13 December 2003

Colonic irritation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (Profile)

Passions can run high about punctuation. I fondly remember a helpful publishing person once changing all my semicolons to colons, and vice versa, necessitating a long and increasingly grouchy explanation of why I had used them correctly in the first place. To certain eyes the misuse of a colon or comma bespeaks an almost immoral vagueness: if you can’t punctuate properly, you probably aren’t thinking properly in the first place. And then there are those hyper-sensitive souls who feel a misplaced apostrophe on a fruit-stall sign — “Banana’s” — as a sharp mental wound, a barbarism that really spoils their day.

To read Lynne Truss’s tiny, bubbly book in defence of punctuation pedantry is to witness an obsession pushed to extremes. One may be irritated by misplaced apostrophes in shop notices, but it is quite hard to make up an example in which such a mistake might lead to a real ambiguity of meaning. I know what a sign saying “Banana’s” is telling me: there are bendy yellow fruits for sale. Yum. But Truss becomes outraged at such solecisms, lamenting the name of the pop group Hear’Say, pouncing on (suspiciously anonymous) newspaper headlines with missing apostrophes, and even telling us how she demonstrated outside a cinema showing the film Two Weeks [sic] Notice, with a large cardboard apostrophe on a stick. Rather you than me, dear.

The book improves when it leaves the hoary subject of apostrophes and its attendant Middle England snobbery, and scoots merrily through an attenuated history of other punctuation marks and their usages – commas, dashes, brackets (or lunulae) and so on. At the end Truss attempts a rousing plea for preservation of our current system of punctuation (historically contingent and always in flux though she has shown it to be) in an age of increasingly anarchic orthography, where emailers and texters flout all known rules and even turn punctuation (oh, the horror!) into smiley faces.

Truss tries very hard to be funny, and she is often successful. There is a certain melancholy comedy in her image of scribblers in thrall to semicolon addiction: “But the writers rock back and forth on their office chairs, softly tapping the semicolon key and emitting low whimpers.” On the other hand, there is a forced and completely misguided riff about a line in Hamlet. Her case suffers from constant overstatement, perhaps exemplified by the joke about a panda to which the title is the punchline, which is too tedious to rehearse here but which depends on an entirely implausible punctuation mistake.

And if we are to be brutally honest, her regular quotations from others who have written on this subject – true giants such as Eric Fowler, Kingsley Amis or George Bernard Shaw – serve only to show that pedantry works best when allied to an economical wit and rock-solid prose, rather than Truss’s own consistent style of overheated whimsy, which becomes oppressive even in such a brief book. Correct punctuation is not a sufficient condition for excellent writing – nor even a necessary one, as the eccentric habits of countless novelists down the years happily attest.

The most alarming thing about Eats, Shoots & Leaves is perhaps that, while you begin it smiling in benign horror at the excesses of Truss’s obsession, you may end it brainwashed into trying to outdo the author herself in forensic quibbling. I found myself asking, for instance, whether the subtitle presents some problems. Doesn’t a zero-tolerance approach to punctuation properly mean that one should not tolerate any punctuation at all? Also, according to Truss’s own preference for hyphenating adjectival compounds, there surely ought to be a hyphen between “Zero” and “Tolerance”. Otherwise it could be read as saying something obscure about how we should tolerate zeros being used as punctuation marks. You see how this kind of thing is catching? I could go on, but blessedly space forbids.