Thursday, May 12, 2005

Garner on Eating, Shooting and Leaving

If you let your subscription to the Texas Law Review lapse, you missed a 5,000-plus-word essay by Bryan A. Garner, the authority's authority on American English, on the phenomenon of Lynne Truss's "Eats, Shoots & Leaves."

Garner lists errors and inconsistencies from the book, pointedly addresses the missing hyphen in the subtitle's "Zero Tolerance Approach," and quotes James J. Kilpatrick, Barbara Wallraff, Patricia T. O'Conner and yours truly on our quarrels with the book. He even wonders why people love the title so much, before conceding that even his 12-year-old daughter and her friends are in love with the panda joke. Garner continues:

So I won't criticize the main title of the book. But the book itself is a different matter altogether. When people have asked me what I think of it, I've usually responded by summing up its entire message in this way: "Don't know much about punctuation, but wouldn't it be nice if people could sort out their apostrophes?"

There lies the real answer to the question: Why do the experts uniformly disparage a punctuation book that appeals so much to the popular mind? The thing is that many people think they're sticklers when they're not. And Lynne Truss happens to be one of them.
The full article is available on LexisNexis.


Eric "Babe" Morse said...

People love Lynne Truss because she's ding-dang funny. And if you're going to pick the most accessible peeve to pet, it would probably be the apostrophe. Even grade-schoolers can tell you about possessives and plurals.
OK, yes, and it's because humans like to feel superior. And this book makes average people feel they've got a leg up on the masses. The same way folks flock to Nanny 911 or Dr. Laura. "At least I'm not that bad..."

So I guess it's two things:

1. She's funny.
2. We like to feel superior.

...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.

Bill said...

Post of the week! I've somehow avoided "Nanny 911," but I know I'd be addicted pretty fast. I sure do miss Dr. Laura since she lost her D.C. slot.

The thing about Truss and humor, for me, is that Dave Barry does everything she does and more in any of his brief "Ask Mister Language Person" columns.

Amongst our weaponry ...

Stephen Jones said...

I've been unable to find the Garner article, and am completely stumped as to how to find it on Lexis Nexis. It appears I have to "contact a sales representative" (do I have to sponsor him for the visa as well?).

Anyway I have taken the opportunity to look through some of the criticisms again, and Bill's, "Why do the experts uniformly disparage a punctuation book...?" starts to appear tendentious.

First all the "experts" appear to be all American - there is no roar of disapproval from the eastern side of the Atlantic. I will come back to that later, because I believe there is a basic difference between British and American attitides.

Googling for Kilpatrick's review, I find him his usual mellow self. He calls the book 'grammar-lite", and makes three or four critical observations, two of which are unustified.

She needlessly splits an infinitive or two... She remarks in an aside that "it's impolite to tell someone they're wrong." She tends to feel "that if a person genuinely wants to know how to spell 'Connecticut,' they will look it up
English doesn't have a two-word infinitive to needlessly, or needfully, split, and "they" is considered the correct pronoun to use in the UK (as it is by Bill). But, as always, Kilpatrick redeems himself, as we will see in a minute.

Now let's look at what Wallraff has to say. First the subtitle:

What’s more, even according to the rules given in “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” itself, “zero tolerance” should be hyphenated in that subtitle.

Truss only gives ten rules for hyphens, as opposed to other websites which give any from three to fifty-odd (I am sure others must reach triple figures), and I presume the rule Walraff is referring to is this:

4. Though it is less rigorously applied than it used to be, there is a rule that when a noun phrase such as "stainless steel" is used to qualify another noun, it is hyphenated, as "stainless-steel" kitchen.
Can we really take Ms Truss to task for inconsistency in not applying a rule "less rigorously applied than it used to be", particularly when the title of the chapter is "A Little Used Punctuation Mark", which is deliberately lacking the hyphen? And is not the missing hyphen in the sub-title quite consistent with the last paragraph of that chapter, which states In the end hyphen-usage is a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier.?

Let's look at Wallraff's next comment.

