A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Thanks to Jeremy Paxman’s controversial comments about the apostrophe, this piece has suddenly become rather topical. Is the death of that cute little punctuation mark in sight? Will kids be spelling “through” as “thru” in their GCSEs. Will L8R become standard English?
Let me apologise in advance for the numbers of “argh”s and general expostulations of annoyance that will take place during the following soapbox. In fact, excuse me for just a moment whilst I get something off my chest:
It’s all that Lynne Truss’s fault (or is that “Truss’ fault”?) with her runaway best-selling bible for punctuation pedants with far too much time on their hands: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
Just the title is enough to shoot my blood pressure up. That horrible phrase “Zero Tolerance” (which many have pointed out should strictly speaking have a hyphen) with its implication of three misuses of the apostrophe and it’s the electric chair for you.
The title comes from a joke about a panda, which comes into a restaurant, orders a sandwich, fires off a gun and heads for the exit. Asked why he has engaged in such unusual behaviour, he flings a copy of a badly-punctuated wildlife manual over his shoulder. And, sure enough, under the entry for Panda it says, “Eats, shoots and leaves”. Ho ho ho. (Make sure you note that comma there.)
Alright, it’s a joke about punctuation. And quite a good joke. But far from illustrating Truss’s argument, it underlines the fallacy. The idea that a misplaced comma can turn a description of the eating habits of a peaceable herbivore (“eats shoots and leaves”) into a murderous action by a gun-toting bear (“eats, shoots and leaves”) is just plain wrong!
Look, it’s really quite simple: if it is listed in an encyclopaedia under “Panda” – it’s dietary requirements. If it’s included in some wild piece of flash fiction about psychopathic bears (or in a humourous book about how punctuation is going to the dogs)…it’s the gun-toting panda. Got it?
Ok, ok, so Lynne Truss may be technically correct and actually right and all those other inconvenient things. But that’s not the point. The point is…The point is that, contrary to what the grammar freaks would have you believe, society is not about to be brought to its collective knees by the misplacement of a comma. A comma, out of place, is not the destroyer of civilisation as we know it. IT’S A TYPO.
You see this is what annoys me so much about grammar freaks. They act as if language is rendered completely incomprehensible by the odd misplaced apostrophe or semi-colon. But the things they get their knickers in a twist about are very rarely anything to do with actual meaning.
B: I refuse to see your very good and detailed argument. But instead will now dwell on the fact that you said “which” rather than “that” 3 posts ago.
B: La la la. I’m not listening. And you missed an apostrophe 7 lines back. How can I listen to a very good and detailed argument from someone who can’t use an apostrophe?
Of course, these internet-savvy grammar freaks should really be classed as a subset of the grammar freak species as a whole. Traditional grammar freaks tend to decry the whole invention of the internet in the first place. Indeed, they usually blame it for the whole, rotten, poorly-punctuated edifice we call “modern life”. They certainly wouldn’t be contributing to internet forums; they are too busy sharpening their quills to fire off letters to Feedback about the pronunciation of “controversy” on Radio 4. Or complaining about dropped consonants and textspeak and the lack of the Queen’s English in schools, whilst looking back fondly to that Golden Age before Star Trek decided to boldly split the infinitive where no man had split it before.
This group are less fussed about meaning and communication than fetishising a load of rules they rote-learnt at school. As if those rules are even consistent or made any sense in the first place. As if the majority of these rules aren’t just plain ANNOYING. Take the following examples:
Surely there is NOTHING as annoying in the whole of the English language as the whole debacle that is “it’s” versus “its”. It is almost as though it was specifically invented to plague proofreaders. Undetectable by spell-checkers, small enough to escape the naked eye, ubiquitous enough to easily trip off those typing fingers in an unguarded moment. What a stupid bloody rule. Why should it be “his”, “hers”, then “its”? Alright, you say, there’s a certain consistency about that. Well, why isn’t there another word for “its” like “tis” or “ters”? And what about “one’s”? (Ha! Got you there!) And why is MY stuff always riddled with the pesky little things.
There are numerous long-winded and wildly differing explanations on writing forums all over the internet attempting to explain this rule. So I say – if it’s so blooming complicated and no one really knows – why bother? Does anyone really care? The only reason this rule seems to exist in the first place is to sort out the grammar wheat from the grammar chaff. Bin it, I say.
3. Do not split Infinitives
If there’s ever been a totally pointless rule, this is it. We aren’t Romans. We don’t speak Latin. So, what’s the problem? Why do I have to go somewhere? Why can’t I have to “urgently” go somewhere? Much more exciting – even I suddenly want to know what I’m up to.
I love this idea. As though the world used to be some sort of punctuation paradise where commas roamed free without fear of misuse, flocks of well-enunciated consonants “tut-tutted” overhead, and herds of full-stops just sort of stood around not doing very much.
I don’t know what it is about Literary Quizzes that manage to so comprehensively ram themselves up my nostrils. I managed to watch about 5 minutes of Never Mind the Full-Stops before imminent suffocation by nasal obstruction threatened and I was forced to stop. Oscar winning script-writer (and Tory party speech-writer) Julian Fellowes plus panel discuss important matters such as whether “ize” is an “incorrect” Americanisation, or whether “St James” should be possessive in relation to parks.
“Having to endure this pompous, anal, oh-so-middle-class excuse for entertainment every week should be outlawed as a cruel and unusual punishment under the Geneva Convention. It’s akin to being stuck in a lift with Lynne Truss while repeats of “Quote, Unquote” are forcibly piped through its speaker system. Please Mr Controller of BBC Four, make it stop!”
But there’s more. We seem to be being besieged by a plethora of literary quizzes at the moment – there’s Kirsty Wark quizzing literary contestants on BBC Four’s The Book Quiz, Sebastian Faulkes “pistaching” JK Rowling on Radio Four. But all of these pale into insignificance next to my old favourite, Quote, Unquote.
What is it about Quote Unquote that has me frothing at the mouth and hurtling towards the off button like a rabid hedgehog? Is it just the smug voices, the annoying way the quotes are delivered: all portentous pauses and oh-so-over-egged-significance for the significant ones (if there’s one thing Quote UnQuote isn’t about, it’s challenging preconceptions) and oh-so-over-egged-wryness for the “witty” ones? Is it the uproarious laughter, quite out of proportion to any of the funnies on offer, signaling an audience desperate to show they know what the panelists are on about? (As a friend of mine once said “I may not have read the right books. But at least I know what the right books are.”)
With its puns, double meanings, ambiguities, rudeness and just plain silliness – Clue celebrates everything that is glorious about the English language better than any literary quiz…by having fun. It revels in what is wonderful about language, its colour and creativity – not the nit-picky boring bits.
After all, isn’t that what is so great about English, that it’s just plain nuts? Moulded from so many other languages, full of idiosyncrasies and special cases – nobody can be expected to remember them all. And how boring would it be if they did? We wouldn’t have sites like these.
Please let us know your grammar loves and hates in the comments. Do rogue apostrophes set your teeth on edge? Do you lie awake at night thinking about “its” versus “it’s”? Feel free to pitch in here and have your say. And if you find any mistakes in this piece – which there will be – tough! It’s a blog, ok? The enemy, remember?
More Thursday Soapboxes from the foxes and their guests here.