I mourn the loss of the English language.
There was a time, when I first started this blog, I tried to make a note of the most egregious grammatical errors I noticed in the news or stumbling out of the mouths of those knaves and villains we laughingly refer to as our elected officials. I thought it might be both amusing and instructive to chronicle and comment on the decline of English as used by graduates of journalism schools and by politicians. I abandoned the project very quickly when I realized it would be a full-time job for a regiment, or possibly a brigade, of people like me just to keep track of the multitudinous methods of mangling the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickens, Faulkner, and—more recently—Wodehouse, Mantel, and McCarthy. As far as I can tell, there are virtually no journalists who consistently use English as it was meant to be used (which is to say, correctly), and the only politician I can bear to listen to these days is John Kennedy of Louisiana. Not only does he normally speak English more or less correctly, but he has a southern country boy’s colorful and wickedly funny way of expressing himself. Even if you disagree with him, he can make you laugh, but a single senator out of far too many journalists and nauseatingly too many politicians is not encouraging.
It turns out I am not alone in my despair.
Lynne Truss is an intimidatingly prolific British writer (twenty books in sixteen years, or possibly more; it depends which list you consult) who writes everything from books on sports to comedy to mysteries to punctuation, which brings me to Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
Yes, and before you hurry on to some other website, I assure you, this is one of the most entertaining books you will ever read.
Like all good teachers, Ms. Truss is well aware that keeping her readers entertained is critical, and since she is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, without ever taking herself too seriously, she qualifies as a first-rate guide to making oneself understood when writing, primarily through the correct usage of those little marks and squiggles so many readers and writers ignore or misuse. She covers it all with style and grace and dazzling wit: colons; semi-colons; commas; apostrophes; quotation marks; exclamation marks; question marks; even periods (what the British refer to as “full stops”).
This would be a good time to remind you that there are significant differences in the way the British use punctuation and the way we use it over here, just are there significant differences in spelling. What little formal grammatical training I received in my various schools in Germany and Switzerland was based on British rules, when it involved English at all, and when I finally returned to America, for many years my papers and essays were invariably returned with buckets of red ink splashed liberally across the pages. Even today, spellcheck frequently disapproves of my spelling and syntax, and that includes the rare times I actually get the spelling right. Wisely, the editors of the American edition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Gotham Books) refrained from trying to Americanize Ms. Truss’ (or Ms. Truss’s; she discusses that extra “s” and whether or not it’s necessary) writing, an act of clarification that might have increased the length of the book by a third and made it both largely unintelligible and possibly unintentionally funny, so you will learn more about British punctuation than you will about American, but that won’t diminish your enjoyment an iota.
(By the way, Gotham Books is a subsidiary of The Penguin Group, which is part of Penguin Random House, which is owned by Pearson plc, which recently merged with the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, and this parenthetical aside should scare the hell out of you. As more and more companies in various industries become gobbled up by more and more conglomerates, it means fewer and fewer people making the decisions about what you get to read or watch or even consume, which in turn means fewer risks taken on the new and innovative. In the case of literature, that means in today’s Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You publishing world James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, and their ilk would have had a slim or possibly non-existent chance of getting into print.)
How does Ms. Truss make a dry and dusty topic like punctuation entertaining? Consider the following (my example; not hers):
“Let’s eat, Mom.” versus “Let’s eat Mom.”
One is suitable for the average Thanksgiving gathering, the other is only suitable for the Donner party. Same words, but a single missing comma changes the meaning dramatically.
Ms. Truss includes some marvelous exchanges from the running, decades-long comma-battle between James Thurber (a punctuational progressive who occasionally lapsed over into the revolutionary) and his editor, Harold Ross (a hidebound punctuational reactionary) that makes you wonder how either of them died a natural death. Passions run high in creative writing.
Ms. Truss utilizes a range of examples from advertising slogans and official signs she has observed and deplored (“XMA’S TREES” and “CHILDREN DRIVE SLOWLY”) to flights of fancy (“Instead of ‘What would you with the king?’ you can have someone say in Marlowe’s Edward II, ‘What? Would you? With the king?’”) all of them intended to make the reader appreciate that the difference between the ridiculous and the sublime can be as small as a squiggle on the page. Or the absence of a squiggle.
Reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves won’t make you an expert; there are so many alternatives, variations, exceptions, disagreements, not to mention wildly successful authors who break all the rules that it is safe to say there is no such thing as an expert, possibly not even Ms. Truss. She will, however, make you laugh, and give you the authority to sniff contemptuously the next time you see the goodthinkful Newspeak that passes for English these days made even more incomprehensible by kindergarten punctuation.