The first paragraph of the first chapter (not counting the introduction) contains four punctuation oddities or mistakes, including a truly shameful comma splice.
As Wallraff doesn't cite, it's not clear which chapter she is referring to, but it appears to be the chapter called in the British edition Introduction - the seventh sense.

Three of the alleged mistakes are in a sentence that is quoted precisely because it is badly punctuated, so that leaves us with the offending comma splice.

Either this will ring bells for you, or it won't.

Now, I you could argue the comma should be replaced by a dash (and irritate Ms Truss) or a semi-colon (and irritate our host), but the point is that the commma is there to indicate a pregnant pause (which unlike a pregnant chad is a good thing).

In defense of using commas for this purpose, which is anathema to Louis Menand, I will quote the Kilpatrick article I referred to at the beginning.

"Let us think upon these things, and go in peace."
Fred Neiser of Sugar Grove, Ill., seized upon the comma in that sentence. "It is not needed," he said. "I would not have used it."
Very well. I thought that comma was needed, so I used it.
...I ask, rhetorically, what's the rush? I inserted that comma to suggest a pause for reflection. After all, it is not every day that we ponder the meaning of codger, geezer, and coot.

Kilpatrick's point of view is standard in the UK; one of the purpose of commas is to indicate a pause, to hasten the flow of the sentence by their lack, or slow it down, by their presence. If we want our sentences to step along sprightly we miss them out; but, sometimes, we may want to langorously, lovingly, lapse into a comma, nay, even, into a coma.

'Nuff for now.

Bill said...

The "disparage" quote is Garner's, not mine, and although I'm rooting for the singular "they," I don't consider it correct (did I just hear a descriptivist use that word?) at this point.

But Kilpatrick should have found a tastier fish to fry than the "they're" minnow, and I, too, cringe at his reference to the mythical split infinitive. (Great; now I'm hungry for chicken cacciatore.)

On the hyphen and the comma, "Yeah, but ..."

Yes, standards on compound-modifier hyphenation are all over the place, but there is a huge irony in the lack of said hyphen in the very part of the subtitle in which a so-called stickler announces that she has zero tolerance for declining standards.

And while I'm all for the pause comma, I strongly doubt such a pause was intended in "Either this will ring bells for you, or it won't." At least I've never heard that expression used with a pause.

aparker54 said...

I also failed for some reason on LexisNexis, but I found a PDF of the article under the title (Don't Know Much About Punctuation: Notes on a Stickler Wannabe. By: Garner, Bryan A.. Texas Law Review, Apr2005, Vol. 83 Issue 5, p1443) on Academic Search Premier.

aparker54 said...
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Stephen Jones said...

At least I've never heard that expression used with a pause.

But you have now :)

The question of style is whether the pause is a good idea or not, not whether the comma is misplaced.

The commma is only obligatory in British English in the following cases
a)lists (including lists of bare co-ordinate clauses)
b)parentheses, including non-restrictive relative clauses
c) at the end of a portion of direct speech, where a full stop or other equivalent mark will not be appropriate.

You will rarely see any of those rules broken in British English. However, in most other cases British English may appear to be anarchic - it is certainly rare to find consistency in the use of optional commas. No doubt following the strict rules Americans have learnt somewhere or other would normally improve things, but the rote placing of commas followed by Menand, and satirized by Thurber brings it own dangers.

Look at this sentence from Menand's review.
Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. ...
When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.

Why this annoying pause at the beginning of the sentence? I can accept it in the first sentence, but in the second it sounds as if Menand's taking breath before a death-defying dash across a six lane freeway.

Menand of course, does not see any relationship between sound and punctuation. That is precisely the point of the second part of the article, and precisely what Truss is talking about in her article on the comma. And because Menand views the placement of commas to be automatic, he fails to see why
the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg, who, in 1905, demanded... looks very wrong. Poor who only three letters long, stands flanked by commas on either side, like some tiny schoolkid squeezed between two burly cops.

