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Reads, Books & Leaves — And Likes

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Lynne Truss

I definitely deserve credit for that post title. That was truly well done, I think.

Couple of confessions:

1) I am a punctuation fascist;

2) I had yet to read, until recently, this five year-old book written specifically for punctuation fascists, marking me, clearly, as one behind the punctuation fascist times; since it had been sitting on my bookshelf for a while (an x-mas present one year from Sarah & Graeme), I decided it was worthy of coming with me to Taipei, and lo, I have recently finished it.

See? Look at the above sentence. That thing’s punctuated up the ass, and all correctly (although some of you may quibble with a comma or two). I once had a fellow student raving about me in writing class because she felt I was the only one there — herself included — who knew how to use a semi-colon correctly. My point is: on this topic, I know of what I speak.

So speak I shall. This book is great. Even for non-punctuation fascists. Well, actually, maybe not. The fact that it was a huge international bestseller would seem to indicate so, but unless you like punctuation and really dry British humour, this probably isn’t for you. Of course, it would be nice if everyone read this and learned how to punctuate properly — the section on how to use apostrophes should be required reading for all high-school students — but it probably isn’t to be.

A few things of interest:

The Oxford Comma

“The flag is red, white, and blue.”

That’s the example given by Truss in the book, the Oxford comma being the one after ‘white.’ I hadn’t known this was called the Oxford comma; I had simply always called it ‘wrong.’ I hate it. In 99% of cases it’s completely unnecessary and does not properly show how the sentence would be pronounced if spoken. There are rare times that I’ve used it, if I thought the cadence of the sentence would be improved, but usually only if I have a list being followed by a semi-colon and there are a few ‘ands’ kicking around, or some other complex construction like that.

Now, Graeme uses it all the time. Maybe he likes it, or maybe he’s just not aware; regardless, I have a confession to make: I always edit his posts and remove all instances of the Oxford comma. Sorry buddy! That’s how much it bothers me. You can see that I wasn’t kidding about being a punctuation fascist (P.S. — knock it off!).

The Semi-Colon

Yes, keep it. I cannot understand all these ‘intellectuals’ who say retarded things like ‘the semi-colon is too aristocratic’ or, conversely, ‘the semi-colon is too middle-class,’ or other such retarded bullshit. A punctuation mark is too aristocratic? What the hell does that mean anyway?

I love the semi-colon (yay!); either I came to love it because I know how to use it, or I know how to use it because I innately love it. Either way, I’m going to use it with glee until they throw me into the ground, and no one shall ever convince me otherwise.


I use dashes quite a bit too — they just seem natural to me as a way of continuing a point. I believe I use dashes in many instances where Truss would say it’s better to have a colon or semi-colon, but, in terms of writing dialogue or conversational-style blog posts (for example), a dash seems more natural or ‘speech-like;’ picture someone trying to pronounce a colon: seems odd.

Punctuation Marks & Quotation Marks

There is huge confusion about whether punctuation marks should go inside or outside of quotation marks. American usage is to put all punctuation inside quotations, while in Britain the following rule applies (as related by Truss):

The basic rule is straightforward and logical: when the punctuation relates to the quoted words it goes inside the [quotation marks]; when it relates to the sentence, it goes outside.

But is this rule really so straightforward? What about the following example:

Why did she find herself asking “what am I to do with my life”

It’s a question within a question, which means both the sentence and the quote is a question. So where should the question mark go?

Also, look at this from an aesthetic point-of-view:

Sophia asked Lord Fellamar if he was “out of his senses”.

Look at that period — out there in the middle of nowhere, hanging on for dear life at the end of the sentence. It looks bad; it looks disconnected. Plus, one more niggling rule about punctuation is the last thing we need if we’re to bring proper punctuating back to the masses; so, I’m going to have to stick with our south-of-the-border buddies on this one and declare my preference for the American usage: put all punctuation inside quotation marks. Full stop.

And there you have the fun thing about punctuation — it’s not 100% set-in-stone; you can argue and debate about it until Rapture (and some of the best parts of the book are where Truss tells stories about some famous punctuation debates throughout history). But anyone who’s ever had an interest in writing properly should really read this book and get the basics down first before being concerned with preference; it’s only like $10 on Amazon — get it!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, February 28, 2008 8:14 am

    I’ve had this one my shelf for a few months now, but haven’t gotten to it. So I ain’t reading your write-up for fear of spoilers — I just don’t want to know how to use a semi-colon before the author is ready to reveal it to me;

  2. Thursday, February 28, 2008 9:49 am

    It might surprise you to learn, James17930, that I did indeed know about the Oxford comma. And what is more, I enjoy using it.

    However, not being a punctuation facsist (I’m really more of a social democrat when it comes to matters of grammar), I shall continue to use the Oxford comma, and you, James can continue to go into my posts and delete them. If it helps you sleep better at night, then, my friend, so be it.

    Oh, and I thought it interesting that you claim not to understand how a semi-colon can be considered aristocratic, when you suggest that we need to “bring proper punctuating back to the masses”. I think you just proved something there. And yes, you’ll also note how I included the period after the quotation mark, just to mess with your head.

  3. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, February 28, 2008 11:07 am

    You magnificent bastard.

    As for the thing about the masses — as related by Truss, some people don’t even know how to use commas correctly, let alone semi-colons; by that logic all punctuation is aristocratic. I said we should bring proper punctuating back, and I mean all punctuating.

  4. Tanya permalink
    Thursday, February 28, 2008 1:23 pm

    I dislike punctuation. I’m not a fascist, and feel free to re-edit my posts to your heart’s content.

    (How’d I do there?)

    James you should check out “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamont. It’s another great book about writing that I carry around with me most of the time.

  5. James17930 permalink
    Friday, February 29, 2008 12:43 pm

    But I can’t read your posts until I’ve read the comics.

    Once I do though, yeah — out comes the red marker.

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