All Right Here?

Having recently moved from the UK to South East Asia, a lot of people have asked me: "So, what's it like, then?" This is my attempt to answer that question.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Eat's, Shoot's and Leave's

I went to see a talk by Lynne Truss the other week. She wrote “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, a best-seller about punctuation. She argues that punctuation standards in English are slipping. I don’t agree, which you might think is surprising considering that I teach English. People have always had difficulty with punctuation. And standards are changing rather than slipping.

Calling herself a "stickler", it makes her angry to see errors in punctuation. She writes about her desire to wander around with a paintbrush painting in apostrophes on incorrectly punctuated shop signs. I’ve read most of her book, and found its tone hectoring and disagreeable. Her talk was also hectoring and disagreeable. She created an environment in which those who attended her talk were the educated and enlightened minority, and we could all have a good laugh at those silly people who get it wrong. She offered no solutions for the “problem”.

She admitted that part of the “problem” of incorrect usage is that the rules have changed recently. Recently? The rules are ever-changing. You only have to read a 19th century novel to see that. Anyway, she gave this example: where it was once correct to apostrophise “MP’s”, it is now correct not to: “MPs”. Where it was once “1980’s”, it is now “1980s”. As an aside, she added that they still apostrophise in America.

Cue patronising laughter at all Americans.

Her closing gag was about a taxi driver in London. He’d asked her where she was going. She replied that she was on her way to give a talk about punctuation. He replied:

“I’d better make sure you’re not late, then.”

Cue patronising laughter at taxi drivers.

In her book she asserts:

“If I did not believe that everyone is capable of understanding where an apostrophe goes, I would not be writing this book.”

Later on, she cites the Oxford Companion to English Literature:

“There never was a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were clear cut and known, understood and followed by most educated people.”

So, if not even “educated” people get it, what hope do Americans and taxi drivers have?

She asserts that incorrect punctuation renders some texts difficult to understand:

“The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”

Utter nonsense. She cites an example of a florist’s sign which reads:

“Pansy’s ready”.

She follows this with the comment:

“Pansy’s ready for what?”

She’s ignoring the context from which the example came. Surely, as readers standing outside a florist, we’re intelligent enough to work out that “pansy” denotes flower rather than person? Her argument implies that readers are unable to work out the most obvious meanings for themselves. We are not thick. We do it in conversation all the time. Homonyms, for instance, are words which have the same spelling but more than one meaning. Take the word “bank”. We don’t need a punctuation mark to show us the meaning of: “Let’s go to the bank” because we use the context of the utterance to interpret it. If we’re on the high street, we assume “bank” means place that dispenses money. If we’re by a river, we assume “bank” means edge of the river.

But to expect a florist to spend their time carefully considering their use of the possessive apostrophe when making a sign for their pansies is ludicrous. As if they don’t have more important things to think about. Truss is a writer and a broadcaster, so she should get punctuation right. But I’d much rather have a florist who was an expert in flowers than a florist who was an expert in punctuation. Of course, I’m sure that many are both.

The thing that annoys me most is that for all the bluster and “wit” of her book, it offers no solution to the “problem”. It doesn’t tell anyone how to understand where they’re going wrong. Sure, it gives examples of correct and incorrect usage, but, believe me, just giving examples of how “stupid” some people are isn’t going to solve the “problem”. I’d like Truss to go into a school and see how hard it is for some children to understand the “rules”. It’s complicated, and many of the “rules” are flexible. Even writers of grammar books can’t agree on the rule of the pluralisation of possessives (is it Truss’ book or Truss’s book?). She admits herself that she needed a “host of proof readers” to save her any embarrassment. So it can’t be that easy, can it?

Truss also argues against emoticons. I don’t like them either. But for someone in their fifties to say that emoticons are "desperate" is like the argument against Elvis’ swivelling hips in the 50s. That argument just looks stupid now. Elvis isn’t daring anymore. He’s establishment. How can anyone have ever found that vulgar? So, language changes, and traditionalists are scared of change, maybe because it is in the hands of the people who use language in new ways and in new media. In the case of emoticons, young people have invented a new way of communicating their feelings. I prefer not to use emoticons because I think they’re daft and childish. But I can see that they’re also a useful addition to the language of the text message, the email or the instant message. They’re quick and to the point. Words on a screen don’t convey sarcasm or irony particularly well. I’ve sent many joking messages to people, only for them to think I’ve been serious. If only I didn’t find emoticons daft and childish, I might not get into so much trouble – I could have sent a (-; - or whatever it is.

