ZERO TOLERANCE FOR TRUSS.

OK, I’m the last blogger on earth to get around to writing about Louis Menand’s scathing New Yorker review of the hot new language-scold best-seller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (whose title, as everyone points out, needs a hyphen after “Zero”). But I’m not going to let it go unmemorialized here, because Menand is an excellent writer with no patience for ignorant cant, and people keep asking me about the book. Since I have no intention of actually reading the damn thing, I’ll quote enough Menand to convince any doubters that she’s not worth bothering with. He begins with a catalog of her own misuses and mistakes:

The preface, by Truss, includes a misplaced apostrophe (“printers’ marks”) and two misused semicolons: one that separates unpunctuated items in a list and one that sets off a dependent clause. About half the semicolons in the rest of the book are either unnecessary or ungrammatical, and the comma is deployed as the mood strikes. Sometimes, phrases such as “of course” are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not. Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’”). Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors.”
Parentheses are used, wrongly, to add independent clauses to the ends of sentences: “I bought a copy of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage and covered it in sticky-backed plastic so that it would last a lifetime (it has).” Citation form varies: one passage from the Bible is identified as “Luke, xxiii, 43” and another, a page later, as “Isaiah xl, 3.” The word “abuzz” is printed with a hyphen, which it does not have. We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so. (An American would not write “Who said ‘I cannot tell a lie?’”) A line from “My Fair Lady” is misquoted (“The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning”). And it is stated that The New Yorker, “that famously punctilious periodical,” renders “the nineteen-eighties” as the “1980’s,” which it does not. The New Yorker renders “the nineteen-eighties” as “the nineteen-eighties.”

He continues with a complaint about the absurd decision “not to make any changes for the American edition, a typesetting convenience that makes the book virtually useless for American readers,” and goes on to a hilarious dissection of her motives in writing the book:

Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation? Truss, a former sports columnist for the London Times, appears to have been set a-blaze by two obsessions: superfluous apostrophes in commercial signage (“Potatoe’s” and that sort of thing) and the elision of punctuation, along with uppercase letters, in e-mail messages. Are these portents of the night, soon coming, in which no man can read? Truss warns us that they are—“If we value the way we have been trained to think by centuries of absorbing the culture of the printed word, we must not allow the language to return to the chaotic scriptio continua swamp from which it so bravely crawled less than two thousand years ago”—but it’s hard to know how seriously to take her, because her prose is so caffeinated that you can’t always separate the sense from the sensibility. And that, undoubtedly, is the point, for it is the sensibility, the “I’m mad as hell” act, that has got her her readers. A characteristic passage:

For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.

Some people do feel this way, and they do not wish to be handed the line that “language is always evolving,” or some other slice of liberal pie. They don’t even want to know what the distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause might be. They are like people who lose control when they hear a cell phone ring in a public place: they just need to vent. Truss is their Jeremiah. They don’t care where her commas are, because her heart is in the right place.

Go get ‘em, Louis. And I don’t want to hear any mutterings that he and I are renegades battering down the walls protecting Language from the barbarians. It is those who care more about invented rules and silly shibboleths than about good writing who are the true barbarians.

Comments

  1. With a nickname of “Susie Comma” as editor of my high school magazine and a still unvanquished affinity for semicolons, I am the last to point a dainty digit at others. However, if I were to write a book about punctuation I would at least make sure it was correct. I believe, as you say, that it is the manner in which it is presented that is the selling point; in fact, the “Miss Manners” tongue-in-cheek repartee that makes it a must-have for the chic coffee table.

  2. I have not read the book but I must admit to a certain sympathy with her reaction to “Book’s”.
    I have similar reactions to “it’s” used improperly. See the UseNet newsgroup “alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe” for others who wince at such blasphemy.

  3. You know, I got all excited that there was a best-selling book about punctuation, picked it up, leafed through it, and was….really disappointed by the writing style and the elementary nature of what she writes about. I so wish that The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon got one-half the publicity instead, because that’s a book that’s actually fun to read.

  4. I’ll have to take a look at it.

  5. aldiboronti says:

    Truss was a humour columnist before writing a sports column (in fact, it was on that basis that she was given the sports brief; the newspaper wanted humour injected into the column. Whether or not she knew anything about sport was a secondary consideration.) She’s also written a couple of comic novels.
    Ditto with the book on punctuation. The publishers cared not a jot whether she knew whereof she spoke. They noted that her ‘light’ touch moved papers and books.
    Such are the ways of publication these days; always have been, I guess. I note with alarm that Bill Bryson’s next subject is Shakespeare.

