A stickler for grammar publishes a book documenting her passion and finds a vast audience of like-minded souls. Who woulda thunk? Sticklers unite!
By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published May 2, 2004
[Times illustration: Teresanne Cossetta]
Here's a test:
You walk into a shopping mall and see a boulder upon which is carved a quote from Euripides: "Judge a tree from it's fruit."
Do you (a) recoil from that brutal abuse of the apostrophe or (b) wonder for a nanosecond who this Euripides dude is and make a beeline for the Cinnabon booth?
If you're only there for the buns, you are legion, and you can stop reading now. If a misplaced punctuation mark makes your teeth grind and your blood pressure rise, you are a stickler, and you can take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.
In November, British journalist and career stickler Lynne Truss published Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham Books), a witty jeremiad about the history, use and abuse of commas, semicolons and all the other gadgets used to keep sentences in order.
Truss hosted Cutting a Dash, a popular BBC radio series about punctuation, so she and her British publisher expected the book to sell modestly well.
Instead, it became a phenomenon worthy of an exclamation point: It sold more than 700,000 copies and became a No. 1 bestseller, outpacing the latest John Grisham novel!
That was surprising enough in Britain. Even though to Americans anyone with a British accent sounds excruciatingly well-educated, Truss calls standards of punctuation in her country abysmal.
Now the book is on its way to similar success in the United States, garnering coverage all over the media. The U.S. edition, published in April, was No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list last week and earlier this week ranked No. 2 on Amazon.com.
This is nothing short of amazing in a nation where retailer Lands' End thinks its punctuation makes sense and signs direct us to the womens restroom.
The 21st century brought a sort of perfect storm of forces that batter standards of punctuation, as well as spelling and grammar. As Truss points out, people expected technology to free them from the need to write well. But the Internet, e-mail and text messaging are all about the written word. We read and write more than ever.
The problem, Truss writes, is that "what we do now, with this medium of instant delivery, isn't writing, and doesn't even qualify as typing either: it's just sending. . . . Receiving, sending and arithmetic - we can say goodbye to the three R's, clearly."
Even before the Internet, language skills had taken a beating. Back in the day, punctuation, spelling and grammar were rigorously taught by means of sentence diagrams and relentless drills. I still remember the nun who made my whole class write "receive" 500 times because half of us misspelled it on a quiz.
I haven't misspelled it since. I have to confess to my own severe stickler tendencies. I earned two degrees in English and spent more than a decade teaching it in universities.
You would think that was a perfect job for a stickler, but alas. Starting in the 1970s, educational theories began to change. I saw the handwriting on the wall years ago while teaching at a local university that shall go unnamed (but it has minarets).
At a meeting at the beginning of the academic year, an earnest administrator told the English faculty not to use red ink to mark errors in students' papers for fear of bruising the writers' self-esteem. A cheerful green might be nice, the administrator suggested, or perky turquoise.
My inner stickler wondered how students would feel about a lavender F.
As Truss points out in her introductory chapter, sticklers' efforts are not warmly received by those who do not stickle: "When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to "get a life' by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves. Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions. Being burned as a witch is not safely enough off the agenda."
Truss has overcome that timidity with a vengeance. In Eats, Shoots and Leaves, she writes of being horrified at the sight of a movie poster for the romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice.
Not content to adopt the tactics of the Apostrophe Protection Society, which sends courteous letters and posts examples of apostrophe abuse on its Web site (www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk) she mounted an apostrophe on a stick and stood before a movie poster in London, correcting the title to Two Weeks' Notice in a stickler's punctuation protest.
That wacky sense of humor is what has made such an unlikely hit of a book about what most people consider a tedious subject.
As Truss points out, punctuation was not devised as a system of torture. Its purpose is to make communication easier; it's "a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling."
Punctuation is important because it controls and sometimes changes meaning. Truss offers plenty of illustrations, including this classic example:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves is not a typical style handbook, although Truss does offer clear explanations of the rules of punctuation. She also takes readers through a fascinating short course in the history of punctuation, highlighted by her hero, Aldus Manutius the Elder, "one fabulous Venetian printer."
"I will happily admit I hadn't heard of him until about a year ago," she writes, "but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies."
The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries created a need for a standardized system of punctuation, and Manutius not only invented italic type, Truss writes, but printed "the actual first semicolon (and believe me, this is exciting)."
Truss isn't bogged down in the past, though. She also theorizes about the future of punctuation in the face of text messaging's abbreviations, e-mail's emoticons and what she calls Netspeak.
And she's pretty cheerful about it. "My point is that while massive change from the printed word to the bloody electronic signal is inevitably upon us, we diehard punctuation-lovers are perhaps not as rigid as we think we are."
The success of her book might be a sign of a renaissance for the rules of writing. There are rays of hope elsewhere as well: The College Board has retooled the SAT so that, beginning next year, students will answer multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage. Judging by the sample questions at www.collegeboard.com they're not kidding around.
As for why the test was retooled, the Web site says, "The SAT assesses student reasoning based on knowledge and skills developed by the student in school course work. The new SAT will improve the alignment of the test with current curriculum and institutional practices in high school and college."
Could that mean high schools have returned to teaching grammar? It's pretty to think so, but a stickler's darker suspicion is that it may mean the colleges were so distressed at students' writing skills that they demanded the changes. Either way, it should warm sticklers' hearts that someone cares.
Truss writes in her preface that Eats, Shoots and Leaves has brought out a bigger audience than she had hoped for - and that has been a somewhat mixed blessing. "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."
But even as they pick, her readers revel in that very opportunity for debate. One review submitted to Amazon.com sums up the stickler soul: "This was a great book, but I'm not going to write too much in this review. I'm too worried about my punctuation."