Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, 2004. GUEST REVIEW BY JONATHAN CAWS-ELWITT
Personally, I haven’t read most of them yet. But I did recently read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. I began writing a "mixed review" after an initial skimming of Truss’s book. When I went back to read it more carefully, I discovered the book to be both better and much, much worse than I'd realized. I confess that I still did not read every word, but I think I've done it justice.
The book is better than I first realized in that there really is quite a bit of engaging, intelligent, self-effacing wit to it -- in certain sections. But after my second reading, I find that its conceptual shortcomings amount to a fatal ridiculousness. And an immensely popular book on language that blurs a rich enthusiasm for the delicacy of good usage with a confused attack on everything from true mistakes to trendy trademarks to email emoticons is worse than ridiculous. It’s destructive.
I care a lot about clear expression. I treasure punctuation. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the best way to say things, whether it be orally or in writing. But I think that Lynne Truss is an irresponsible, half-baked alarmist. She’s a self-described “Stickler” for correct punctuation and good style. So what? I'm not, personally, prepared to rush up and congratulate her simply for insisting on correct use of the apostrophe -- though I do favor that policy myself and wince when I see it done wrong by others. And though she likes to present herself as a sage and stalwart champion of the English language, as far as I can tell she's more an unfocused, unsubstantiated kvetcher than an impassioned expert user.
I’ve had it "up to here" with people who extrapolate from a justified scorn for the ever-present eyesore of bad writing to an apocalyptic lament that literate culture is spinning rapidly down the drain. The fact that each generation of intelligentsia -- if I’m not mistaken -- includes loud exponents of this viewpoint should in itself render it suspect.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves is intelligent where it’s about things regarding which the author seems to have personal expertise (e.g. the map of the punctuation aficianado subculture) or where she's really done her homework (e.g. the colorful, often surprising, and sometimes controversial history of various punctuation marks). But the work is beyond embarrassing where it attacks (in both senses of the word) subjects that the author is stubbornly obtuse about -- mainly the culture of email and instant messaging. Personally, I find it implausible that email and IM are threatening to destroy conventional written discourse. It seems to me the theory behind this perception would imply, erroneously, that email and IM are cognate with older, more formal uses of writing (and could thus risk supplanting them); while the unscientifically-presented empirical basis of this paradigm here just smells to me like the latest round of scapegoating in the perennial pastime of Deploring The Poor State Of Our Young People’s Writing Skills. Okay, maybe today’s high school and college students bring IM conventions into their lousy term papers. Well, if all they’re writing outside of school is IM -- the logical implication -- then I would suggest that a generation ago they weren’t writing outside of school at all. Was that better? And weren’t the term papers just as lousy, even without eschewed capitalization and “u” for “you”?
To me, it would seem obvious that email, IM and chat are, loosely speaking, filling roles previously filled by telephone conversation or passing secret notes in class or gabbing on a park bench (or on the street corner or at the market or around the water cooler or over the back fence). They do not, by and large, occupy the niches of scholarly writing; literary writing; or even humdrum, mediocre expository writing (e.g. journalism and business reports). Nor do they usually seem to fill the niche -- in either content or form -- of personal letters, which began to go out of fashion long before the cyber age. (And when an email does resemble an old-fashioned longhand letter, I venture to say that it reads no worse than the longhand letter that would have been composed by the same author -- and not because the email habit has ruined anyone’s letter-writing skills.)
Why should spontaneous, casual emails be held to the standards of published prose, rather than the standards of ephemeral, private dialogue? Goodness, if one is going to deplore the use of ellipses and run-on sentences in email, one might as well criticize one’s friends for saying “um” at one across the café table and trailing off when the server arrives. Though some of us do craft beautiful electronic correspondence suitable for publication or framing, we are the exception. And that reality is, in turn, a reflection of what defines the most common ad-hoc purpose of these media: casual conversation. It is not a case of the medium ruining literary values; that is an irrelevant paradigm, not merely a flawed one.
