Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reader's Diary #279- Lynne Truss: Eats, Shoots & Leaves (FINISHED)

Thanks in no small part to Blindness and The Road, punctuation has come up on my blog a lot lately. Funny that I'd take notice only when it's missing. Truss would not be impressed.

Likely she'd not be impressed with my blog either. I've made quite a lot of mistakes here, I'm sure. Some of these have been mere typos (I do know when to use "it's" and "its" though I may slip up from time to time) and others have been admittedly due to ignorance. If I thought she'd actually read this, I'd probably be intimidated.

But she won't, so I'm not. It's a shame too because- intimidation aside- I really enjoyed this book. In essence, I used it as a diagnostic tool. Good news: I'm going to live! I have a fine grasp on the apostrophe (and yes, "Truss's book" is fine) and my comma use -though not without issues- is acceptable.

Where I run in to my biggest problem is with the infamous comma splice. While Truss says that John Updike can get away with it, she also says that I'm not famous enough to pull it off. I know that I've written many sentences of this sort:
I'm not against messages in books, what art doesn't have something to say?
Apparently this is a crime against grammar. If I'm understanding her correctly, the comma should be either a period or a semicolon, or else I could possibly insert a word like "for" before "what". Sometimes I play it safe with the period, but sometimes I just go ahead with the splice anyway. I'm not the semicolon fan Truss thinks we should be, and I think there are some reasons to do the splice. In the sentence above, I think adding "for" seems needlessly formal. I think a period would separate the ideas too much. No doubt Truss would argue that it's the perfect time for a semicolon. But to me, the semicolon is also too formal and because of its decrease in popularity, too startling. She uses a lot of them in her book and makes a good case for them. I won't throw them out entirely, but I will use them sparingly. Sorry Truss, I'm not a convert. But I will also promise to go easy on the splices. Until I get famous.

Anyway, I'm probably boring everyone right now. But trust in Truss, she manages to keep it interesting. How? Primarily through wit, but also the unapologetic way she discusses her obsession. She is quite aware that concern for such topics probably brands her as a nerd, but doesn't give a rat's ass. She has attitude, yet isn't condescending. She seems to understand that anyone reading the book in the first place has obviously proven their concern for the written word, and therefore should be spared cracks across the knuckles. A favourite passage of mine discusses how newspaper headlines sometimes try to avoid committing themselves by adding inverted commas around a word (as in "Prison Served 'Poisoned' Milk to Inmates"). She goes to say how those of us accustomed to such tactics react when we see inverted commas in other scenarios:
The interesting thing is how this practice relates to the advertising of 'PIZZAS' in quite large supermarket chains. To those of us accustomed to newspaper headlines, 'PIZZAS' in inverted commas suggests these might be pizzas, but nobody's promising anything, and if they turn out to be cardboard with a bit of cheese on top, you can't say you weren't warned.
I did have some concerns about the book. First, I couldn't understand why Frank McCourt did the introduction. As the author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, I thought he was an interesting choice to write an intro; after all, he didn't use quotation marks for any of the dialogue. However, this was not mentioned in either his introduction, nor Truss's entire book. In fact, the connection between the two authors seemed minimal. McCourt threw out a few vacant words of praise, Truss didn't mention him at all.

Second, I'm confused more than ever over where Canadians stand. Writing primarily about British punctuation, Truss warned us when the Americans had slightly different rules. As a general rule of thumb, I thought as Canadians we spoke like Americans and wrote like British. For instance, we don't say "lorry" yet we spell "colour". Does our British-style writing extend to our punctuation?


marydell said...

For instance, we don't say "lorry" yet we spell "colour". Does our British-style writing extend to our punctuation?

It must. We Americans put our end of sentence punctuation inside quotation marks all the time, whether it makes sense or not. (e.g. We spell "color.")

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I also really enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves, yet oddly enough, found myself starting to use the comma splice only AFTER reading the book. Perhaps out of pigheadedness. As you can see, I've also taken up the art of sentence fragments, which I find very satisfying.

