March 23, 2006

Gratuitous Llama Book Review

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My Metro reading at the moment is Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, a delightfully curmudgeonly rant on the decline of proper punctuation delivered in the tone only a Brit Grammar Nazi can achieve.

While the book itself is quite entertaining, what I find even better are some of the historical samples and episodes cited by Truss, including a very funny feud between James Thurber and New Yorker editor Harold Ross concerning "the grison anecdote", an even funnier letter from G. B. Shaw to T. E. Lawrence (aka "Lawrence of Arabia") concerning the punctuation in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom which begins, "My dear Luruns [sic], Confound you and your book: you are no more to be trusted with a pen than a child with a torpedo", and this charming passage from P.G. Wodehouse's Over Seventy:

How anybody can compose a story by word of mouth face to face with a bored-looking secretary with a notebook is more than I can imagine. Yet may authors think nothing of saying, "Ready, Miss Spelvin? Take dictation. Quote No comma Sir Jasper Murgatroyd comma close quotes comma said no better make it hissed Evangeline comma quote I would not marry you if you were the last man on earth period close quotes Quote well comma I'm not comma so the point does not arise comma close quotes replied Sir Jasper twirling his moustache cynically period And so the long day wore on period. End of chapter."

If I had to do that sort of thing, I should be feeling all the time that the girl was saying to herself as she took it down, "Well comma this beats me period How comma with homes for the feebleminded touting for custom on every side comma has a man like this succeeded in remaining at large mark of interrogation."

Some people will no doubt dismiss Truss's plea for proper punctuation for the same reason they sneer at etiquette champions such as Miss Manners, who they believe adhere to an outdated and exploded system of arbitrary rules just so they can snigger when somebody picks up the wrong fork. In fact, however, proper grammar (including punctuation) and etiquette serve the same meliorative purpose: by establishing a clear system of rules and guidelines, they both aid people in understanding one another. When these rules break down, confusion ensues (as demonstrated in the title of Truss's book). The punch line in both cases, of course, is that the basics really are not very difficult. Truss's primary lament (and I think Miss Manners would agree) is simply that nobody seems to give a damn anymore.

Anyhoo, I'd recommend this book. It's bright, breezy and lucid. It's also wicked funny.

Posted by Robert at March 23, 2006 10:10 AM | TrackBack

Yes. Say the words "Diagram this sentence" to a teenager today and you'll get a slackjawed stare similar to one you might receive if you said "Here, split this atom."

Posted by: The Colossus at March 23, 2006 10:45 AM

My mother, raised in the fold of Catholic education, was a stickler for grammar and punctuation. I couldn't possibly tell you how many times she declared "possessive case precedes a gerund." However, as soon as the words started rolling off her tongue, I knew that I was in for a correction. The sad thing was that I never really grasped the meaning of the correction until her death when I came across, in her library, an old book of grammar. The first thing I did was sit down and try to figure out what the hell she had been talking about… Being of superior intellect (ha), I finally did decipher the meaning of the phrase that had been a conversation stopper scores of times in my childhood.
The interesting thing is (and all parents of young children please take note) even though I didn’t understand the grammatical rule, her corrections did cause me to use this particular rule correctly; kinda like muscle memory…
The other grammatical bugaboo that she carried like a ball and chain was the death of the collective noun. She used to query “if you have two nickels in your pocket, do you have monies?”

Posted by: Babs at March 23, 2006 11:02 AM

Anyhoo? Dear, dear Robbo, I can barely comprehend you when you insist on using all this popular slang and jargon. It's so very non-standard. I'm sure Ms. Truss would deliver a well earned rebuke.

Posted by: Chai-rista at March 23, 2006 12:31 PM

I have this book! Now I need to dig it out and re-read it. As an English major I should know better, but I get pretty lazy most of the time.

Posted by: GroovyVic at March 23, 2006 02:25 PM

Popular slang and jargon??? We are talking antiquity here. You know, when what you said actually was universally understood?
P.S. For those that don't get that, universally understood means that everyone was able (and not able to refute) the sentiments of your writing

Posted by: Babs at March 23, 2006 02:53 PM

Very funny, very worthwhile book that will only be read by those who don't need to hear its message. I can't help but remember my high school days, when I spent my last quarter taking a deeply unnecessary basic English grammar class. It was essentially identical to the English class I had in fourth grade where I learned to diagram a sentence.

Posted by: utron at March 23, 2006 02:54 PM

Rob, the anecdotes were my favorite part of Talk to the Hand. I'll have to pick up Eats, Shoots & Leaves as well.

Posted by: tee bee at March 24, 2006 02:24 PM