Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Bracing Statement of Authorial Intent

Lynne Truss's book Eats, Shoots & Leaves opens with a bracing statement of authorial intent:

People who use the apostrophe incorrectly should be fucking destroyed.

Well, no. To be fair, Truss uses slightly more invective:

People who use the apostrophe incrorrectly are fucking arseholes and I sodding well say that they should sodding well be hung, drawn, quartered, run over by wild horses, garotted, shot, and destroyed.

These subtle inflexions, I think you'll agree, change the meaning in small but important ways.

It is interesting to think about the career of Truss before the publication of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Born in the rough neighbourhood of Kingston Upon Thames, she was educated in the mean streets of Tiffin Girls' School, where she learned the ladylike arts of assassin, ninja, commando, and, during a brief but memorable excursion as a school-girl to Cuba during the revolution, paramilitary fighter. 'It was in these formative years,' Truss writes, 'That I learned the way punctuation could influence things in simple, everyday life: for instance, the throwing of Molotov cocktails, fighting against the enemy in the street, and so on.' She goes on to cite an interesting example of a telegram she received from Castro:

'The fascist's centre must be eliminated!'

As Truss points out, when she was attending a tea party with Fidel later, she discovered that the dictator had mistakenly put the apostrophe in the wrong place and, as a result, Truss had directed all her paramilitary efforts at the elimination of one fascist centre; Castro had meant to refer to fascists in plural. 'It was from this time onwards,' writes Truss, 'That I saw that Castro was no better than any of the other abusers of the apostrophe out there. I was utterly disgusted.'
Seeing through the wily old Cuban's public persona, Truss returned, disillusioned, to London, where she established herself as a local hooligan, and quickly rose through the ranks of social class to become chief thug in a local band of vigilante sub-editors who worked for The Times.
When Truss began work on Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she drew inspiration from a charming anecdote her uncle told about an armed and dangerous Panda in a London restaurant. 'If only we could all learn to be like that Panda!' Truss wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow anarchist in late 2002.

Truss's approach to grammar in this book is nothing if not original. In the first 60 pages, she outlines her plans for an 'Armed Vigilante Squad of Grammar Defenders' to roam the streets with balaclavas, batons, truncheons, clubs, swords, and red pens, in order to enforce what she calls 'A New Grammatical World Order'. The scheme is set out in some detail, complete with suggestions about what to do if captured by 'Those ungrammatical fascists in the police force.' She also offers vivid examples from her own experience: at one point, she tells how she encountered a shopkeeper erecting a sign with a comma splice in his own window.

I rammed his sodding head right through that window repeatedly, until he begged me, tears streaming down his face, to forgive him. He cried out to the heavens that he would never splice a comma again, and more: that he would always ensure, from now on, that not a hyphen, no, not even an em dash or en dash would be out of place. 'You'd better not be kidding me, sunshine', I told him, there and then.

Apart from giving several original suggestions for parsing incorrect grammar, Truss also adds the words 'defenestrated', 'decimate', 'rampage' and 'spiflicated' to the grammarians lexicon.

However, the fundamental attractiveness in this book lies in Truss's typical English reticence:

When occasion demands, I can never decide if those people who use double quote marks instead of single quote marks should be thrown into the lions' den, or run over by wild horses. I usually listen to my heart.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a well-written book with considerable charm and much to recommend it. However, I fear that I must point out that in the concluding chapter of the book, in which Truss publishes a list of grammar offenders, there is a misplaced period. This error has been reported to a local squad of grammatical panda bears, and they are currently sending out a deputation to discuss matters with Ms Truss.

Nevertheless, this is an important and edifying work that is well worth buying. Four out of five stars.


nailpolishblues said...

Very cute, Tim. Pity it's about three years too late.

TimT said...

This is true. Still, mothers' day coming up tomorrow... I'm wondering if I can replicate my mothers' day poem of last year and the year before that? No ideas yet.

nailpolishblues said...

You have a mother's day poem?
My poor mum will be lucky if I ever get around to sending her a card.
I did, however, manage to buy myself a $5 cyclamen - so one of us is doing well out of mother's day.

