Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Those who can't, teach?

"Bad Comma" in June 28's edition of the New Yorker skewers Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots Leaves." Author Louis Menand points out inconsistencies and downright errors that are hard to ignore.
“Eats, Shoots & Leaves” presents itself as a call to arms, in a world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.
Titles are missing hyphens (although Menand doesn't mention this problem), nonrestrictive clauses are missing commas, semicolons are sprinkled about willy-nilly.
The main rule in grammatical form is to stick to whatever rules you start out with, and the most objectionable thing about Truss’s writing is its inconsistency. Either Truss needed a copy editor or her copy editor needed a copy editor. Still, the book has been a No. 1 best-seller in both England and the United States.
So, why did someone "who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them" write a book about punctuation? Menand chalks the book's popularity up to the "I'm mad as hell" act. Truss is so disturbed by missing commas that she takes to vandalism, "criminal damage." From Menand:
Some people do feel this way, and they do not wish to be handed the line that “language is always evolving,” or some other slice of liberal pie. They don’t even want to know what the distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause might be. They are like people who lose control when they hear a cell phone ring in a public place: they just need to vent. Truss is their Jeremiah. They don’t care where her commas are, because her heart is in the right place.
There are enough errors in the book to be annoying but not enough to do real damage among people looking to learn more, I'd say. I'm happy with raising punctuation consciousness, as silly as that sounds.

But the armchair editors who call copy desks about every misplaced comma, the would-be experts who'll quote this like the Bible == these people, I fear.


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