems to me to be frankly wrong and I was surprised that Truss countenances it.

As for the comma, in a telling coda to the book Truss reminds us that when the British government incorporated, without acknowledgement, a twelve-year-old thesis by a doctoral student in their dossier on Iraq, they included a misplaced comma which proved that the text had been used word for word. Hoist by their own comma, as you might say.

The semicolon often seems to be regarded as "advanced punctuation". and it's true that although many people avoid it, most "real" writers use it, sometimes even to excess. Indeed, the semicolon can become addictive, threatening to take over one's writing to an ever-greater extent. An even more "advanced" topic concerns the difference between the colon and the semicolon. As one would expect, Truss has a good discussion of all this, in a chapter significantly entitled "Airs and Graces".

All the other punctuation marks one would expect to find covered are here as well: exclamation marks, question marks, dashes, brackets and parentheses, and (another contentious item) the hyphen. Like the apostrophe, the hyphen is under threat today and there are those who would like to abolish it altogether, but Truss has no difficulty in providing examples in which its omission would completely alter the sense.

Ultimately, of course, punctuation is a matter of convention, and conventions do change with time; it can be quite distracting to the modern reader to encounter the profusion of commas in eighteenth-century novels. The most recent innovation in punctuation, at least on the Internet, is the use of emoticons. Truss sternly disapproves of these, implying that any competent writer ought to be able to convey emotional tone without resorting to their use. While this may be true, she does not perhaps allow for the fact that not all readers are able to appreciate these fine nuances, especially in a language that may not be their own. I think there may be a case for the judicious use of these aids to comprehension, at least on the Internet. After all, an exclamation mark is surely an emoticon, even if it is hallowed by long usage.

This is a delightful book, that ought to be near to hand on the reference shelf of anyone who cares about writing.

26 November 2003

%T Eats, Shoots and Leaves
%S The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
%A Truss, Lynne
%I Profile Books
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 1-86197-612-7
%P x + 209 pp
%K language
%O bibliography
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