makes a difference
How has a book on punctuation become a bestseller? Lynne Truss, the author talks about commas, hyphens and the importance of correct colon usage.
I meet Lynne Truss at the offices of her small publishing company, Profile Books, where everyone seems in a happy spin about the success of her book on that not-obviously-best-selling topic: punctuation. â€˜Trussâ€™s Eats, Shoots & Leaves â€” The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuationâ€™ has struck a chord among book buyers and its modest initial print run has had to be multiplied many times in a rapid reprint, only a fortnight after first publication. Why should a book about how to use commas and colons properly have lodged itself at number one in the Amazon bestseller list? Truss herself seems truly mystified. â€œI donâ€™t know whoâ€™s buying it. It is all quite extraordinary.â€ Are there really so many grumpy pedants out there? â€œItâ€™s written for people who love punctuation and donâ€™t like to see it mucked about.â€™â€™
She writes for those who winced at the posters advertising the film â€˜Two Weeks Noticeâ€™ and who felt real pain when they saw in print the name of the pop group Hearâ€™Say. Its absurd apostrophe, â€œhanging there in eternal meaninglessnessâ€™â€™, was, Truss says, â€œa significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy.â€ Maybe her bookâ€™s success shows that it is not just a few reactionaries who care. She agrees. â€œItâ€™s selling off the Internet and stickler-types probably donâ€™t do their shopping on Amazon.â€™â€™ She wonders if there might be readers whose higher education has given them a guilty conscience about what they have not been taught, â€œsuddenly thinking that perhaps it does matter and I wouldnâ€™t mind knowing this stuff.â€™â€™
While Truss says that â€œdespair gave this book its impetus,â€™â€™ she does not sound despairing either in print or in person. The title itself is a joke, about an irate panda who walks into a cafe, orders a sandwich, eats it, draws a gun and fires two shots into the air. The waiter finds the explanation for this erratic behaviour in a badly punctuated wildlife manual, which the bear leaves behind: â€œPanda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.â€™â€™ The book tells you the rules, but is also full of jokes and anecdotes. â€œIt is a sort of celebration of punctuation. You canâ€™t help cheering it on, because it has done such a good job in its humble way.â€™â€™ She speaks of the delights of the semi-colon with relish. She has listened to â€œthe man from the Apostrophe Protection Societyâ€™â€™ (yes, it exists) but does not sound like a member of any such group. â€œI was so worried when I wrote the book that people would assume that anyone interested in this subject would be small-minded.â€™â€™
Nor does she feel that she belongs to some better generation. She cannot remember being taught punctuation at her grammar school in the late 60s and early 70s. That was the time when it ceased to matter. She thinks things might be improving, partly because of the national curriculum: â€œIt obviously is being taught at the moment.â€™â€™ But she does not believe that â€œthe culture of correcting peopleâ€™s grammar and punctuation will ever come back.â€™â€™ The old red pen on the homework â€” â€œthatâ€™s the way itâ€™s learned.â€™â€™ She loves the old schoolbooks about usage and abusage by the likes of Fowler and Partridge, â€œeven if everything they say has gone by the board now.â€™â€™ Indeed, her own buoyant and sometimes facetious style knowingly breaks plenty of the old rules. When she mentioned in the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper that she was to write a book on punctuation, a reader wrote to tell her that her own â€œhowlersâ€™â€™ (sentences beginning with â€œAndâ€™â€™ or containing no finite verb) disqualified her from the enterprise. But then her book has been successful because she does not fit the stereotype of a stern monitor of our language.
She learned most of her lessons about English usage from working in journalism. She was told that she got her first such job on the â€˜Listenerâ€™ magazine because her main rival had confused â€œfurbishâ€™â€™ with â€œfurnishâ€™â€™ in his letter of application. She is tactfully kind about the grammatical standards of those working on newspapers, and fondly recalls the style guide with which she first had to work on the London Times. â€œIt told me the difference between â€˜continuousâ€™ and â€˜continualâ€™, things like that â€” marvellous.â€™â€™â€œI donâ€™t really know where punctuation is going. But this is a very good moment to look at it and see what state itâ€™s in.â€™â€™ The Internet and e-mails have come along â€œvery conveniently for people who didnâ€™t learn punctuation and can therefore get by.â€ Punctuation helps give rhythm and a tone of voice to writing, and she thinks it no accident that readers of e-mails often find it difficult to pick up â€œthe tone of the person whoâ€™s written it,â€™â€™ with all those dashes. â€œThe grace notes get lopped off and it becomes very bald.â€™â€™ So people start needing exclamation marks and capital letters, â€œdesperately trying to express a tone of voice.â€™â€™
Would she like to write more books about language and its proprieties? Yes, but without becoming â€œa grumpy old curmudgeon.â€™â€™ She notices that when she has written about punctuation she gets correspondence that soon veers into passionate complaint about spelling, grammar or pronunciation. Everyone has something that bugs them. â€œI have sympathy.â€™â€™ We talk about our grouses. Herâ€™s is the use of â€œenormityâ€™â€™ (post-9/11) to mean â€œlarge sizeâ€™â€™. Can we fight for punctuation? â€œI hope so.â€™â€™ As long as people want to communicate in writing they will need â€œlittle marks, here and there â€” one hopes.â€™â€™