Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves



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Eats, Shoots & Leaves

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Copyright © 2003 by Lynne Truss

[dedication] To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution
Preface [to the North American edition] Grammatical sticklers are the worst people for finding common cause because it is in their nature (obviously) to pick holes in everyone, even their best friends. Honestly, what an annoying bunch of people.
Introduction –
The Seventh Sense
There is a rumour that in parts of the Civil Service workers have been pragmatically instructed to omit apostrophes because no one knows how to use them any more – and this is the kind of pragmatism, I say along with Winston Churchill, “up with which we shall not put”. How dare anyone make this decision on behalf of the apostrophe?
Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with. Maybe we won’t change the world, but at least we’ll feel better.

There is just one final thing holding us back, then. It is that every man is his own stickler. And while I am very much in favour of forming an army of well-informed punctuation vigilantes, I can foresee problems getting everyone to pull in the same direction.

The Tractable Apostrophe
If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.
In fact one might dare to say that while the full stop is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon, and succumbing to burnout from all the thankless effort.

Meanwhile, William Hartston, who writes the “Beachcomber” column in The Express, has come up with the truly inspired story of the Apostropher Royal, an ancient and honourable post inaugurated in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His story goes that a humble greengrocer (in days of yore) was delivering potatoes to Good Queen Bess and happened to notice a misplaced apostrophe in a royal decree. When he pointed it out, the Queen immediately created the office of Apostropher Royal, to control the quality and distribution of apostrophes and deliver them in wheelbarrows to all the greengrocers of England on the second Thursday of every month (Apostrophe Thursday). The present Apostropher Royal, Sir D’Anville O’M’Darlin’, concerns himself these days with such urgent issues as the tendency of “trendy publishers” to replace quotation marks with colons and dashes, the effect of which is that pairs of unwanted inverted commas can be illegally shipped abroad, split down the middle to form low-grade apostrophes and sold back to an unwary British public.

That’ll Do, Comma
But there was no punctuation in those ancient texts and that’s all there is to it. For a considerable period in Latin transcriptions there were no gaps between words either, if you can credit such madness. Texts from that benighted classical period – just capital letters in big square blocks – look to modern eyes like those word-search puzzles that you stare at for twenty minutes or so, and then (with a delighted cry) suddenly spot the word “PAPERNAPKIN” spelled diagonally and backwards. However, the scriptio continua system (as it was called) had its defenders at the time. One fifth-century recluse called Cassian argued that if a text was slow to offer up its meaning, this encouraged not only healthy meditation but the glorification of God – the heart lifting in praise, obviously, at the moment when the word “PAPERNAPKIN” suddenly floated to the surface, like a synaptic miracle.

The heroic status of Aldus Manutius the Elder among historians of the printed word cannot be overstated. Who invented the italic typeface? Aldus Manutius! Who printed the first semicolon? Aldus Manutius! The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required, and Aldus Manutius was the man to do it.

Books were now for reading and understanding, not intoning. Moving your lips was becoming a no-no. Within the seventy years it took for Aldus Manutius the Elder to be replaced by Aldus Manutius the Younger, things changed so drastically that in 1566 Aldus Manutius the Younger was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax. Forget all that stuff about the spiritual value to the reader of working out the meaning for himself; forget as well the humility of those copyists of old. I’m sure people did question whether Italian printers were quite the right people to legislate on the meaning of everything; but on the other hand, resistance was obviously useless against a family that could invent italics.
There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.



Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous.

As with other paired bracketing devices (such as parentheses, dashes and quotation marks), there is actual mental cruelty involved, incidentally, in opening up a pair of commas and then neglecting to deliver the closing one. The reader hears the first shoe drop and then strains in agony to hear the second. In dramatic terms, it’s like putting a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I and then having the heroine drown herself quietly offstage in the bath during the interval. It’s just not cricket.

Airs and Graces
Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots ... you stop. But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes – that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity – well, they are the colons and semicolons.
Cutting a Dash
[...] I can attest there is only one thing more mortifying than having an exclamation mark removed by an editor: an exclamation mark added in.



Exclamation marks

In the 16th century the printer Henry Denham had the sophisticated idea of reversing the mark when indicating a rhetorical question (to differentiate it from a direct question), but it didn’t catch on.

Note (Hal’s):

Example: Who asks rhetorical questions, anyhow?

— end note

Having been trained to use double quotation marks for speech, however, with single quotations for quotations-within-quotations, I grieve to see the rule applied the other way round. There is a difference between saying someone is “out of sorts” (a direct quote) and ‘out of sorts’ (i.e., not feeling very well): when single quotes serve both functions, you lose this distinction.

The basic rule is straightforward and logical: when the punctuation relates to the quoted words it goes inside the inverted commas; when it relates to the sentence, it goes outside. Unless, of course, you are in America.


American English

A Little Used Punctuation Mark
Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens. Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party would all be lost without it.



Merely Conventional Signs

Note (Hal’s):
The chapter title is based on a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.

— end note

The good news for punctuation is that the age of printing has been glorious and has held sway for more than half a millenium. The bad news for punctuation, however, is that the age of printing is due to hold its official retirement party next Friday afternoon at half-past five.
Violent path-lab terminology is very much in vogue in the modern world of punctuation. Remember when we used to call the solidus (/) a “stroke”?

“Yes, you can see the bullet points here, here and here, sir; there are multiple backslashes, of course. And that’s a forward slash. I would have to call this a frenzied attack. Did anyone hear the interrobang?”

“Oh yes. Woman next door was temporarily deafened by it. What’s this?”

“Ah. You don’t see many of these any more. It’s an emoticon. [...] There’s no doubt about it, sir. The Punctuation Murderer has struck again.”

text checked (note A) Feb 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen