C.'s Reviews > Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
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's review
Aug 14, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, own-or-access, language-linguistics
Recommended to C. by: Mrs Connolly
Recommended for: people unclear on the use of basic punctuation
Read in October, 2007 , read count: 2


When you read to yourself, that is, not aloud, do you hear the words in your head? Does the punctuation affect how you hear them? Does it change, as it were, your mental intonation, the cadences of your inner voice? Does it tell you when to pause, when not to pause, how long to pause, and when to stop completely?

It does mine. And hence why I have never understood why people have trouble with of punctuation (Actually, this isn't quite true: I can understand to a large extent people having problems with apostrophes and even hyphens, and whether to use single or double quotation marks is something with which I grapple daily). But FULL STOPS, commas, ellipses, dashes, and even the dreaded semi-colon: what's the deal, world? Is it really that hard? Can't you just listen to the words in your head and just know which punctuation mark to use?

But seriously, am I alone in this ability? I thought everyone could do it. But evidently not, I guess. Or alternatively, I am a snob who reads too much. Incidentally, I remember a time (back in year eight) when I didn't know how to use the semi-colon, but I seemed to develop the ability spontaneously. Why doesn't this happen to everyone? But anyway. Punctuational musings aside and on to the book.

I had to re-rate this book from four stars to three. Somehow I didn't find it so funny the second time I read it. The humour seemed forced, and formulaic (I'm a proponent of the Oxford comma, in its place, by the way). Perhaps linguistics has spoiled me. One year of rabid left-wing hippy pot-smoking free-yonder-children-from-the-shackles-of-modern-education descriptivist linguistics lecturers has cured me (almost) completely of any lingering signs of prescriptivism (for all you who remain unconvinced, Stephen Fry and Language Hat will tell you why descriptivists have more fun).

In any case, I've seen curses rained upon Lynne Truss for her 'smug', 'self-righteous' 'linguistic snobbism', but she's a sweetie at heart, I believe. For all her grouchy, unconvinced attempts to paint herself as a not-too-prescriptive-prescriptivist (if that isn't an oxymoron), she's clearly just a language lover (to hyphen or not to hyphen?) at heart. Observe:

"... it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don't know the difference between "who's" and "whose", and whose bloody automatic 'grammar checker' can't tell the difference either. [hear, hear! Fucking grammar checkers.:] And despair was the initial impetus for this book. I saw a sign for "Book's" with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped; snapped with that melancholy sound you hear in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, like a far-off cable breaking in a mine-shaft [sic; I would have said mineshaft:]. I know that language moves on. It has to... But I can't help feeling that our punctuation system, which has served the written word with grace and ingenuity for centuries, must not be allowed to disappear without a fight."

And no, it's not just the Cherry Orchard reference that makes my heart go boompity-boomp. No matter how many linguistics lecturers I have, no matter how many blog posts written by celebrities advocating descriptivism I read, I will still understand, even if not share, Ms Truss's sentiments. It's the same feeling of sadness I feel when I contemplate the word 'awesome' and how it can never really encompass all that it used to. The same feeling of tragic loss I feel when I realise that the phrase 'the stuff of magic' is actually kind of funny these days. The same half-smothered regret that is inspired within my soul as I cast around desperately for a synonym for 'random' that doesn't make me sound like an idiotic teen.

It's just nostalgia, pure and simple.
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Can you remind me what descriptivism is? I think I know - is it simply the neutral observation of language as it is actually used, as opposed to the prescriptive insistence that language (grammar, punctuation &c) should be used in a particular way?

message 2: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. Yes, exactly.

message 3: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W I'm with you Choupette. Punctuation is critical to understanding what is meant, assuming the author knows what he/she is doing. It's like vocabulary. I get furious when TV anchors use notorious to mean famous, or enormity when enormous is what they mean. So many really evocative words are losing their subtleties because of misuse, and then when you try use convey some insidious meaning it's completely lost on the audience.

That's why I don't have much time for most obscenity. It's a cheap and lazy way to express very little when it would be much cleverer to juxtapose some more expressive and meaningful words.

A classic example from my childhood was my confusion with the words eschatological and scatological. I grew up thinking that scatalogical meant religious. :)

Pardon my rant. And I haven't even begun to complain about there and their.

message 4: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. I mostly agree with you, but I'm rather ambivalent on the subject because I don't know how to resolve the conflicts between my instincts (which agree exactly with what you say in your comment) and my knowledge that my instincts and feelings are dangerously prescriptive, which I KNOW to be wrong. Both descriptivism and my instincts seem to be correct and internally consistent, yet they are inherently contradictory. Which means there must be a flaw in my reasoning somewhere.

