Mighty Red Pen

March 10, 2008

Sticklers unite?

Filed under: Lit review — mighty red pen @ 8:14 pm
Tags: , ,

Breaking news: MRP is no longer the only word nerd on the planet that hasn’t read Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

In a nutshell, here’s my review: OMG! Right on! Seriously?! and back to OMG!

Okay, here’s the deal. On the one hand, Truss seems totally reasonable:

The descriptive sort of linguist tends to observe change in the language, note it, analyze it, and manage not to wake up screaming every night. . . . Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, severely prescriptive grammarians would argue that, since they were taught at school in 1943 that you must never start a sentence with “And” or “But,” the modern world is benighted by ignorance and folly, and most of modern literature should be burned.

Somewhere between these staunch positions is where I want us to end up: staunch because we understand the advantages of being staunch; flexible because we understand the rational and historical necessity to be flexible.

And then on the other hand, she seems like a stark raving punctuation banshee who needs a time out from her red pen:

No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best,” you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.

It’s a fairly quick, interesting, and informative read, well-written and with a dry sense of humor I could appreciate. But when I got to the bits where the comma crazy let loose, I found myself wanting to grab Truss and say, “You must chill!” No wonder people seem to find word nerds so scary sometimes.

So if you’re now the last word nerd on the planet to have read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, have a go at it. You’ll learn a lot about punctuation. But “sticklers unite”? Eh, not so much.

8 Comments »

  1. “Punctuation banshee” — I like that phrase. I also like Truss’s violent fantasies; they were the best thing about the book. She’s definitely as mad as a bag of cats.

    Comment by Gez — March 11, 2008 @ 7:37 am | Reply

  2. I think the best thing about ES&L is that it showed there is an incredible interest in language use among the general population… that book sold by the bucketload here in the UK. I wonder how many of the readers fell into the ‘stark raving punctuation banshee’ category themselves?

    Comment by JD — March 11, 2008 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  3. Yes, but . . . don’t you think she kind of gives word nerds a bad name? For example: “For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement. . . . Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.”

    I mean, obviously I care about punctuation but I don’t think it rises to that kind of a level. It seems a tad, um, extreme. And also makes us sound like a bunch of vigilante vandal kooks.

    Comment by mightyredpen — March 11, 2008 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

  4. That’s exactly the problem I had with this book as well: her irrational anger. That plus her strange view that “proper punctuation is the cause of clear thinking”, her belief that text messaging will destroy the language, and her lack of evidence to back all this up.

    Comment by goofy — March 12, 2008 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

  5. I confess. I have a copy. Never read it. At least I think I had one… if I don’t have it anymore, I will go buy a new copy. I have a 25% coupon for Borders.

    Here I go.

    Comment by Kasey — March 13, 2008 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  6. […] the rage-driven prescriptivism vigilantes favored by Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Jeff and Benjamin are humorous and insightful […]

    Pingback by Have typo? Will travel. « Mighty Red Pen — March 29, 2008 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  7. […] to become, he wrote a comment to the Smithsonian, pointing out their error (oh, how he would make Lynne Truss proud). And they wrote back, acknowledging the error. According to the article, “The solution […]

    Pingback by Never too early to get started « Mighty Red Pen — April 3, 2008 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

  8. There’s something unbearably irksome about this writer’s righteous indignation over the mis-use of the apostrophe. I don’t believe it does make her THAT angry for one minute; her clumsy rants are more about showing how clever Lynne Truss is. I’m as concerned about falling standards of punctuation as she is. But I hate this book with a passion, and have from the moment it was first published. It’s no ‘Tipping Point’, that’s for sure.

    Comment by Sligunner — September 28, 2008 @ 2:06 pm | Reply


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