Meet my newfound kindred spirit, Lynne Truss. Over the last few days, my prominent proboscis has been firmly wedged in her hilariously supercilious book. Finally, I am breathing again. On the back cover of this gorgeous lemon-tinted treatise is a joke:
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.Ms. Truss begins her punctilious tirade on page 1 (if you skip the Acknowledgements, which I did), entreating the reader,
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit.
The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
Either this will ring bells for you or it won't. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. "Come inside," it says, "for CD's, VIDEO's, DVD's, and BOOK's." If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once.and proceeds to give advice on how to embrace one's Inner Stickler: skipping gaily through menus and shop-fronts armed with a big bottle of correction fluid, a red pen, and a tin of paint with a large brush.
I myself am an unabashed over-punctuator: liberally sprinkling commas, hyphens, dashes and parentheses throughout my emails and 'blogs. And (gasp!) I have a habit of starting my sentences with a conjunction. And seriously under-capitalising, especially the poor word "i", which I will not allow to grow up. I wonder what Freud would say? I prefer the excuse that I write as I speak - forgetting to take a breath at the ends of sentences, hence needing no capital at the beginning of the next - interjecting my thoughts with after-thoughts and helplessly blonde explanations.
It's "life on the fly", which is, essentially, how we roll.
After reading chapter two, I have taken heart about my adoration of commas. Truss recounts a lovely little vignette of a humorist (Thurber) and his editor (Ross) in the 1930s (no apostrophe needed),
... in the end Thurber simply had to resign himself to Ross's way of thinking. After all, he was the boss; he signed the cheques; and of course he was a brilliant editor, who endearingly admitted once in a letter to H. L. Mencken, "We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control." And so the comma proliferated.
Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: "Why did you have a comma in the sentence, 'After dinner, the men went into the living room.'?" And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. "This particular comma," Thurber explained, "was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up." (p. 69, 70)
Ah, that really resonates with me. I'm about half way through the book and am becoming more eduKATEd with each sentence. For example, I have been persuaded to place a second "s" after the apostrophe at the end of the possessive of proper names ending in "s", as in Truss's, right there. Traditionally, I have left the apostrophe dangling in mid-air. Such pedantry is perhaps enough to make one's eyes glaze over. Wait till I get going. Where was I? (guess the movie line)
There is just one final thing holding us back, then. It is that every man is his own stickler. And while I am very much in favour of forming an army of well-informed vigilantes, I can foresee problems getting everyone to pull in the same direction. There will be those, for example, who insist that the Oxford comma is an abomination (the second comma in "ham, eggs, and chips"), whereas others are unmoved by the Oxford comma but incensed by the trend towards under-hyphenation - which the Oxford comma people have possibly never even noticed. Yes, as Evelyn Waugh wrote: "Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbaric or pedantic." Or, as Kingsley Amis put it less delicately in his book The King's English (1997), the world of grammar is divided into "berks and wankers" - berks being those who are outrageously slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise. (p. 30, 31)
It's enough to make one hesitant about blogging. Right then, book aside, I'm off to watch My Fair Lady (tonight's movie of choice) with the kiwi-kiddos, all of us giggling at Eliza's outrageous pronunciation of English vowels, and singing along with Professor Higgins as he explains:
The French never care what they do, actually,
as long as they pronounce it properly.
Arabians learn Arabian
with the speed of summer lightning.
And Hebrews learn it backwards,
which is absolutely frightening.
But use proper English -
you're regarded as a freak.
Uh yeah, we're fans of Shakespeare and the Von Trapp family too.
And so I say, with correction fluid firmly within my grasp:
Whether we call ourselves a commaphobe or a commaphiliac - let's punctuate! (yep, it's another quiz, lol)