But please answer my question (it was serious, and the main point of reposting this review): do you hear the punctuation in your head when you read?

message 5: by Eric_W (last edited May 30, 2009 07:29PM) (new)

Eric_W Choupette wrote: "I mostly agree with you, but I'm rather ambivalent on the subject because I don't know how to resolve the conflicts between my instincts (which agree exactly with what you say in your comment) and ..."

Well, I've reread some passages several times to try to see if I understand what exactly you mean. I don't think I do "hear" the punctuation the way I think you mean it nor do I hear the words. I've never really thought about it, because I guess when I read I don't "see" individual words, but rather phrases and that's why the punctuation becomes important for me. But, I'll have to think about this some more. I know that when I read Angela's Ashes which had unconventional punctuation, it bothered me no end at first, but then I found it made sense and just flowed along. The same is true of stream of consciousness stuff. It requires some adjustment because, I think, the phrasing has to be internalized. I'm not sure I'm making any sense.

message 6: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. That's really interesting. I definitely 'hear' the words in my head as I read, as if I'm reading them aloud, but you say that you 'see' phrases. Does that mean that you visualise the printed words? Or is it something more abstract?

message 7: by Robert (new)

Robert I hear the words in my head; sometimes they develop accents. I can turn on or off my inner cinema that visually interprets the action when reading but if I haven't heard a word in my head then I haven't actually read the word.

message 8: by Lori (new)

Lori I definitely hear words in my head, and also the punctuation. As I've been reading all these comments it seems that I seek out "blocks" of phrases, searching out the punctuation, this happens super fast, and then read the individual words. Don't know if that makes sense. Great discussion. Now I'll concentrate tonight on how I read.

message 9: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I hear the words, and I'm totally with you on the relationship with punctuation. Especially semi-colons. A few years ago, I wrote a series of papers with a colleague who was allergic to semi-colons. It was very trying for both of us...

message 10: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. Maybe Eric's in the minority, then. But if most people hear the words in their head (I know this is a very small sample size) why do so many people have difficulty with basic punctuation? I've always assumed that my own ability to use it was to do with the fact that I read a lot as a kid, though I could well be wrong about that.

message 11: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker I definitely hear the phrases as I read. (pause) And the punctuation as well. (pause) How can you not? (rising tone)

Most good readers read in phrases not in individual words; it's poor readers who focus on a single word at a time.

Re the prescriptive vs descriptive, I don't either is by itself correct. Good style--and I think it's Strunk and White that say this--is about communicating meaning and sense. We should abide by the prescriptive because that's the common consensus as to how meaning is communicated in written text. But when the prescriptive hinders understanding then we break with it. It's like any kind of good writing: You have have to know what the rules are before you can break them. At least, that's my five cents worth anyway. :-)

(Bad grammar is a bit of a sore spot with me, being all lawyery and all.)

message 12: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Oh and as for why people have difficulty, I think a lot of people don't care. I'm a lawyer and you'll be surprised how many lawyers I meet don't. And we're supposed to use words as our tool (or weapon). Kind of scary really.

message 13: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. It is surprising that lawyers wouldn't care. I guess it might be conceivable that members of the general population might not be too concerned... but I really have to wind my empathy up a few notches to get that far.

But also, like my sister for example. She's better now but she used to write essays and ask me to proof read them, and her punctuation was all over the place. But clearly she cared about it, because it was being assessed. But maybe she just wasn't in the habit? I still find it very difficult to imagine how anyone could write or read without hearing it in their heads, though.

Chris I teach writing and reading skills. I think you can hear it your head; I do. I also think, however, it is a learned skill. My understanding of grammar advanced greatly when I started tutoring, and I always heard the words in my head when I read. Part of the problem is that we are always too close to what we write, and very few students (and writers in general. Look at how many published books could use better editing) make room for a cool period. I also think that it is a lack of real reading skill. I really believe that a large number of people do not know how to read. I mean read read. Many of my students, for example, read the black urban fiction (Terri Woods, the Dutch books). While I can understand why and believe that people should read what they like, the books do need better editing. Additionally, for those students who read them, they are the only books that the students read. Other students read Twilight and Harry Potter and that's it. The few students who read more than that tend to be better writers.

message 15: by Eric_W (last edited May 31, 2009 07:44AM) (new)

Eric_W I've been thinking a lot about this. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and wonder how your thoughts pertain to punctuation in a situation where you are actually hearing the words in your head.

