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Eats shoots and leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves - Lynne Truss A few years ago, on a website far, far away, I offered the following advice with regards to punctuation: "Make it up as you go along - I do. After all: nobody knows what a semi-colon is used for anyway; so... just throw in anything that looks pretty, ok?"I wasn't joking. I'm from the generation(s) who weren't taught grammar or punctuation in school. At least, not in English anyway. Our German teacher once started a lesson with the words: "Today we are going to learn about the dative case in German. You all know what the dative case is, don't you?" Erm...no, miss, never heard of it. She was somewhat put out. Actually it might have been the accusative case, but who cares?Well, Lynn Truss probably would. In fact she had a similar experience herself because, even though she attended a grammar school a decade before I went to a bog-standard comprehensive, she wasn't taught punctuation or grammar either - except in Latin, French and German lessons. And yet she has become a stickler for punctuation.Although, as she admits: "It's tough being a stickler for punctuation these days. One almost dare not get up in the mornings." Shopping must be a bit of a drag as well, as she refuses to use the 'eight items or less' checkouts because it should be 'fewer' not 'less'. ! I daresay she is as disappointed as I am that John Humphreys doesn't use the phrase: "the contestant with the fewer, or fewest, passes" on Mastermind, as Magnus Magnusson always did.What really gets my goat is when people misspell a word and then put "(sp?)" after it. What they seem to be saying is: "I don't know how to spell that last word, but I want you to know that I know that I don't know, just so you know that I'm not completely stupid. Although, obviously, I am far too lazy to look it up or even use a spell-checker. In other words: I don't mind if you think I'm lazy, as long as you don't think I'm so ignorant I don't know how ignorant I am, because I do...I just can't be bothered to do anything about it." Peeple lik vat r idull ninkempoups (sp?).It's a sign of the dumbed-down tabloidized-times that no-one is embarrassed at being seen to be ignorant and lazy, just so long as you don't think they are effing stoopid. Kingsley Amis would call them berks. According to him: "the world of grammar is divided into 'berks and wankers' - berks being those who are outrageously slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise."I guess I'm on the wanky side of that scale: I think punctuation should be about making things more convenient for the reader rather than the writer; but, like language itself, punctuation is bound to evolve over time. One change mentioned in this book is "the tendency of 'trendy publishers' to replace quotation marks with colons and dashes" - but that's fine by me: it can make passages of conversation easier on the eye, whereas quotation marks can look as fussy and old-fashioned as Grandma's antimacassars. But I digress...Lynn Truss is a very witty writer and, while her desire for better punctuation is obviously heartfelt, her tongue is firmly in her cheek as well: "Why did the Apostrophe Protection Society not have a militant wing? Could I start one?" she quips at one point. Hence this book is as entertaining as it is enlightening - more so perhaps, which is why it doesn't really work as a reference book (so if that's what you're after you might want to look elsewhere).Also its diddy size is a drawback at times as it makes for a pot-entially confusing lay-out because of the ex-tra hyphens which are required by the narrow width of the page.Sometimes I was left almost more confused - like the grammar in this sentence is? For example, my last English teacher insisted that "however" should always be put at the beginning of a sentence and followed by a comma. I was sceptical about this, however. And now Lynn Truss tells me this:"Linking words such as "however", "nevertheless", "also", "consequently" and "hence" require a semicolon - and, I have to say, this seems pretty self-evident to me."Why a semi-colon? It's not pretty self-evident to me, however. Er, I mean: It's not pretty self-evident to me; however. Ugh no! I mean: However; It's not pretty self-evident to me. No, that doesn't look right either. Consequently(;-?) I'm going to ignore this advice just as soon as I've ended this sentence; I'm sure it's good advice, er, nevertheless.Punctuation-wise I'm more of an Alex Higgins than a Ronnie O'Sullivan: I get in some terrible tangles and have to rely on spectacular potting to recover. I hoped that this book would improve my positional play; and, you never know, maybe after a few more reads it will; but I had to read some examples a couple of times to understand exactly what she meant. For example, I'm still not entirely sure how "slow moving traffic" (as opposed to "slow-moving traffic") could be mis-interpreted. Pickfords' vans travelling at 20mph? Drivers weeping openly to sad music on their car stereos?"Eats, Shoots & Leaves is not a book about grammar.", she says, "I am not a grammarian. To me a subordinate clause will for ever be (since I heard the actor Martin Jarvis describe it thus) one of Santa's little helpers."It is a bit though. Although perhaps not enough to sort me out. Sometimes I am beset by chronic indecision as to what's right and what's wrong or whether it matters.And I'm now using far too many semi-colons.And now I'm using far too many semi-colons.And I'm using far too many semi-colons now.[Oh dear. Please delete as applicable.:]So there are things not covered in the book which I would like to have explained to me. Whether I was wrong to use 'which' in the last sentence rather than 'that', for example; but you can't have everything - where would you put it all?Dear Lynn,Is it "that" or "which" and when and why? Why does "will not" become "won't"? Who decides on the why's and wherefores? Or should that be the why's and wherefore's? And why? Or wherefore?And is there a difference between: "it's not" and "it isn't" - or not?Does anyone really know for sure?Yours bewildered,Phillip.P.S. Why, when you seem to be obsessed with the sweets formerly known as Opal Fruits, did you never once mention the abomination that is 'Snickers' - surely the most heinous crime against the English language?P.P.S. If you ever read this, please would you try not to be upset by my 'pretty' punctuation? Thanks.{Review originally posted on ciao.co.uk on Oct 14th, 2004}