Thursday, 15 January 2009
The first punctuation mistake in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero
Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" (Gotham; $17.50), by Lynne Truss, a
British writer, appears in the dedication, where a nonrestrictive
clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from
there. "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" presents itself as a call to arms, in a
world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic
curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it's hard to fend
off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.
The foreword, by Frank McCourt, contains another comma-free
nonrestrictive clause ("I feel no such sympathy for the manager of my
local supermarket who must have a cellarful of apostrophes he doesn't
know what to do with") and a superfluous ellipsis. 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
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."
Then, there is the translation problem. For some reason, the folks at
Gotham Books elected not to make any changes for the American edition,
a typesetting convenience that makes the book virtually useless for
American readers. As Truss herself notes, some conventions of British
usage employed in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" are taboo in the United
Statesãfor example, the placement of commas and periods outside
quotation marks, "like this". 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. The supreme peculiarity
of this peculiar publishing phenomenon is that the British are less
rigid about punctuation and related matters, such as footnote and
bibliographic form, than Americans are. An Englishwoman lecturing
Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the
French on sauces. Some of Truss's departures from punctuation norms
are just British laxness. In a book that pretends to be all about
firmness, though, this is not a good excuse. The main rule in
grammatical form is to stick to whatever rules you start out with, and
the most objectionable thing about Truss's writing is its
inconsistency. Either Truss needed a copy editor or her copy editor
needed a copy editor. Still, the book has been a No. 1 best-seller in
both England and the United States.
"I am not a grammarian," Truss says. No quarrel there. Although she
has dug up information about things like the history of the colon,
Truss is so uninterested in the actual rules of punctuation that she
even names the ones she floutsãfor example, the rule that semicolons
cannot be used to set off dependent clauses. (Unless you are using it
to disambiguate items in a list, a semicolon should be used only
between independent clausesãthat is, clauses that can stand as
complete sentences on their own.) That is the rule, she explains, but
she violates it frequently. She thinks this makes her sound like
Virginia Woolf. And she admits that her editors are continually
removing the commas that she tends to place before conjunctions.
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 areã"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"ãbut 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
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.
Though she has persuaded herself otherwise, Truss doesn't want people
to care about correctness. She wants them to care about writing and
about using the full resources of the language. "Eats, Shoots &
Leaves" is really a "decline of print culture" book disguised as a
style manual (poorly disguised). Truss has got things mixed up because
she has confused two aspects of writing: the technological and the
aesthetic. Writing is an instrument that was invented for recording,
storing, and communicating. Using the relatively small number of
symbols on the keyboard, you can record, store, and communicate a
virtually infinite range of information, and encode meanings with
virtually any degree of complexity. The system works entirely by
relationshipsãthe relationship of one symbol to another, of one word
to another, of one sentence to another. The function of most
punctuationãcommas, colons and semicolons, dashes, and so onãis to
help organize the relationships among the parts of a sentence. Its
role is semantic: to add precision and complexity to meaning. It
increases the information potential of strings of words.
What most punctuation does not do is add color, texture, or flavor to
the writing. Those are all things that belong to the aesthetics, and
literary aesthetics are weirdly intangible. You can't taste writing.
It has no color and makes no sound. Its shape has no significance. But
people say that someone's prose is "colorful" or "pungent" or
"shapeless" or "lyrical." When written language is decoded, it seems
to trigger sensations that are unique to writing but that usually have
to be described by analogy to some other activity. When deli owners
put up signs that read "'Iced' Tea," the single quotation marks are
intended to add extraliterary significance to the message, as if they
were the grammatical equivalent of red ink. Truss is quite clear about
the role played by punctuation in making words mean something. But she
alsoãit is part of her general inconsistencyãsuggests that semicolons,
for example, signal readers to pause. She likes to animate her
punctuation marks, to talk about the apostrophe and the dash as though
they were little cartoon characters livening up the page. She is
anthropomorphizing a technology. It's a natural thing to do. As she
points out, in earlier times punctuation did a lot more work than it
does today, and some of the work involved adjusting the timing in
sentences. But this is no longer the norm, and trying to punctuate in
that spirit now only makes for ambiguity and annoyance.