If, when you read, you are "hearing" the words, isn't your reading speed severely limited? I once took a speed reading course (didn't help much) but they tried to train your eyes to take in whole passages and phrases.

That being said, I read different genres differently. Poetry is read much more slowly and perhaps more auditorily, mysteries fly by, history is different yet. Each would be perceived differently by the brain, I suspect.

message 16: by Buck (new)

Buck Doesn't your willingness to correct your sister's English indicate that you accept prescriptivism in practice, even if you reject it in theory? And do your pot-smoking lecturers speak and write standard English? I'm guessing they do. My point is that it's one thing to claim that, for the purposes of theoretical linguistics, all dialects are equal, and equally loveable (is that an Oxford comma?) But in real life, aren't we all prescriptivists?

Well, if you've read DFW's great essay on the usage wars, none of this will be new to you. Just wanted to throw it out there.

message 17: by Robert (new)

Robert I read much more slowly than my elder brother and have good reason to believe this is because I read every word except the last one on a page, where-as he is effectively speed reading. He gets really annoyed by anything that prevents him doing that, for example the phonetic spelling sections of Feersum Endjin by Iain M. Banks.

message 18: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. C., thanks for the perspective of a teacher. It seems clear that it's a learned skill - I think I find it difficult to understand because to me it came very naturally because I read a lot, and it also happened quite a long time ago so I don't remember it. Probably if I looked back at things I wrote when I was in prep or whatever my punctuation would be very different.

BunWat, your signpost analogy is very similar to one Lynne Truss uses in the book! Isn't that interesting - I suppose that means it's a good metaphor. I think it's a good one, anyway.

Eric, I've been thinking about how it's possible to hear the words aloud in my head. Because I definitely do hear them, but by the same token I definitely read a lot faster than I (or anyone) can talk. But the words still sound the same speed as they do when I speak aloud. I don't know how that works exactly, but somehow it does. I think I read more like Robert does, looking at every word on the page. I've always had difficulty speed-reading.

Buck, of course I'm prescriptive in practice, and so are my lecturers - you have to be to get by these days. It's the theory of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism I have trouble with, not the practice.

message 19: by Robert (new)

Robert The voice in my head can definitely go faster than I could speak. Speaking involves sending nerve impulses to mouth/jaw/tongue then doing those movements; guaranteed to be slower than just thinking the words can be. People can stumble over their words because they are trying to speak as fast as they think what to say.

message 20: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan I hear the words - every one - in my head, although as you say it is faster, somehow, than reading aloud. I read mainly fiction and each book deserves to be read carefully, unless it turns out not to be.

I never really think about punctuation and probably get it wrong now and then. People tell me I don't use enough commas in my fiction. Don't care if it sounds right to me in my head. I learnt/learn everything from reading. I read Lynne Truss, and enjoyed, but like my grammar lessons at school I don't think I learn much from formally being told how to punctuate. That's probably a crap sentence. I've forgotten the point I'm trying to make now.

message 21: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. I think that if it sounds right in your head, it's mostly fine, especially in fiction. Your punctuation seems pretty much normal (or within the normal range, anyway) to me. I find, too, that when I'm writing in a certain style I subconsciously change my punctuation to suit it. Do you find that people editing your work saying you should put more punctuation in, or what?

message 22: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan I have had people say I need a comma here, a full stop there, in the group I belong to, and sometimes I'll agree but mostly I'll argue the toss. Before my stories see the light of day they'll have been read over and over and read aloud too, so by the time any editor sees them I know the punctuation is correct for the story. I have had very little trouble with editors, they mostly take what I present. What I find is readers will say you should have used more punctuation here or there and, maybe formally I should have, but it would interrupt the flow or something and I disagree, politely.

Cecily Go to any language or grammar group and throw around the words "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism" and watch the sparks fly.

Daft really, as neither holds all the truth, either in fact, or even for most individual people. Part of the problem is that people often confuse grammatical correctness with stylistic preference.

And while Strunk and White may well have said that communicating and making sense is paramount, plenty of others have said it too, even without having read their book.

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