  6. Oh man that’s depressing. (Commas deliberately omitted, either in homage to or in defiance of Truss, take your pick.) I guess I should blame not her but her publisher, then — I don’t expect anyone to turn down a paycheck.

  7. Also not having read the book, I agree with hat that it’s a terrible book, but having read Menand’s review, I thought that it was pretty bad too. It seems to me that he could have dispatched Truss in a third the space, and some of the stuff he said seemed like padding. He who lives by the word, dies by the word.
    I actually hate every single one of the Mr. Language Persons out there (except for the master himself, Dave Barry). I hate them even when they’re right. Slimy rightwingers like Safire, George Will, and Bill Buckley seem to gravitate that way, but that’s not my only reason.
    And it’s not just the chemical imbalance in my brain either, smartypants.
    No, I do not consider hat to be a Mr Language Person yet, but I’m monitoring him.

  8. Jonathan says:

    You’re right on the money, zizka. Menand’s piece was way longer than it needed to be. He conflated a review with an article on voice, and one thing had almost nothing to do with the other.

  9. If grammarians were all as entertaining as Lynne Truss, then evryone would be a grammarian. Isn’t the crucial point here that ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ is aimed at those who have never thought about grammar before?
    My own question on Lynne Truss’s American tour is – did she and her publishers release a ‘proper’ American edition – i.e. one edited for AMERICAN ENGLISH? I’m not sure if I’m hoping the answer is yes, or no: on the one hand, it’s a bit of a rip-off if it’s advocating British English. On the other hand, as a Brit, it makes me chuckle to think that soon we will be inundated with yankee tourists using British English grammar – or, as we like to think of it here, “proper English.” Tee hee!!!

  10. I bought and read the book last year. It’s best not taken too seriously, except perhaps to be analysed as a publishing/cultural phenomenon. I don’t think that in fact the book is aimed at those who’ve never thought about grammar before. I read this review recently. I don’t necessarily agree that punctuation is quite that simple. But this, I think, is spot on:
    ‘Truss wants you to read her book not to learn the rules of punctuation but to join her in bewailing, as you review these rules, the sorry ignorance of those who don’t know them. It’s to feel superior, and smug, and, well, almost … English.’
    This is an American reviewer, of course, who wonders how it works if you are in fact English. The answer is that it works in pretty much the same way: you can consider yourself a better class of person, not one of those common sorts (hairdressers! greengrocers!) who don’t know where to put their apostrophes.
    And grammarians and, um, Language Persons can, of course, achieve a similar superiority effect in relation to Truss herself. Which is probably why they need to write overly long review articles to make sure that we know just how superior they are…
    So, there you go: read it if you want to feel a nice warm smug glow; don’t bother to read it if you seriously want to improve your grammar.

  11. The best possible outcome of all this would be for the author and the publishers to take into account the errors, correct them, and republish with a brief apology. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves excited many with its promise, perhaps, because the time has come to defend the standards of the language and enforce them. I wonder if anyone has thought to send the publishers a copy of this thread?

  12. zizka, Jonathan: You’re right, of course, that after dispatching Truss he wanders off into a totally unrelated discussion of voice, but since I enjoyed it (and am given to unrelated excursuses myself, or excursus with a long second u if you will) and since everyone else who discusses the review has taken him to task for it, I didn’t feel the need to mention it.
    Annie: Heh!

  13. I would say that his “meandering” anticipates the “attack” by Mullan and Frederick in the Guardian:
    http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/referenceandlanguages/story/0,6000,1252098,00.html
    Keith

  14. Marie Watterlond says:

    I read both the book and the review, and my first nit to pick is that she’s right about the “printers’ marks” since the term refers to marks used by all printers. A lot of the rest of his complaints relate to the different usage for some punctuation in the UK as opposed to the usage in the US. I liked the book and felt I had found a kindred spirit–someone with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek! And yes, Dave Barry is one of my heroes. (Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is not incorrect usage, by the way, as a thorough perusal of most Supreme Court opinions will confirm. Of course, those old guys in black nightgowns aren’t setting themselves up as language authorities, only the Court of Last Resort… well, don’t get me started.)

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