June 22, 2004

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

What is a "Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation?" It's the subtitle to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but its kind of vague -- maybe "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation Errors" is more appropriate.

I have great feeling for Lynne Truss' punctuation book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves -- it's pretty much a love-hate relationship, I think. It took me a long time actually finish reading it because it didn't really grab me or interest me much. The "scandal" surrounding it does, though.

I liked this book, because, like this Slate commentator, I already knew the rules, and really only learned about how the English apply said rules along with a few grammar history fun-facts. I'm human, so I know that I often get carried away with commas and that I forget to remove the pesky apostrophe in the "it's" when making a possessive, but nonetheless, I'm a fairly intelligent writer/editor.

However, I thought that the New Yorker column about the book was a bit over the top. Yes, there are tons of puncutation errors in all sorts of books. I opened a paperback the other day only to learn that Jennifer Crusie had written Crazy for Your -- err, I'm sure in following editions it will be appropriately titled Crazy for You. Things like that happen because some times you don't catch everything. Granted, it is sad that a book about punctuation contains errors, but Truss never claimed that her book was error-free either -- it's just like every other error-riddled book. Maybe one could place more blame on the publisher's minions. Anyway, Truss' so-called punctuation sticklers united, and ripped on her in the article.

Of course, no big surprise, as she used the New Yorker as a frequent example of over-wrought comma usage in her book anyway. So, it's revenge, really.

However, in the name of fairness, I too could pick on the New Yorker and their assertion about the Oxford comma:

The book also omits the serial comma, as in “eats, shoots and leaves,” which is acceptable in the United States only in newspapers and commercial magazines.
I and a fellow language lover researched the serial comma, and never was the word "only" used. In fact, the rule on the Oxford comma appears to be: "well, whatever you like, unless your editor mandates something." So there, New Yorker.

Now, I expect that they'll pick apart my personal inconsistency in the application of the Oxford comma in their next issue. But, I did like what the article said about voice.

Anyway, I also read an Economist review of the book, which seemed to be more in the spirit of what Truss may have really meant.

Punctuation, says Lynne Truss, is the track along which language runs. When it breaks down, so does meaning. She illustrates her point with countless cheerful examples. Where, for instance, would extra-marital sex be without its hyphen? In a completely different moral sphere.

The book is less instruction manual than celebration. “You know those self-help books that give you permission to love yourself? This one gives you permission to love punctuation.” Not the exclamation mark, however, which smacks of laughing at one's own joke.

But I digress. I found the book to be a little too English governess (if I knew what one was like) and I was severely annoyed by the way she belittled people like green grocers who misplaced their apostrophes in the name of ESL learners everywhere. However, I was perturbed right along with her about the movie title Two Weeks Notice, and I liked the way she used the last chapter to address the sillyness of emoticons, even though I like to use them. :)

So, when it comes right down to it, it was a good book about punctuation -- not a style guide, but more of a memoir (a memoir? a retrospective?) of punctuation's journey through time by one of its admirers.

See previous Truss Discussions:

  • The Jerz Entry that spawned this diatribe
  • My early responses

    Posted by Julie Young at June 22, 2004 08:37 PM
  • Comments

    I have a feeling I would be disappointed with this book as a liesurely read, but had it been a textbook, I would have enjoyed it. I have different requirements for each, naturally.

    It sounds like the "journey through time" aspect that you mention would be good. Reminds me of the text I had for linguistics, where we could see when words originated, where, and why, etc. Like the "Making of a Manuscript" video in Chaucer, it's a thing for us weirdos. (I get the feeling we'll never forget about that video.)

    Posted by: Donna at June 24, 2004 02:45 PM

    Hmm... tell me about this video. I might be "asked" to teach Chaucer next spring.

    Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at June 24, 2004 08:22 PM

    I think Donna and I were the only people entranced by this video, but, geez, it was informative! I found a summary for you online:

    Making of a Manuscript, The
    V0125 • VHS • 23 minutes

    The history of a medieval manuscript and its actual preparation is illustrated. The opening is a brief history of the types of writing materials used in pre-medieval times. The main program itself deals with the actual preparation of a manuscript of a Codex. The complete process from the hide stage through curing the leather, repairing and folding it, to the preparation for writing is shown. The actual writing process is outlined along with the implements and inks used. The binding process into either a Codex or another form of page grouping is explained. A short explanation is then given of how paper revolutionized the industry. The hazards from fires, worms and later revision that a completed book might face are discussed.

    Source: http://www.wlu.ca/mtr/MediaCollection/M/v125.shtml

    Posted by: Julie at June 24, 2004 09:49 PM

    It was just us, Julie. I remember the entire class was practically asleep, and you and I were front and center, taking mad notes. :-)

    Posted by: Donna R. Hibbs at June 24, 2004 11:42 PM

    Would a Making of a Manuscript fan page be too extreme?

    Posted by: Julie at June 25, 2004 05:40 PM

    I think it would be awesome, Julie. And I can add some of the neat things I learned at NYU about modern day paper to contrast. :-)

    Posted by: Donna R. Hibbs at June 26, 2004 12:51 AM
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