We British don't really sprinkle our commas about that evenly, and if we could access Paul Little's "The Great Hyphenation Hoax" I am sure we would agree with every word of it and raise silent thanks that we are out of the clutches of the 'Chicago Manual of Style', but other criticisms are akin to complaining that we never use our hands to pick up the ball in football.

NB Garner appears to be right about Birk's obituary not being a particularly felicitious example of the use of commas, but to call missing out the apostrophe in master's degree a grave error, is as wrong-headed as Truss's going beserk about "two weeks time" or a full stop at the end of a rhetorical question, or request.

Menand, incidentally, appears to have access to some strange hermaneutic text on the correct use of semi-colons (perhaps he should found a cult instead of writing a newspaper column). His strictures against using them to set off items in a list have as much validity as my next door neighbour's opinion of the color of my garden gnomes, and I am sure I can find sentences where it would be quite in order to use them to set off dependent clauses.

Simon Roy Hughes said...

This is all rather old hat. I got the book for Christmas a couple of years ago, and wrote about my opinion of it before the new year.

When Louis Menand had a go at her, I ridiculed him, too.

Ms. Yardbody said...

It's sort of like the Blues Brothers phenomenon. Most true experts on the form of expression (whether it's blues music, punctuation, or displaying glass pickle-dish collections) may roll their eyes, but others celebrate the fact that the popularizer is raising the profile of something that they consider important.

(I hope that hyphen is right.)

PA said...

When I picked up this book a few days ago, I began to laugh. Gloriously, wonderfully, SOMEONE has at last dared to make grammatical nitpicking a thing of beauty.

Hilarious, but gorgeous. :)

The magic of this book lies in the sheer readability. Lynne Truss starts with a zinger or two that really hits home and continues throughout, sucking the reader along with smiles and nods.

The trick, of course, is that the reader has learned something, even if one didn't intend to take this silly book seriously.

Well done!

Even moreso when one considers that she cheerfully acknowledges that there just ain't no WAY two serious sticklers are going to agree, much less cooperate.

Those intent upon slicing and dicing need to re-read the first few pages, and allow themselves a little slack to be the sticklers that they are.


DMoore said...

I heard Truss speak at a bookstore last year, and when someone asked about the missing hyphen in the subtitle she admitted, a bit sheepishly, that the hyphen should be there but she didn't like the look of "The Zero-tolerance Approach..." on the cover. Kinda undercuts her credibility a bit, no?

DMoore said...
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I just read ESL here in Taiwan, in Chinese, where the book has been translated and published by Solution Press, a subsidiary of the Eurasian Book Book in Taipei.

The book sells for the equivalent of US$6 in Taiwan money, and it's in two parts: the first part of the book is in Mandarin, translated by Tsai Su-mei, and the second part is in English, retyped it seems, with dozens of typos, "sunds" for "sounds" for example.

But other than the slipshod English section, I loved the book, her writing, her style. Go on you, Lynne Truss.

Btw, does anyone know her email address or how I can get in touch with her in the UK? I googled but could not find her email address anywhere.

I want to ask her if she has ever heard of the term "atomic typo" and where the term comes from.

More here:

Examples of an atomic typo are: unclear or nuclear, sudan or sedan, crist or other words, a small, very small typograhic mistake, that ends up making a HUGE difference in the meaning!!!

EXAMPLE: letter to editor: [Tom Morris of Jupiter flagged an atomic typo in the May 14 article, "Crist to run Martinez's Senate campaign," about Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist and U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez. Regarding the quote, " 'We share the same values, conservative values,' Christ said," Morris noted: "It's printed Christ, C-h-r-i-s-t, instead of Crist, C-r-i-s-t. I'm sure Christ doesn't back Sen. Martinez's campaign. I think it is a mistake and should be corrected."]



My question here is WHY is an atomic typo called an ATOMIC typo? Because the typo is minute? But aren't all typos minute and that's why we call them typos? Does it have anything to do with the Atomic Age or the atomic chart?

If you have space and time and inclination one day, can you do an entire blog about this term and let's find out what others think!