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.


Tuesday 20 May 2008

Eurovision row

According to the BBC, Jacques Myard, a French MP, has said he is outraged that the song chosen to represent the nation in the Eurovision song contest contains (some) English lyrics. The politician's response seems the equivalent of the lingustic protectionism that is often expressed in the UK by groups such as The Queen's English Society. Such protectionsim reveals a paranoia arising from a view that language is like some delicate, rare orchid threatened by the strangulating weeds of 'inferior' linguistic forms. It seems to me that there is always the unpleasant presence of xenophobia and elitism in responses like these. Nonetheless the French should count themselves lucky. Ireland have a plastic Turkey called Dustin singing their entry - in English.

Update (21st May 2008) Sadly, Ireland's Dustin the Turkey didn't make it past the semi-finals.

Monday 19 May 2008

How many times can a politician avoid answering the question?

Well, in this infamous interview of Michael Howard by Jeremy Paxman in 1997, the answer is twelve. The language of politics is a fascinating arena for language study. Most politicians are skilled in the art of manipulating language, usually (oh cynic that I am) to serve their own career driven interests. On this ocassion the effect is quite comic. Paxman later revealed that he only kept asking the question because he wanted to waste a bit of time before starting the next item.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Is "their" a possessive pronoun or a possessive adjective?

The English and Foreign Languages Departments at CTK are in disagreement - and students are joining in also. According to Ms Freestone and Ms Payne, their is a possessive adjective. It is not, they insist, a pronoun - posessive or otherwise. We in the English Department however are not convinced. In fact we tend to steer towards classifying "their" as a pronoun. So, Steve (English Language Guru) attempts to set the record straight...


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 U.K. and the Ozarks region of the U.S.


O.E. ure "of us," genitive plural of the first person pronoun, from P.Gmc. *ons (cf. O.S. usa, O.Fris. use, O.H.G. unsar, Ger. unser, Goth. unsar "our"). Ours, formed c.1300, is a double possessive, originating in northern England, and has taken over the absolute function of our. Ourselves (1495), modeled on yourselves, replaced original construction we selfe, us selfum, etc

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 New York on 7/11, he is careful to use many pronouns to unite the people of America such as, ‘we, us, our’. He is also careful to distance the American people from ‘the attackers’ by always referring to ’them, they’. ‘Their actions’ does not – like an adjective – describe the actions. It means ‘the actions of the attackers’. In this way ‘their’ also acts like a determiner – pointing out whose actions are being referred to, but not modifying the actions in any way.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

The Language of Tabloids - Analysis, anyone?

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

The mad, bad and dangerous world of British-English Spelling

I think it was Mark Twain who once wrote 'I don't give a damn for a man who can only spell a word one way.' Often my problem has been that the one way I do know is, according to dictat, "incorrect." The irregularity of British-English spelling has tormented children (and adults like me) for years. Personally, I long for the days when you could spell a word according to the mood you were in - and no one cared! But if a rule must be applied - let it be the aphabetical principle, which dictates that generally you should spell a word the way it is pronounced. And if the pronunciation changes - so should the spelling! Unfortunately I can't see reform coming any time soon. But it should. And here is one reason why.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Language Topics - Showing enthusiasm?

Edexcel's Unit 6(b) for A2 English Language requires you to write for 45 minutes on a number of possible language related topics and issues - potentially on anything from 'political correctness' to the mad, bad and dangerous world of spelling. Personally I think there should be more of this in Language teaching - it is a welcome departure from the rigours of 'textual commentary.' It is refreshing because for once you have the opportunity to express your opinion. But how do you successfully display your knowledge of an issue or topic in a way that is enthusiastic, yet balanced? How, for example, might you convey the notion that Lynn Truss should be placed in stocks and endlessly taunted with examples of 'misplaced apostrophes' without sounding as pedantic and intolerant as she is? Well, I attach an example of a response that may give you an idea of what examiners are looking for here. In short it is knowledge - but knowledge with enthusiasm!

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.