Emoticons, which started as keyboard strokes, are now automatically created on my mobile phone. When I want to include an ellipsis (…) my phone automatically turns it into a (-:. You can download emoticons. She says they’re “desperate”. They’re not. They’re established.

She’s too late. So much so that, in a few generations time, it wouldn’t surprise me if some 50-something traditionalist writes a piece about the sad demise of the emoticon and how standards have slipped…

It doesn’t matter what Truss says, or what she thinks. Language will continue to change. She’s like King Canute trying to stop the tide coming in. Embrace it or choose not to use it, but, if you try to stop it, you’ll end up drowning.

I’m not saying that punctuation isn’t important, or shouldn’t be taught. As an English teacher, I find it extremely difficult to read a student’s work which has no full stops (periods). What Truss fails to understand is that it’s easy to show people’s mistakes, but it’s far harder to make someone understand why they’re making them. Try now to put into words where a full stop goes in a sentence.

You probably found yourself saying something like: “It’s where you take a breath.” So how do you explain where to put a comma, then? Maybe you found yourself saying something like: “It’s where you move on to a new topic”. Surely that’s the start of a new paragraph?

In order to really teach where full stops go, you need to go into clauses and subject-verb relationships – you know, get technical. As you can imagine, some students get it. Some of them say they get it when they don’t. Some of them don’t get it at all and make no effort to. Most of them aren’t interested. And a full stop is probably the easiest punctuation mark of all. And English is also about being creative.

And if you think that everyone in a class of 30 or more is capable of understanding the possessive apostrophe, when there’s only one teacher, and you only have an hour, and you have other things to study, and a lot of them already know that they won’t need this knowledge later on in life, you need trussing up.

Surely no one's interested in punctuation anyway. It's a very dull subject. I bet no one bothers to read this far.


  • At 1:32 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Here, hear.

    Lawn Greengrass.

  • At 2:10 am, Blogger SwissToni said…

    Funny you should mention this. My younger brother is getting married in January, and when I got home through the door last night, the wedding invitation had arrived. Inside the invitation, as well as the little card telling me to go to John Lewis and buy them stuff, was a little slip of paper from the best man inviting me to the stag do. Rather unusually, this is on the day before the wedding, and will involve all the usual nonsense (paintballing, go-carting, excessive drinking...)

    Anyway - my point. My point is that I was amused by the haphazard nature of the best man's capitalisation. The whole thing was called a 'Gentleman's day' (or something), with the "G" being capitalised, and the "d" not being. He was also the 'Best man', again capital "B" and small "m". It got me musing about the whole thing with punctuation, apostrophes, capitalisation and all that. People are so scared of getting it wrong, they put it in all over the place. Either that or they're just stupid, and I'm superior in every way.

    Of course saying that makes me doomed to have put in a typo somewhere....

    You are so right about the evolution of language though. I was always tickled by Bill Bryson's observation that the Americans were more linguistically conservative than the English; that they aren't spelling "color" wrong, they're just spelling it the way that the english did in the 18th Century.


    A quick question on text messaging as well. I am currently mentoring a child in a school on some sort of "ambassadors" program they are doing at work that tries to give kids contact with real people in real jobs (er... and me). We were warned that although the set 1 kids would be bright and often prolific, people in the other sets would be less so, and would often only be able to communicate in the language of the text message, as it is all they know. Is this your experience as a teacher?

    And I read all the way down the post, by the way.


  • At 2:39 am, Blogger Jewels said…

    I truly enjoyed your post. I'm sure I'm going to make a few mistakes in my post, despite my best effort to catch them before I hit the send button. My mother was a high school english teacher when I was 9. I can't recall if she only taught it just that year, or if she taught it for a few years. At that age, I simply wasn't too concerned with what my mother did for a living. At any rate, living with someone who knows alot about spelling, punctuation, and grammar tends to make you somewhat of an expert by proxy. I can pick up newspapers and magazines and tell when the editor wasn't paying any attention. I still chuckle slightly when I see the boxes of Healthy Choice dinners in the freezer section of the grocery store, knowing full well that food isn't healthy, it's healthful. I annoy my husband all the time when I read over something he's written and tell him to put a comma there, and that he can't use the word he did in that context. I can admit that I'm not nearly as anal about it as my mom is. I chat quite a bit, and have become rather fluent in typoese. Most of the time I try not to correct spelling mistakes unless there's humor to be found in it. Having said all that, I can see where you're coming from about how it's hard to teach the rules and the exceptions to the rules. I almost think one has to have the ability to be logical and creative at the same time to really get the rules. I like to think I've learned them all, but I'm sure the rules have changed alot in recent years, and I'm just too lazy to really care about trying to learn them. As you can tell by the fact that I have yet to make a paragraph break, I don't always follow the rules. I guess I consider it important to follow the rules at certain times, and feel the rules can be ignored at others. For example, if I were writing an article for a newspaper, I would triple check my work to make sure I've spelled everything correctly, and make sure I didn't miss any punctuation. However, if I'm making a post on my blog, or making a comment on somebody else's blog, following the rules isn't a priority. I'm sure the florist had more pressing matters to attend to than making sure her punctuation was right. I applaud you at taking on such a difficult role as an english teacher. In this day and age, I can't imagine it's easy. Too many children want to speak lazy english, and don't see learning to speak, spell and use proper english as being very valuable. I'm glad I exploded to your blog, and I've added you to my blogmarks. Take care.

