Reads, Chortles, & Smirks

Why nobody’s learning anything from Lynne Truss.

Curious to see what made a book about punctuation so compelling that it topped the New York Times best-seller list (this week it dropped to No. 2), I bought a copy of Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Like every other American-bred Anglophile, I’m always willing to subject myself to a British spanking for misusing the Mother Tongue. I looked forward to learning about all sorts of hideous errors that Slate’s editors have allowed me to commit over the years.

There weren’t any. I intend no personal or collective smugness. It’s just that, in reading Truss’ book, I was struck by the extreme simplicity of punctuation rules, at least to a native speaker. I know ‘em all. You do too, dear reader, if you have the slightest interest in the subject. (To test yourself, try this punctuation game on Truss’ Web site.) They just aren’t that difficult to master.

I don’t mean to suggest that the broader rules of English grammar and proper syntax are a walk in the park. As someone who has made his living for a quarter-century by writing, I must continually relearn, and refine my application of, proper English. As recently as 1997, I had to be reminded by an editor never to use “quality” as an adjective. Around the turn of the millennium, an old friend of my father’s sent me an anguished e-mail asking why, oh why, must I write “for free” when the correct and much simpler usage was “free”? Sometimes I even encounter rules that I didn’t merely forget, but never knew. If you’re well-educated in English usage and you want a humbling experience, dip into Robert Graves’ and Alan Hodge’s pathologically exacting manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder.

I did learn a few things from Truss’ book about the differences between British and American punctuation. I’d never before noticed, for instance, that they like their periods outside the quotation marks, which is more logical but less pleasing to the eye. And I picked up a little history. I will henceforth lower my head respectfully whenever I hear the name Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515), because he invented the italic typeface and printed the first semicolon. (His grandson Aldus Manutius the Younger also played a role in these events, and, as with the father-and-son landscapers named Frederick Law Olmsted, nobody much bothers to distinguish between the two.)

But, let’s face it. Punctuation isn’t hard or particularly complex. It’s only with some effort—mostly the interjection of lots and lots of jokes—that Truss is able to make her book stretch to 204 pages. I don’t dispute Truss’ contention that people violate basic rules of punctuation on a regular basis and that the results can be maddening. Even educated people botch them. Even people who graduated with high honors from the finest universities in the world. The question is why.

Some people botch their punctuation because they lack a proper education, typically because they lack sufficient money to acquire one. Some of them botch it because English is their second language, and you never know your second language as well as your first. But the bulk of them don’t know because they don’t care. I wish they did, but they don’t. And unless they plan on earning their living as writers, it isn’t likely to hold them back very much, if at all.

This brings me back to the question I started with. How did Eats, Shoots & Leaves land on the best-seller list? I’d like to think it reveals a late-blooming hunger for self-improvement by the ignorant masses. Somehow, though, I doubt it. Truss certainly doesn’t seem to be addressing such people as her readers. “What happened to punctuation?” she wails. “Why is it so disregarded when it is self-evidently so useful in preventing enormous mix-ups?” This isn’t what Henry Higgins would say to Eliza Doolittle. It’s what Higgins would say to Col. Pickering, his linguist sidekick. Truss wants you to read her book not to learn the rules of punctuation but to join her  in bewailing, as you review these rules, the sorry ignorance of those who don’t know them. It’s to feel superior, and smug, and, well, almost … English. This last doesn’t explain its success in England, but don’t underestimate its appeal in America. Truss’ book should be titled Reads, Chortles, & Smirks. Rather than read it, I recommend you pick up a book about something you don’t know much about. Everyone is ignorant about something.