Thursday, 15 January 2009

Truss: Watch your language

The problem with being a pedant is that there is always someone ready to judge your own use of language. LOUIS MENAND does precisely that in this article from the New Yorker magazine.

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

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."

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.