Karen said...

Gosh, I enjoyed that almost as much as the Kodak Picture Machine love story!* Not quite as relentlessly in its incorrigibility, but this was amply compensated for by the casual elegance of the expletive deployment. Clearly, you are a man who knows how to swear.

I was in a bookshop today and I saw a copy of the Truss tome, so I picked it up for a quick flick through.** It now has comma/apostrophe stickers in the front, so the militant grammarian can correct any greengrocer's signs hapless enough to offend her. There were also panda stickers with the slogan "The panda says no". I glanced at the first paragraph of the preface, in which Truss explained that she had often joked about releasing a set of stickers at gatherings with her fellow militant grammarians, only to be greeted by "groans" of desire (she did say "groans" and I think "ecstasy" too). Does your copy have these stickers? Maybe you'd change your mind about the whole Truss cult if you tried them, given your need to parse-?

*According to my copy of Fowler's, my use of the exclamation mark here is a sign of poor breeding.

**I wouldn't usually do any such thing, but directly above there was something by Kevin Donnelly about the evil postmodernists destroying truth and beauty and I'd be even less likely to flick through that. If you can inspire me to feign the slightest interest in anything on the "culture wars", I'll be even more impressed.

Karen said...

Oh, and I like the typewriter orchestra and the baby typing with the pipe in its mouth very much.

alexis said...

"Grammarians lexicon"? I like to think I never put the ped before the ant without due provocation, but really, given the context, an apostrophe wouldn't go astray.

(Spiffing review, by the way. I'd recommend _E, S & L_ any day of the week, if not for instruction in apostrophasty, then for the sheer masochistic pleasure of Truss's orthographic dominatrix act.)

Karen said...

Orthographic domination is all well and good, but in a panda suit-!

TimT said...

Crikey. 'Grammarian's lexicon', missing a crucial apostrophe. Look out, Lynne Truss is going to hunt me down.

I like the kid best. Went hunting on the net earlier for typewriter images, and found quite an interesting array of material, including this.

My copy does indeed have those stickers, Karen. It's a nice touch, and the book certainly has a commendable aim.

Exclamation marks! Lower class! Goodness me, who came up with that rule? Will they be telling us that one should never use question marks and exclamation marks at dinner time next?! Landsakes!!!

Karen said...

(She flexes her two typing fingers in preparation- do be grateful, I went all the way downstairs to get the book, just so you can be edified):

"Not to use a mark of exclamation is sometimes wrong: How they laughed., instead of How they laughed!, is not English. Excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of ITALICS, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer"

- H.W. Fowler A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed, Clarendon Press, 1965, p.590

(It continues with biblical examples and further grammarian sadism).

Nearby is a favourite of mine:

"Those who use stop when others would use stay (Where are you stopping? etc.) are many, and are frequently rebuked. The OED deals very gently with them: 'Cf.stay, which is often prefered as more correct'; and it is not a case for denunciation, but rather for waiting to see which word will win. Meanwhile, careful speakers do prefer stay; and it is in its favour that its noun, and not stop, is certainly the right one in the corresponding sense (during our stay, not our stop) and that the verb itself is in undisputed possession of the collquialism stay put. It may also be suggested that, if stop is a solecism, there are degrees of enormity in the offence: I shall stop for the night somewhere on my way, Won't you stop to dinner?, I shall stop in town till I hear, We have been stopping at the Deanery, of which the last is the worst, point to a limitation- that stop is suitable only when interruption of a journey or postponement of departure rather than place of sojourn is in question".

Do you see what a rank amateur Lynne Truss is in comparison?

I'm very impressed with myself for typing all that up after tonight's knitting binge, although I fear that I'm crossing the line between legitimate comment and spam. However I would like to observe that one is not truly pedantic until one puts the word 'bus' in inverted commas.

The poster of the boy and girl with their typewriter is lovely and you must find a way to use it.

TimT said...

How right Fowler is about the excessive use of italics. A particular peeve of mine, that. And how right you are about Truss not being much by way of comparison.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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