  • At 2:49 am, Blogger Mike said…

    Hi Tim - thanks for the massive comment! Deserves a massive reply!

    Firstly, when my bro got married there was a typo on the order of service - it said "signing the regisers" instead of "signing the registers". I mentioned this in the Best Man (or Best man, if you will) speech and, of course, no one laughed except my brother because no one else had noticed. No one likes, or even notices, a stickler!

    Second - most kids know more than text message language. Verbally, at least, these kids will be able to communicate fine, unless they have linguistic learning difficulties.

    Written language is a construct, though, whereas spoken language is innate. This is part of the reason why I find Truss' (or Truss's) arguments about punctuation so ridiculous. How can anyone define hard and fast rules for something that is only a human construction anyway? Fashion and taste are bound to change it. This is why "thou" has crept out of the language - from being the only word to denote "you", it became a bit like the French "vous", denoting lower status, whereas "you" was used to denote higher status. And now it's gone completely, apart from in archaic usage.

    Anyway, as I say, every kid that I've taught has been able to communicate (in writing, and verbally, unless they've had specific language acquisition difficulties) in more than text message language, although more and more "u" is creeping in to replace "you" and "-in" is being used as a suffix instead of "-ing".

    If this means "you" and "-ing" eventually goes the same way as "thou" then who cares? As long as we understand each other. Although, no doubt, Truss will still be tossing her orb about.

    I guess the kids that struggle to communicate in anything other than text language will actually also struggle to communicate in that. But their difficulties probably stemmed from the formative years of language acquisition - the first 7 years.

    Enough for now - I feel a whole 'nother post coming on!

    Anyway, thanks for reading the whole entry! Anyone who's not checked Swiss' (or Swiss's) site out yet, give it a little look.

  • At 3:01 am, Blogger Mike said…

    Thanks Julia! Another mammoth comment! Perhaps I should write about language more often... I don't know about much else...

    The problem with written language is exactly as you describe it - people don't stay up to date. When I was at school, the fashion was to start a formal letter with "Dear Sir or Madam" rather than "Dear Sir/Madam". You then had to indent on the next line. I was pulled up for teaching this during my teaching degree. Not because I was wrong, but because the fashion had changed. In all honesty, what does it matter?

    And, you're absolutely right about the context - when I write an entry on my blog, I'm very careful to check my punctuation and wording carefully. When I comment on someone else's, I'm less meticulous. This is because my purpose of writing is different - I want to get things right on my own blog because it's mine, and I know how to do it, so should do it right - on other people's blogs, I may just want to post a throwaway comment, and a throwaway comment is, by definition, kind of casual.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  • At 5:34 am, Blogger Cat said…

    Hi Mike. Found you through a comment you made on Pewari's Prattle about parenting and redistribution of wealth. I wholeheartedly agree!

    Anyway, to the question at point. I apoligise in advance; when typing in comment boxes my grammar and punctuation is horrendous, although at all other times I make an effort to be 'correct'.

    I read all of your post by the way. (I was tempted to type btw but didn't think it would go down too well ;) - couldn't resist that one either)

    I work in a bookshop and was astonished at the rate at which Truss' book sold last year, and indeed into this year: it is still a top seller. It certainly was a 'word-of-mouth' hit. I think it, in part, had a lot to do with people seriously thinking they were somewhat superior if they bought a book on punctuation gaffs, and actually 'got it'. Whilst I question the integrity of all the 'jump-on-the-bandwagoners' publishing spoof books at the moment, I think the publication of "Eats, Shites and Leaves", from its presence alone, highlights what many of us think of Truss' book.

    Thank you for letting me comment.


  • At 5:07 pm, Blogger Lord Bargain said…

    all this "standards are slipping" nonsense. When it was important to be able to add up, or spell, or use a correct apostrophe, then it was worth learning.

