Thursday, November 02, 2006

BooksFirst - October 2006

Books Read

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss

Books Bought

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman


I haven't finished the big book I started last month, so that will have to wait. In part just so that I would have something to write about, I bought and read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the runaway bestseller about punctuation.

My grammar education was severely neglected as a kid. For several years "Language Arts", as English has been renamed, consisted of self-paced SRA workbooks with little teacher lecturing. When grammar was supposed to be taught in fifth and sixth grades, we had something called Roberts English which was to do for grammar what New Math did for arithmetic: make it so theoretical and confusing that it was useless for practical purposes. I have never diagrammed a sentence and I don't know the past imperfect from a dangling participle.

In high school, English was all literature based and while there was plenty of writing, the emphasis was on interpretation and not on mechanics. Still, the AP grade was good enough to get me out of freshman composition in college. What I'm trying to say is that my writing skills are self-taught outsider-art style. I just write the way it looks right without any formal knowledge of rules other than what I pick up from skimming Strunkenwhite's Elements of Style once a decade.

When my wife and I edit my son's school papers, we have enormous fights over punctuation. I work from a less-is-more ethos, while she believes every clause deserves a comma. I usually give in to her because I don't have any solid ground to defend my choices with. Like ending sentences with prepositions. Or beginning sentences with conjunctions. I know these things are 'wrong', but I do them anyways.

So I thought Eats, Shoots & Leaves would put a few arrows in my quiver for future arguments. I was wrong. Despite being subtitled "The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation", it is surprisingly wishy-washy. It even refuses to take a stand on terminal, or Oxford, commas. I like them, but so many people insist they are wrong that I usually just capitulate. I did learn to justify my putting punctuation marks outside the quotes in certain cases as the 'British' way of doing it.

The one major point hammered home again and again is to not create plural's by adding apostrophe-s. Well, duh. If this is advice worth ten bucks, perhaps the need for the book is more desperate than I realize.

The book is breezy and full of funny anectdotes and quotes Gertrude Stein just a little too much, but it didn't do much except reinforce my prejudice against silly grammarians with fussy and arbitrary rules. A coworker of mine, a lady of a certain age whose job is to make engineers sound not completely illiterate, just kind of snorts at the book. Now I understand why.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Feel free to ridicule any misteaks I have made. I will get to excuse them as ironic statements.


Anonymous said...

And well might she snort.

I was sorely disappointed by this book. And it's not just the differences between the UK (where Truss resides) and the United States; it's a matter of being neither funny nor clever. I don't need punch lines explained to me. What's more, the tone of the book was (IMO) rather condescending.

This sort of thing has been done before, and much better, as part of larger books. Some of James Kilpatrick's older works on writing and grammar have aged a bit (because, after all, language does evolve), but you definitely get a better handle on usage. And you're better entertained besides.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Karen Gordon's "The Delux Transitive Vampire" and Bryan Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage". Garner is one of the many usage experts who would have your back on the battle over starting sentences with conjunctions.

The Wardrobe Lady said...

The one major point hammered home again and again is to not create plural's by adding apostrophe-s. Well, duh.

Sadly, this appears to be dying as an accepted rule. On my way to work alone, I see a sign on a construction site saying "this project is scheduled to take place over a few week's in October and November" and an advert for a draw at a local gym which claims that "you could win up to ten free session's!"

Both of these are professionally printed, which means that not only the ad compositor, but the marketing departments and proofer at the sign company let them go through.

And don't even get me started on the common use of "scare" quotes for "emphasis" - if you're selling me "pears" for 99c, what am I actually buying? And if I need to 'leave this door "open",' does that mean it needs to stay closed?


Love the blog, btw.

Jamy said...

Strunk and White...there is no substitute.

J.Po said...

There is absolutely no excuse for bad pluralizations. I was aghast last evening to watch a political advertisement what quoted a newspaper as saying the candidate was "a vigilant watchdog of taxpayer's money." Was it the newspaper's error (egregious!) or the candidate's (embarrassing!)? And which taxpayer were they talking about?

This faux pas is not enough to make me vote for Rick Santorum -- well, there is next to nothing that COULD do that -- but who was asleep at the switch on this one?

My current pet peeve, being a self-taught language Nazi (hey, yello, I remember the SRA books! What color did you get, to what color did you get?), is the misplacement of words like "only" or "just" before the verb rather than the number, when the clear intent is to emphasize the number. "I only drank one bottle of Ketel One" means I did nothing else - breathe, eat, etc. - as opposed to the more correct (and fun) "I drank only one bottle of Ketel One."

Spelled "anecdote" wrong, BTW. :)

retreats back into language-geek shadows

J.Po said...

er...that should have read "...a political advertisement THAT quoted..."

Damn. I have no cred left.

Anonymous said...

I encourage you to read "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door," also by Ms. Truss. It's much better than "Eats, Shoots..."

Mooselet said...

I'm pretty sure we had the SRA booklets as well when I was in elementary school. I seem to remember all those colours.

My biggest pet peeve, being the mother of a teenager, is the tendency to use text message language in emails and even rough draft assignments. Emails from my niece (who is 17) are one big run on sentence full of weird groups of letters. It takes me reading it several times before I understand her point! My own 15 year old daughter gives me rough drafts to look at that are much the same, and a friend (and former English teacher) was horrified when her 14 year old wrote a formal thank you email in text language.

Give me a misplaced comma any day over that!

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

I keep a Gregg reference manual in my top drawer at all times. I still haven't found an answer on where you're supposed to put punctuation when it's next to quoted material - either inside or at the end of a sentence. Are these correct?

She was a "hottie," but not my type.


Holy crap, she sure is a "hottie!"

yellojkt said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one that thinks the empress has no clothes.

what/that is easily passed off as a typo since blogger has no edit feature. Misspelling 'anecdote' is pure laziness on my part. Higher laziness is not fixing it.

If I see it at the library, I might pick it up, but I'm not going out of my way.

My opinion is that punctuation only goes inside the quotes if it is part of the quote. But don't quote me on that.

2fs said...

In my day job, I'm a college English instructor. I don't emphasize grammar and punctuation, but neither do I ignore it. Anyway - H-man, here's the deal: in American English, your first example is correct: commas and periods go inside closing quotation marks (god only knows why). Your second example is incorrect: question marks and screamers go inside closing quotation marks only when they're part of the quoted material. In your example, the exclamation mark is clearly the speaker's. (Of course, there's also no reason on earth to put "hottie" in quotes - it doesn't need them just because it's a slang term.) Had your example been -

As yellojkt walked out of the room, he distinctly heard the young woman say, "Omigod is he a hottie!"

- then the exclamation mark goes inside the quotation marks, because it's part of the quoted material. The young woman in this example should make an appointment with an optometrist ;-)

As for some of the other bugaboos yellojkt mentions...the final word on "not ending a sentence with a preposition" is Winston Churchill's: "That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put." There are sentences for which any phrasing other than ending with a preposition is nonsensical. Similarly, there are any number of situations which call for beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Oh, and don't get me started on "split infinitives" - that whole thing comes from trying to import Latin grammar wholesale into English (18th century, I think). Of course you can't split an infinitive in Latin (or in many other languages), as Latin infinitives are one word. And as we all know (dig me - I begin with a conjunction!), it's imfuckingpossible to break a word in the middle and have it remain comprehensible.

I could go on...but I won't. Thank you.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

2fs - Thanks for the concise clarification. Seriously. For whatever stupid reason, Gregg cannot figure out a way to explain this properly.

paula said...

Acess the Bedford Handbook online - the best reference guide for punctuation and writing specifics on the planet ;)