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.