One of the most mysterious of writing's immaterial properties is what
people call "voice." Editors sometimes refer to it, in a phrase that
underscores the paradox at the heart of the idea, as "the voice on the
page." Prose can show many virtues, including originality, without
having a voice. It may avoid clichÈ, radiate conviction, be
grammatically so clean that your grandmother could eat off it. But
none of this has anything to do with this elusive entity the "voice."
There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of
writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed
technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn't insure it.
Calculated incorrectness doesn't, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm,
euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singularãany of these
can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as
elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn't.
When it does appear, the subject is often irrelevant. "I do not care
for movies very much and I rarely see them," W. H. Auden wrote to the
editors of The Nation in 1944. "Further, I am suspicious of criticism
as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones,
pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more
surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before
I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward
all week to reading him again." A lot of the movies that James Agee
reviewed between 1942 and 1948, when he was The Nation's film critic,
were negligible then and are forgotten now. But you can still read his
columns with pleasure. They continue to pass the ultimate test of good
writing: it is more painful to stop reading them than it is to keep
going. When you get to the end of Agee's sentences, you wish, like
Auden, that there were more sentences.
Writing that has a voice is writing that has something like a
personality. But whose personality is it? As with all art, there is no
straight road from the product back to the producer. There are writers
loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired
for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the
eye, and can't seem to finish a sentence. Wisdom on the page
correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high
batting average correlates with a high I.Q.: they just seem to have
very little to do with one another. Witty and charming people can
produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and fretful neurotics can,
to their readers, seem as though they must be delightful to live with.
Personal drabness, through some obscure neural kink, can deliver
verbal blooms. Readers who meet a writer whose voice they have fallen
in love with usually need to make a small adjustment afterward in
order to hang on to the infatuation.
The uncertainty about what it means for writing to have a voice arises
from the metaphor itself. Writers often claim that they never write
something that they would not say. It is hard to know how this could
be literally true. Speech is somatic, a bodily function, and it is
accompanied by physical inflectionsãtone of voice, winks, smiles,
raised eyebrows, hand gesturesãthat are not reproducible in writing.
Spoken language is repetitive, fragmentary, contradictory, limited in
vocabulary, loaded down with space holders ("like," "um," "you
know")ãall the things writing teachers tell students not to do. And
yet people can generally make themselves understood right away. As a
medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It's a
hieroglyph competing with a symphony.
The other reason that speech is a bad metaphor for writing is that
writing, for ninety-nine per cent of people who do it, is the opposite
of spontaneous. Some writers write many drafts of a piece; some write
one draft, at the pace of a snail after a night on the town. But
chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of
writing that are conventionally characterized as "like speech" are
usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision,
calibration, walks around the block, unnecessary phone calls, and
recalibration. Writers, by nature, tend to be people in whom l'esprit
de l'escalier is a recurrent experience: they are always thinking of
the perfect riposte after the moment for saying it has passed. So they
take a few years longer and put it in print. Writers are not mere
copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters.
They spend hours getting the timing rightãso that what they write
sounds completely unrehearsed.
Does this mean that the written "voice" is never spontaneous and
natural but always an artificial construction of language? This is not
a proposition that most writers could accept. The act of writing is
personal; it feels personal. The unfunny person who is a humorous
writer does not think, of her work, "That's not really me." Critics
speak of "the persona," a device for compelling, in the interests of
licensing the interpretative impulse, a divorce between author and
text. But no one, or almost no one, writes "as a persona." People
write as people, and if there were nothing personal about the result
few human beings would try to manufacture it for a living. Composition
is a troublesome, balky, sometimes sleep-depriving business. What
makes it especially so is that the rate of production is beyond the
writer's control. You have to wait, and what you are waiting for is
something inside you to come up with the words. That something, for
writers, is the voice.