Does the author think that if email and IM did not exist, all those teenagers and not-very-literary adults would be writing New Yorker essays instead? They would be doing no such thing, of course. Most of those people limit their formal writing to what’s absolutely required of them by school, work, or the occasional social obligation. Most of the “voluntary” formal writing in the world is left to the few who have a special aptitude for writing. But people who are accomplished, comfortable writers do not own the realm of writing. Published writing is their special province -- or should be. If technology now makes it easy and appealing for non-writers to type their personal conversations instead of picking up the telephone, it is ridiculous to expect them to write like writers just because they’re using a keypad. Truss even stumbles on this realization herself, though I think she misses the point: "I keep thinking that what we do now, with this medium of instant delivery, isn't writing . . . . " Well, exactly.
When Truss is tearing her hair out at the semi-literate standards of online self-publishing (e.g. public user reviews on book and film websites), she might have a case -- were she to develop it like a proper scholar. (And yet I ask: Are rambling, inarticulate, ignorant user reviews online really that different from rambling, inarticulate, ignorant phone calls to talk radio hosts? I think the fact that it’s in writing is of some significance; but it’s not necessarily of great significance. More significant perhaps is the fact that the online user review, unlike the radio call-in, is on the order of a mass phenomenon.)
But when Truss is referring to personal electronic communication, she has no case at all. And I think she provides far from adequate differentiation, either in her book or in her mind, between these -- and among other -- distinct uses of the Internet. For example, she claims that the "non-case-sensitive internet" (she evidently chooses to ignore the distinction between URL's that get you to a web page and the vast assortment of online prose content you might find there) is confusing young people about capitalization -- as if they can't distinguish domain names from the formal sentence-writing they learn in school! (I'm not disputing that some school kids, as well as some semi-literate adults, use aberrant capitalization; I'm just doubting Truss's suggestion that this is a new problem, and one attributable to the Internet.) Granted, there are grey areas as to what constitutes "personal". Are Usenet postings published discourse or just conversation? (I would answer that this is mostly determined by the approach and attitude of the individual user.) But the fact that there are grey areas only makes it more important to tackle this subject with sophistication and nuance, rather than sputtering in a blind panic.
. . . . Unless perhaps one's goal is simply to catch the cheapest, fastest route to the Best Seller List. Truss expresses astonishment at her book’s success. I’m not surprised at all. The demographic that sustains the Best Seller List Industry includes many people who would like nothing better than to be given facile license to roll their eyes at what they’re sure is the general barbarism of popular culture, youth culture, and contemporary culture. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of barbarism out there (and there always has been). But a good critic is a fair critic, one who can discriminate among various phenomena that may or may not be related, may or may not be new, may or may not be significant, and may or may not be insidious. This is where the hard work of the scholar comes in, and I don’t see Truss rolling up her sleeves. It’s probably indisputable that well-tempered opinions don’t have the commercial “grab” that overstated, oversimplified diatribes and posturing do. Hence the runaway success of Lynne Truss, who is as sensationalistic, in her way, as any number of superfluous exclamation points.
I do happen to think that the world would be a much better place if people – all people -- took more care over their interpersonal communication. But that’s mostly about choosing one’s words carefully, avoiding hasty assumptions, cocking an ear toward how one’s discourse might sound to one’s interlocutor . . . not about whether to replace "for" with "4" or whether it’s good style to habitually end sentences with ellipses. (I am partial to good style, too, but I know the difference between things that substantially improve human relations and things that just spruce up the aesthetics.) And the qualities that enable people to communicate well – whether orally or in writing – are good thinking first and good expression second. One has to bring maturity, sensitivity, and judgment to a situation before one can expect to communicate with delicacy and grace. Horse; cart.
Muddled writing does often reflect muddled thinking (and has always done so, not just since the advent of the personal computer). But let’s keep the cause and effect straight. Poor-quality thinkers – whether they happen to be teens, adults with no higher education, or degree-heavy academics – can indeed betray themselves (in various ways) by their prose. And, yes, learning to use language expertly will help people who think cogently express themselves clearly. And, at a certain point, masterful use of language becomes essential, if one is to express nuances without ambiguity or misunderstanding (which, however, is never guaranteed, no matter how labored and perfect one’s writing, as there’s always that subjective element). One might go so far as to claim that every close personal relationship could benefit from adroit language-use skills. Yes, yes, and yes. But inexpert writing does not cause shabby thinking (or the decline of civilization)! And while it is true that sloppy, confused writing often feeds the prevailing-bogus-ideology machine, I don’t think that the people who build their “ideas” by absorbing ideological mush would be thinking any better merely by being conduits for more skillful prose. If they could think better, they would reject the mush in the first place, right? I believe that clear thinking is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite to clear writing, not the product of clear writing (though writing can certainly be an incomparable, if sometimes limiting, tool for working out one’s ideas).
