Friday, 29 June 2007

Punctuation pundits (part 2)

My wife went to a lecture yesterday by Professor David Crystal. He remarked that he had been prompted to write his latest book, The Fight for English, partly in reply to the hype around Lynn Truss's book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Having spent much of his distinguished career explaining how English has grown and developed into the range of varieties it exhibits today, and being delighted at watching the way technology was clearly continuing to change the way we use English, what upset him about Truss's book was its subtitle, which used the words "zero tolerance". Crystal pointed out that the conventions about apostrophe use - don't use them for plurals, do use them for possessive case, except for the possessive case of personal pronouns - was one of the most recently introduced punctuation rules. Parts of Dr. Johnson's dictionary don't follow what we regard as standard practice.

I enjoyed reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves, as entertainment. I took it no more seriously than Richard Lederer's entertaining series of books on the English language. (Steven Pinker, for example, has criticised Lederer, and others like him, calling them "language-mavens". Pinker says that the way these sorts of writers ignore the fact that language is a biological phenomenon is like criticising dolphins for not swimming properly.)

I was surprised, and a little disturbed, when I heard that people were treating Eats, Shoots & Leaves as an authoritative manual of style. I can't blame Ms. Truss for taking advantage of the enthusiastic reception her book received, or for other people jumping on the bandwagon. But scholarly reference it ain't.

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