A better basis than speaking for the metaphor of voice in writing is
singing. You can't tell if someone can sing or not from the way she
talks, and although "natural phrasing" and "from the heart" are prized
attributes of song, singing that way requires rehearsal, preparation,
and getting in touch with whatever it is inside singers that, by a
neural kink or the grace of God, enables them to turn themselves into
vessels of musical sound. Truss is right (despite what she preaches)
when she implies, by her own practice, that the rules really don't
have that much to do with it. Before Luciano Pavarotti walked onstage
at the opera house, he was in the habit of taking a bite of an apple.
That's how he helped his voice to sound spontaneous and natural.
What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like
singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you're yakking away to
yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a
depressing experience. When you write, you're trying to transpose what
you're thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and
more like a piece of music. This writing voice is the voice that
people are surprised not to encounter when they "meet the writer." The
writer is not so surprised. Writers labor constantly under the anxiety
that this voice, though they have found it a hundred times before, has
disappeared forever, and that they will never hear it again. Some
writers, when they begin a new piece, spend hours rereading their old
stuff, trying to remember how they did it, what it's supposed to sound
like. This rarely works; nothing works reliably. Sooner or later,
usually later than everyone involved would have preferred, the voice
shows up, takes a bite of the apple, and walks onstage.
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Update (21st May 2008) Sadly, Ireland's Dustin the Turkey didn't make it past the semi-finals.
Monday, 19 May 2008
Tuesday, 6 May 2008
c.1200, from O.N. þierra, gen. of þeir "they". Replaced O.E. hiera. Use with singular objects, scorned by grammarians, is attested from c.1300. Theirs (c.1300) is a double possessive. Alternate form theirn (1836) is attested in Midlands and southern dialect in
O.E. ure "of us," genitive plural of the first person pronoun, from P.Gmc. *ons (cf. O.S.
Their and our are plural possessive pronouns which have a similar function / position to an adjective in standard English. But ‘their dog’ does not describe the dog but actually gives information about the people who own the dog. ‘their dog’ = the dog of them.
In English, the important function of our & their is that we can separate people grammatically for different purposes. For example, in George Bush’s speech after the attack in
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Pinko-liberal Guardianistas and Scousers the world over may (quite rightly) loathe The Sun, but to be fair when it comes to headlines The Sun has it down to a fine art. Following yesterday's High Court conclusion to the acrimonious divorce between Sir Paul 'Macca' McCartney and Heather 'Mucca' Mills, I was looking forward to what The Sun would come up with. They did not disappoint:
Mucca chucksa cuppa water over Macca's lawyer Shacka
Right: let's start with lexis...
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
Tuesday, 4 March 2008
Present-day English is being changed by technology. Whole new languages are being invented in internet chatrooms and via texting.
Using examples from language associated with new technology, describe and explain a range of changes which are taking place in language use. Give your views about whether an entirely new language is being invented.
During the past 15 to 20 years there has been a major communications revolution sparked by the emergence of new communication technologies. Mobile Phone and Internet technologies are arguably the most visible examples, at least in terms of popularity and regularity of use. Linguists and social commentators have been quick to explore the impact of this technology on language, with some even suggesting it to be as significant as Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440[s1] . Another significant claim, as revealed in the essay question, suggests that these new technologies have even encouraged the emergence of ‘whole new languages.’
The invention of the printing press impacted so profoundly on language use because it enabled, for the first time, a medium of mass written communication. Its impact on the expansion of literacy and therefore the expansion of ideas helped stimulate the emergence of new thought, as well as helping to secure the eventual ‘standardisation’ of the written word.[s2] Similarly, the emergence of new communication technology has had no less an impact because it too has reached a mass audience. However unlike the printing press, the www and mobile phone appear to have encouraged an apparent departure from standardised linguistic forms. This irony can be largely attributed to the nature of the technology itself. Let me[s3] explain.