I actually never noticed that Frank McCourt wrote the intro, but yes that is an odd choice.

John Mutford said...

Marydell, that's assuming I did it right! Maybe as a Canadian I was supposed to put it inside as well. Though, I must say, that doesn't look right to me.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, oh yes, I'm guilty of those as well. Though, if I'm not mistaken, I think I caught a few of those in Eats, Shoots & Leaves as well. Though maybe they were used as examples. I can't find one now to illustrate my point. Oh well.

Kelly said...

I have this in my TBR pile. I write for a living and am overly obsessed with learning and knowing grammar.

raidergirl3 said...

Great review; I read the book last year and really enjoyed it.
(Ha! note excellent use of semi-colon - I think.) I would use the semicolon in your example, but, I think I use it too much.
Man, the stress of using good punctuation in a comment on punctuation.

Gentle Reader said...

Regarding the comma splice, I have trouble there, too. I used to use semicolons a bunch, but I found them too formal, too. So at least while blogging, I've started using the double dash instead (I vaguely recall that it's sometimes called an "m-dash", but I could be wrong) because it seems friendlier, somehow. I clearly need to read this book, and maybe it will set me straight!

John Mutford said...

Myutopia, If that's the case then I'd say you'd enjoy this book quite a bit.

Raidergirl3, Tell me about stress! I found it hard to write a single line of this post without going over it a dozen times.

Gentle Reader, Interesting that you and I find them too formal. Truss seems to think a major aversion to them is quite the opposite: that they perceived as too middle-class. Maybe Truss was wrong, maybe things are different on this side of the pond, or maybe you and I are freaks. Whatever the case, we're at least not alone in our ambivalence towards* the semicolon.

Coincidentally, as I was helping another teacher clean our her classroom yesterday, I came across a copy of a children's version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves which uses funny examples and equally humorous illustrations by Bonnie Timmons to show the difference a comma makes. It would make a great supplement to a classroom. Likewise, checking that book up at Chapters, I came across another Truss book aimed at children; The Girl's Like Spaghetti- a book about apostrophes(which ironically had its title edited by some ignoramus at Chapters).

*Speaking of grammar and punctuation, I've never known when it should be "toward" or "towards" as in the above example. Once again, us Canadians have no direction...

Imani said...

As a fellow commonwealther I vote for the period outside the quotation marks unless it makes sense. ;) I think Canadian English is a mixture of British and American. Your use of the period outside of the quotation mark is British but the use of double instead of single quotation marks is American. Although the British sometimes go American there as well.

I know silly things like this except when I type. All grammar knowledge escapes out the window then.

John Mutford said...

Imani, your use of the semicolon + bracket to make the smiley ";)" was a major beef of Truss's (and yes "Truss's" is right), but I wonder how she feels about such programs as WordPress and MSN Messenger that automatically replace them with smiley icons now.

Dewey said...

And now! You are so informed about grammar that you can enjoy the perks of knowledge and choose to ignore the rules.

Kelly said...

I think the use of emoticons is necessary as writing can't always convey tone. I do however hate internet speak like leek and purposeful misspellings as a way of communication.

John Mutford said...

Dewey, That's right. Knowing it's a rule makes it all the more fun to go against. That was the point I was trying to get across with The Road: McCormac most definitely understood that "didnt" should have had an apostrophe, yet I find it enjoyable that he removed it. It's not so enjoyable when people leave it out simply because they don't know any better.

MyUtopia, Truss did discuss how emoticons filled that need to convey tone. It's why she argued that people are much more likely to go crazy with CAPS, italics, and exclamation points while writing online. I'm with you on internet speak for the most part. After all this time, I still can't bring myself to say "LOL". I do, however, sometimes use the emoticons and shorthand, especially "btw".

Dale said...

I've only begun using the semicolon with any regularity in the last few years; I am no longer daunted by it. This book was very entertaining and I'm going to live too!