It is here that Truss goes perhaps most significantly astray. She actually seems to believe that conforming to punctuation rules will lead to cogent thinking: "Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.” Would that it were so simple!
Meanwhile, in leading up to the above, she posits that “All our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places.” Funny – I am a meticulous punctuator myself, and yet I have occasionally found the goal of "absolute clarity" to my intended reader to have eluded me. Your thoughts must be of a different grade than mine, Lynne.
Truss is half-right much of the time. She’s right that punctuation is important to clear writing and good writing (but is anyone saying otherwise?). She’s wrong to imply that its misuse -- and more general problems of bad writing, muddled expression, etc. -- are a woe of our age in particular. People who think that things like television and the Internet are killing language need to be reminded that not so many generations ago (and correct me if I’m wrong here), the majority of people -- even in affluent countries -- were literally illiterate. To imply that there was once a golden age of expert, elegant writing among the population is therefore either elitist or ignorant. I’m fed up with that kind of “good old days” mythologizing. Moreover, the author herself debunks the "golden age" school right on page 39, at least in one specific context. She also acknowledges somewhere in her argument that TV used to be the scapegoat. If only she could follow through on these insights.
In fact, I found on my second reading that a number of the points I'm trying to make here seem to be acknowledged, in some form, somewhere in the book. The problem is that Truss can't seem to maintain a judicious perspective. It's almost as if, when she gets excited, she forgets her own best insights. Where was the editor, I wonder. Meeting with the marketing team?
Truss's sloppy thinking, unscientific methods, and irrational logic make me distrust even the portions of this book that I enjoyed, and which I would have liked to praise as authoritative and interesting. Oh yes, there is an extensive bibliography; but slipshod college term papers have extensive bibliographies, too. Truss writes much, much better than the typical undergrad. But does she think better? And bearing all this in mind, I hesitate to credit, without further documentation, her claim that editors fail elementary punctuation quizzes on television. Likewise: "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 . . . . " A rumour, you say? Don't wear yourself out with the basic research, now.
Further examples of the idiotic things I found in this celebrated book for literate people:
1) Truss wildly describes the current state of written English as characterized by "the disappearance of punctuation".
2) Similarly, she describes -- out of whole cloth, unless I missed something -- a "dangerous drift back to the scriptio continua of the ancient world, by which words are just hoicked together as 'all one word" with no initial capitals or helpful punctuation". She really seems to believe it's just a short step from trendy alloneword band names and function-driven dot-com run-togethers like "allmusic" to an entire written culture that looks like Finnegans Wake.
3) She blithely attributes the growing (if it really is growing) misuse of question marks after indirect questions to the youth-culture vocal inflection known as "upspeak". In other words, Truss seriously, and confidently, proposes that the mannerism of lilting one's voice on the word "store" in the clause "So, I was at the store" [my example] causes one to write question marks after sentences like "I was wondering if it would rain today" [my example again]. To which I reply: "Like, excuse me?" (as an upspeaker might express it).
4) She proclaims that "[T]he naming of [pop group] Hear'Say in 2001 was . . . a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy." And yet, idiosyncratic corporate/institutional punctuation (e.g. Lloyds TSB and HarperCollins) are to be accepted as givens, respected as de facto proper form, and generally put up with, according to Truss. Culture war, anyone? Granted, a blatantly gratuitous apostrophe is more bizarre than an elided apostrophe or word space . . . but if a pop group can't adorn its name a little more bizarrely than a bank, what are things coming to?
5) Then there's this:
"I have heard that people with double-barrelled names are simply unable to get the concept across these days, because so few people on the other end of a telephone know what a hyphen is." My wife and I have had hyphenated names for about twenty years. The average interlocutor has never processed that very well or been likely to write the correct punctuation mark when we say "hyphen". It is not any worse now than it was then, nor do I believe it would have been better forty years ago than it was twenty years ago.