E-mailing (WWW) and texting (Mobile-phones) are mechanisms of instant communication. The medium of that communication however is not voice or even the pen, but the keyboard or keypad. Once ‘sent’ the message arrives at its destination almost immediately – and the response can be equally speedy. [s4] Subsequently the technology encourages (and perhaps, determines) a language that is much more informal and colloquial. The language of text messages has for some become so distinct from standard linguistic forms that it has been given its own name – textese[s5] . What defines textese? It is evidently filled with non-standard spelling and grammar. It is generally colloquial and ignores the conventions of ‘traditional’ orthography. It is semantically loaded yet light in content – it is quick, instant and to the point. Similarly, emailing is equally ‘non-standard’ in its linguistic variety. Add to this the ‘instantaneous’, non-permanent characteristic of this digital dialogue and you have what appears to be the emergence of a truly new language. It lies somewhere between the spoken and the written. [s6] It has its own emerging lexicon – neologisms, acronyms and hieroglyphic codes that are really only meaningful to those competent enough to use the technology in the first place. This could perhaps be used as evidence to support the ‘new language’ assertion: like any language, there are those who can speak it (or should I say, text it?) and there are those who cannot.
The truth is, however, that whole new languages are not being invented at all. [s7] ‘Textese’ is not a new language. It is a new form of English that has emerged in response to a technologically-determined medium of communication. The experience of language is the experience of social change. It is diachronic and evolutionary – language responds to a vast array of influences and adapts itself accordingly. Of course, how we interpret and respond to such changes is largely a reflection of our own attitudes to language[s8] and its use. For example, recent language commentators appear to be expressing a new ‘prescriptivism’ – in short a reaction by those who feel that technology is somehow ‘damaging’ language. Some of this conservatism may be in part due to a fear not so much of the technology, but its users. ‘Texting is penmanship for illiterates!’ [s9] one commentator recently exclaimed. But this elitist hysteria is surely misplaced. Teenagers have always ‘broken the rules’ when writing (and speaking) to each other – the ‘thanx’ that may previously have been written in a letter between pen-pals now becomes the ‘thnx’ of a text or email. It is just now that the speed of communication is making non-standard spelling forms more visible, numerous and indeed imaginative – but this does not imply that the individual scripting the message is unaware of the standardised form – it is just not appropriate for them to use it at that point. Context, again, determines all[s10] .
A further irony becomes evident when we consider the emotive topic of spelling. Pedants who advocate blind conformity to ‘standard orthography’ are increasingly uncomfortable with any forms of language that ignore it – however the spelling that we often find in texts and emails is in fact closer to the original ‘alphabetic principle’ that characterised early English spelling in the first place – namely that it is phonetic and reflects pronunciation rather than the arbitrary rules constructed by 18th century scholars[s11] who cared more for Latinate etymology than they did anything else. Any child learning to spell has to be told that they must place a ‘u’ in colour and ‘re’ at the end of centre regardless of the fact that this spelling has no relation whatsoever to their pronunciation. Why? Because Dr Johnson said so! In textese and in emails however, our technology literate children are, quite rightly, ignoring Dr Johnson and his like. As David Crystal [s12] points out, it is not a new language that has been born out of technology but a new language variety – and variety, surely, is to be celebrated. It is far more interesting.[s13]
[s1]Reveals historical knowledge (context)
[s2]Shows that technology is not ‘new’ and reveals that the relationship between it and language is “causal” – in other words, one impacts on the other.
[s3]Perfectly acceptable to use personal pronoun – remember this is not a commentary. For once you have the chance to express an opinion!
[s4]Here I am trying to convey a sense of what is ‘new’ about this technology as far as communication is concerned.
[s5]Here I am using relevant terminology as well as reinforcing the idea that a new language is emerging.
[s6]Evidence for the ‘new language’ hypothesis.
[s7]My viewpoint – you may not agree with it, but whatever your position is you must support it with evidence.
[s8]Even though the question did not directly refer to ‘attitudes’, clearly it would be difficult not to consider the various ways in which people have responded to these new technologies and the impact they have had on how language is used.
[s9]Short, snappy quote. Lovely!
[s10]Which is at the heart of a descriptivist perspective
[s11]More historical knowledge.
[s12]Authoritative source – David Crystal is a linguist.
[s13]Try and finish with an enthusiastic assertion – but don’t be too dogmatic.