"You don't need to be a grammar nerd to enjoy this one...Who knew grammar could be so much fun " -NewsweekWe all know the basics of punctuation. Or do we A look at most neighborhood signage tells a different story. Through sloppy usage and low standards on the internet, in email, and now text messages, we have made proper punctuation an endangered species. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, former editor Lynne Truss dares to say, in her delightfully urbane, witty, and very English way, that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled.
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April 29, 2004
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Excerpt from Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
The Tractable Apostrophe
In the spring of 2001 the ITV1 show Popstars manufactured a pop phenomenon for our times: a singing group called Hear'Say. The announcement of the Hear'Say name was quite a national occasion, as I recall; people actually went out in very large numbers to buy their records; meanwhile, newspapers, who insist on precision in matters of address, at once learned to place Hear'Say's apostrophe correctly and attend to the proper spacing. To refer in print to this group as Hearsay (one word) would be wrong, you see. To call it Hear-Say (hyphenated) would show embarrassing ignorance of popular culture. And so it came to pass that Hear'Say's poor, oddly placed little apostrophe was replicated everywhere and no one gave a moment's thought to its sufferings. No one saw the pity of its position, hanging there in eternal meaninglessness, silently signalling to those with eyes to see, "I'm a legitimate punctuation mark, get me out of here." Checking the Hear'Say website a couple of years later, I discover that the only good news in this whole sorry saga was that, well, basically, once Kym had left to marry Jack in January 2002 -- after rumours, counter-rumours and official denials -- the group thankfully folded within eighteen months of its inception.
Now, there are no laws against imprisoning apostrophes and making them look daft. Cruelty to punctuation is quite unlegislated: you can get away with pulling the legs off semicolons; shrivelling question marks on the garden path under a powerful magnifying glass; you name it. But the naming of Hear'Say in 2001 was nevertheless a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy. As we shall see, the tractable apostrophe has always done its proper jobs in our language with enthusiasm and elegance, but it has never been taken seriously enough; its talent for adaptability has been cruelly taken for granted; and now, in an age of supreme graphic frivolity, we pay the price. Too many jobs have been heaped on this tiny mark, and -- far from complaining -- the apostrophe has seemingly requested "More weight", just like that martyrish old codger in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, when religious bigots in black hats with buckles on are subjecting him to death by crushing. "More weight," the apostrophe has bravely said -- if ever more faintly. "More weight," it manages to whisper still. But I ask you: how much more abuse must the apostrophe endure Now that it's on its last legs (and idiotic showbiz promoters stick apostrophes in names for purely decorative purposes), isn't it time to recognise that the apostrophe needs our help
The English language first picked up the apostrophe in the 16th century. The word in Greek means "turning away", and hence "omission" or "elision". In classical texts, it was used to mark dropped letters, as in t'cius for "tertius"; and when English printers adopted it, this was still its only function. Remember that comical pedant Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost saying, "You find not the apostraphas, and so miss the accent" Well, no, of course you don't, nobody remembers anything said by that frightful bore, and we certainly shan't detain ourselves bothering to work out what he was driving at. All we need to know is that, in Shakespeare's time, an apostrophe indicated omitted letters, which meant Hamlet could say with supreme apostrophic confidence: "Fie on't! O fie!"; " 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd"; and even, "I am too much i' the sun" -- the latter, incidentally, a clear case of a writer employing a new-fangled punctuation mark entirely for the sake of it, and condemning countless generations of serious long-haired actors to adopt a knowing expression and say i' -- as if this actually added anything to the meaning.