    In the 21st century, however, we have computers that can do it. So rather than complaining that standards are slipping, why not teach the kids how to use the PC to check their maths. Or spelling.

    I never put apostrophes (does that have an apostrophe in? "apostrophes"?) in anything and let my spell checker change it if it likes. Although I dont think anyone is thick enough to realise that "dont" means the same as "don't".

    What I really like about your post is your refreshing ability to take the controversial position rather than jumping on the bandwagon of patronising supposedly "thick" people.

    hear hear.

  • At 5:54 pm, Blogger Bee said…

    All very true.

    Two things I would like to add:

    1. Spelling and punctuation are in a constant state of flux. Five hundred years ago there were no such things as exclamation marks or question marks. Three hundred years ago people doubled letters ("itt" instead of "it", for example) and threw extra E's on the ends of words whenever they felt like it. People now say, "Oh, nobody knew how to spell properly in those days." That's not true: it's just that they didn't have the same hard and fast rules of spelling and punctuation that we do now.

    2. Katherine Mansfield, who incidentally is one of my favourite writers, hardly ever used punctuation in her personal correspondence. Her letters are full of dont instead of don't, and hes instead of he's, and dashes instead of commas and semi-colons, and they read just fine. The editors of her letters published them just as they were, because they give a much better indication of the woman's personality than they would if they'd been edited to within an inch of their life and had apostrophes and commas inserted. Virago also published the original draft of her story "The Aloe" and printed it all exactly as she wrote it in 1915, for the same reason. And it works.

    People who get all picky and pedantic about punctuation annoy the heck out of me. Idiot's.

  • At 5:55 pm, Blogger Diana Gallagher said…

    I was only just thinking about punctuaion this afternoon on my drive home.
    I too read the whole post.
    I've always had trouble with spelling and punctuation. But the real trouble for me is that I know I make mistakes and care that I do. If only I was just a little more ignorant I wouldn't have to worry!

  • At 7:24 pm, Blogger B1RDIE Num Num said…

    I was going to buy the book, but now I've read your view of it, I'll pass.

    I've always been interested in such things, and bought copies of the AP Style Guide and Economist Style Guide just to see how different they'd be. (am trying to put in loads of apostrophes too)

    It is always easier to spot a problem, and ridicule it, than to try to fix it. The fact that you are an English teacher, puts you one step ahead of that woman, who is merely profiting from the sales of her viewpoint - most likley to people who share it in the first place.

    You, on the other hand, are in a position to mould and shape viewpoints in your students - who look to you (well theoretically anyway, in reality they probably think you eat snails or something) to give them guidance and advice on how to read, speak and write correctly.

    She should have been called up in her seminar, with a quesion along the lines of "I see that you feel passionately about this incorret use of punctuation. So much so that you wrote about it and conduct seminars to your fans about it. Do you agree? In which case, will you be giving away copies of your books to school teachers, and donating money to the School trusts to ensure this is rectified?"

    Probably not...

    As for changes - I read in the economist that France is having trouble enforcing the French language with as much gusto as they used to. And it won't be long (and I believe this) until English is actually Microsoft Word English - not Oxford/Cambridge based.

  • At 11:29 pm, Blogger phrainck said…

    I try to keep my punctuation correct, but when faced with folks who don't care, I find myself giving up the cause. It's kind of like speaking out against how stupid "American Idol" is. I guess ignorance truly is bliss.

  • At 11:39 pm, Blogger CAD Monkey said…

    I was considering purchasing the book "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves;" but if the author is just a snot, I don't think I need to.

    I don't have the answer to "how to fix the mistakes," but I know it just annoys me to no end when I see the misuse of "it's" and "its"- and "it's" everywhere!

    On a florist's sign, loose usage of grammar and punctuation are fine. When I see grammatical or spelling mistakes (like the ones I'm probably making while on my ranting soapbox) in professional publications, however, it completely distracts me from the reading material.

    Thanks for an informative, intelligent post- it has inspired a future post of my own!

  • At 3:54 pm, Blogger Jonny said…


  • At 6:42 pm, Blogger Grillo said…

    Everyone seems to have covered what I wished to add, so I'll be brief: Nice post. You eviscerated Truss's stance quite well, and it's a shame really that you didn't review the book for a magazine or newspaper when it was released. Every review I read was more or less glowing with praise.

  • At 6:57 pm, Blogger Mike said…

    I'm glad I managed to stop a couple of people from buying it.

    Thanks for all the great comments. I wrote most of the post weeks ago and the talk was in September. I didn't post it earlier because I didn't think anyone would be interested... thanks again.


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