If I may return to the theme of things lumped together that should be considered separately: It is true that complicated sentences with absent or faulty punctuation can cause puzzling, hilarious, or even fatal misunderstandings, as Truss amply demonstrates. Whereas a mispunctuated sign that reads "APPLE’S FOR SALE" causes only annoyance. But this distinction seems, at least at times, to be lost on Truss. And let us consider her bugbear, the aforementioned pop music group with the counterconventional use of punctuation in its band name. Dumb? Yes. Pernicious? No. Contagious? Undoubtedly, but only within a certain sphere of things that are frequently dumb anyway. National Book Award winners are not going to start misusing the apostrophe just because some band did. Teens don’t need a band to make them punctuate wrong. So why all this alarm and urgency? Whom are we trying to protect from this disease? Other pop groups? Snack foods? Banks?
Yes, I’d rather see everything punctuated correctly because I find it more aesthetic and it’s just as -- well, almost as -- easy to get it right. In print, there’s really no excuse for getting it wrong. But to leap from "APPLE’S FOR SALE" and "c u @ the movie’s" to the breakdown of written language is an example of -- well -- shoddy thinking. Yes, let’s continue to teach good writing. (And teach good thinking first, while we’re at it.) Make it a priority to give all citizens the tools to express themselves clearly in writing when they need or want to (and who, after all, would argue against this?). Not everyone profits from such efforts, but many can (and do). Get editors and proofreaders back on the job for stuff that’s going to press. Go door to door teaching use of the apostrophe to greengrocers, if you must. But don’t make mountains out of "molehill’s".
Finally, I draw your attention to the following (you might want to clip it out as a defense if someone is trying to coax you to read the book):
"Despite all the opportunities to ‘interact’, we read material from the internet (or CD-roms [sic!], or whatever) entirely passively because all the interesting associative thinking has already been done on our behalf [she's talking about links, I believe, judging from the larger context from which I'm excerpting] . Electronic media are intrinsically ephemeral, are open to perpetual revision, and work quite strenuously against any sort of historical perception. The opposite of edited, the material on the internet is unmediated, except by the technology itself. And having no price, it has questionable value."
Wow! It's hard to know where to begin with a series of patently absurd generalizations like that. Actually, it makes me sort of regret I ever began with the book. I can't believe Truss is genuinely unaware of such things as online editors and moderators; or that she seriously thinks no one does any first-order associative thinking in his or her very own brain while using an electronic interface, or that the entire Web is devoid of any discourse that offers "historical perception" . . . or that she is really so infantile or decadent as to regard anything that is free as being of dubious value. No, I don't think she could possibly be this stupid. So why is she wasting our time with such stupid statements? Best-Seller, that's why.
The author would like to dismiss her detractors as a bunch of apathetics who tell her to "Get a life!" instead of promoting correct punctuation. Well, I’m not telling her to "Get a life!"; what I'm telling her is closer to the opposite of that. For whereas "Get a life!" implies that the subject matter which fascinates Truss is not worthy of anyone's time and energy, my opinion is that Truss's treatment fails to do a worthwhile subject justice -- not because it's brief, witty, and readable, but because it's sloppy, unfocused, and at times completely crackpot. I don't say "Get a life!"; I say that if you're going to critique, do it like a professional, not an amateur. Don't just give us a garbled stream of impressionistic truisms. Do some real research. Make some substantive comparisons. Who knows -- maybe you'll learn something worth writing about.
--guest review by Jonathan Caws-Elwitt
More Jonathan writing can be found here
If you'd like to read yet more criticism of this book -- by a much more eminent writer -- try Louis Menand's piece.
I think Menand's advantage over me is that he is smart enough to not take Truss too seriously -- perhaps in part because he picked up on how shaky her own grasp of punctuation is, which I did not. (If I had, I might not have bothered to write about her book at all.) Where I treat her book like a loud, clattering noise whose presence warrants a detailed, earnest response, he gives the impression of completely and successfully dismissing her without even really needing to lift his attention from the other article he's trying to write (which seems, through typesetter oversight, to have been printed in the same column as the one about Truss). This poise I greatly admire. I imagine Menand suave, probably cradling a glass of red wine in his hand. (I must remember to cradle red wine when next I review a book.)