Excerpt from Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Eats, Shoots and Leaves

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2004, 240 pages
    Apr 2006, 240 pages

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But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse. In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what's happened: everyone's a writer! Everyone is posting film reviews on Amazon that go like this:

I watched this film [About a Boy] a few days ago expecting the usual hugh Grant bumbling … character Ive come to loathe/expect over the years. I was thoroughly suprised. This film was great, one of the best films i have seen in a long time. The film focuses around one man who starts going to a single parents meeting, to meet women, one problem He doesnt have a child.

Isn't this sad? People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on the internet! Meanwhile, in the world of text messages, ignorance of grammar and punctuation obviously doesn't affect a person's ability to communicate messages such as "C U later". But if you try anything longer, it always seems to turn out much like the writing of the infant Pip in Great Expectations:

Now, there are many people who claim that they do fully punctuate text messages. For Cutting a Dash, we asked people in the street (outside the Palladium Theatre, as it happens, at about 5pm) if they used proper punctuation when sending text messages, and were surprised – not to say incredulous – when nine of out ten people said yes. Some of them said they used semicolons and parentheses and everything. "I'm a grammar geek," explained one young New Zealand woman. "I'm trying to teach my teenage son to punctuate properly," said a nice scholarly-looking man. I kept offering these respondents an easy way out: "It's a real fag, going through that punctuation menu, though? I mean, it would be quite understandable if you couldn't be bothered." But we had evidently stumbled into Grammar Geek Alley, and there was nothing we could do. "Of course I punctuate my text messages, I did A-level English," one young man explained, with a look of scorn. Evidently an A level in English is a sacred trust, like something out of The Lord of the Rings. You must go forth with your A level and protect the English language with your bow of elfin gold.

But do you know what? I didn't believe those people. Either they were weirdly self-selecting or they were simply lying for the microphone. Point out to the newsagent that "DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED" is not grammatically complete and he will hastily change the subject to the price of milk. Stand outside a Leicester Square cinema indicating – with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick – how the title Two Weeks Notice might be easily grammatically corrected (I did this), and not a soul will take your side or indeed have a clue what your problem is. And that's sad. Taking our previous analogies for punctuation, what happens when it isn't used? Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and all the buttons fall off. If punctuation provides the traffic signals, words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead. If one can bear for a moment to think of punctuation marks as those invisibly beneficent fairies (I'm sorry), our poor deprived language goes parched and pillowless to bed. And if you take the courtesy analogy, a sentence no longer holds the door open for you to walk in, but drops it in your face as you approach.

Reprinted from Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Lynne Truss, 2003. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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