Dash it-isn't it time the dot gone generation got the point of punctuation?

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Lynne Truss pulls out all the stops

A panda walks into a cafe and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich and seems to be behaving in a fairly ordinary panda fashion until, instead of paying the bill, he produces a gun, fires at the waiter and strides towards the door. "Why?" cries the wounded man, as the panda passes. "Because I'm a panda; look it up," replies the panda enigmatically, tossing a wildlife manual on the counter. The waiter consults the manual and immediately discovers the grammatical cause of this strange behaviour.

"Panda," says the tragically ill-punctuated entry. "Large black-and-white bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

There are, I believe, many versions of this joke ("Why is an Ozzie man like a koala?"), but the excellent news I had when I first proposed "Eats, Shoots amp; Leaves" as the title for a book on the history and future of punctuation is that it is a joke told by children in playgrounds. This was reassuring. Because if people of pre-adult age can appreciate the comic value of a misplaced comma, may there not be hope after all for this seemingly arbitrary set of dots and squiggles that have decorated the printed page for the past 500 years?

Things have not been looking good lately, you see. While the National Literacy Strategy is now trying to rectify matters, 30 years of anti-grammatical education practice has seen to it that - well, look around these days for the comma, the apostrophe, the hyphen, and what you will find is a system of quite simple and helpful conventions being held in general contempt.

Take the hyphen - a useful little mark which prevents pickled-herring merchants being thought of (unfairly) as pickled herring merchants. (It similarly helps out the miniature-portrait painter, the superfluous-hair remover, and the 200-odd members of the Conservative Party.) Does anyone between the age of 12 and 35 know what a hyphen is? Do they eckerslike.

Tell a person in a call centre that your name is hyphenated, and you are likely to be entered on their computer (after much exasperated explanation) as "Tara Palmer, Tomkinson", "Tara Palmer'Tomkinson", or even "Tara Palmer Hyphen".

Question marks are routinely left off direct questions such as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Have you voted yet". As for the apostrophe - well, there is a sign in a petrol station near to where I live which says "Come inside for CD's, Video's, DVD's and Book's". BOOK'S? Aieee. One begins to see why those who are sensitive to punctuation now have to take medication before opening a letter from the bank, or reading any sign in a shop window.

Punctuation has been around for as long as there has been writing. It was originally devised as a system to indicate to Greek actors where to pause for breath, and this function as a kind of musical notation for reading aloud kept it going for 1,500 years.

But its authority with respect to grammar derives from printing. Printers in the 16th and 17th centuries invented the convention of the apostrophe to represent letters omitted ("can't", "won't"); they also came up with semicolons, colons, full stops, commas, quotation marks and dashes.

Punctuation both illuminates grammar and indicates tone and rhythm, but its all-important purpose is very simple: to avert misunderstanding and make things easier to read.

A headline that says "DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED" simply does a lousy job if it has no apostrophe. It leaves things vague: should that be "DEAD SON'S PHOTOS" (indicating one son), or "DEAD SONS' PHOTOS" (indicating more than one)? A popular urban-myth story circulated on the internet is that if you give the unpunctuated words "A woman without her man is nothing" separately to a man and a woman, they will interpret it along gender lines.

The man's version will be: "A woman, without her man, is nothing" - whereas the woman will see: "A woman: without her, man is nothing". Well, what an argument for punctuation that is. In a punctuationless world, imagine the mayhem that might be caused by leaving this sentence untouched. The man and the woman might dreamily concur "How true!", and only years down the line - too late! - discover their tragic incompatibility on this crucial issue of sexual reliance.

Actually, there are many true stories of misplaced (or missing) punctuation causing trouble in the real world. Which should not be surprising, since we organise our lives according to words that, even when carefully placed in the right order, contain the potential for all sorts of ambiguity. For example, as the 19th-century grammarian Cecil Hartley pointed out, there is a vast doctrinal difference between: "Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" and: "Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise". The first version (of Luke, xxiii, 43) is preferred by Protestants because it takes the crucified thief straight to heaven without stopping off in Purgatory for a prolonged and rather anxious period. Place the comma after "day", however, and the offer of instant Paradise disappears.

Consider the difference, too, between "Comfort ye my people" (please go out and comfort my people) and "Comfort ye, my people" (just cheer up, you lot, it might never happen).

But it's not just the Bible that has trouble with this stuff. The would-be Irish insurrectionist Sir Roger Casement was, according to certain accounts, "hanged on a comma" - which you have to admit sounds like typical swingeing British justice, especially as the rope must have kept slipping off, but certainly shows how important a comma can be in a legal context.

Casement's defence - when he was arrested in Ireland for treason in 1916 - argued that the Treason Act of 1351 was unpunctuated and that his guilt was therefore not clear-cut. The words of that Act, which was originally written in Norman French, said that "If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere...", he was guilty of treason. Having studied this form of words for many hours, I still honestly can't see how a comma here or there would make Casement less guilty, but his defence did throw a big spanner in the works by suggesting that, since Casement had carefully done all his plotting "elsewhere" (and not "in the realm"), he was technically innocent.

Judges had to traipse off to the Record Office to look at the original statute, where they found under a microscope a faint virgule (early version of the comma). It was this comma, inserted by a 14th century scribe - whose only qualification for the job was perhaps neat handwriting - that Casement was sensationally hanged on, 565 years later.

My favourite how-punctuation-changed-the-world story concerns the Jameson Raid in 1896 (described as a "fiasco") which came about when British settlers in the Transvaal sent a message requesting military help (from this chap Jameson) against the Boers, and left it tragically underpunctuated: "It is under these circumstances that we feel constrained to call upon you to come to our aid should a disturbance arise here the circumstances are so extreme that we cannot but believe that you and the men under you will not fail to come to the rescue of people who are so situated."

As Eric Partridge pointed out in his classic language book Usage and Abusage (1947), if you place a full stop after the word "aid", the message is unequivocal. It says, "Come at once, Jameson; help, help." However, if you put a full stop after "here", the invitation looks much more considered and conditional. Evidently, by the time the message was printed in The Times, a full stop had appeared after "aid". And when the raid turned into a fiasco, everyone shook their heads and said, "Hell's bells, this punctuation is a powerful thing, isn't it?"

Nowadays the big problem is the apostrophe. There are those who cry out for its abolition on the pragmatic grounds that no one knows how to use it any more. And there are others (with whom nowadays I find myself increasingly allied) who choke and splutter and take digital pictures of illiterate signs outside petrol stations and send them off to the website of the Apostrophe Protection Society (there really is one), so that a great wail of "Aieee!" can go up from all the other people likewise sent into paroxysms by apostrophe misuse in public places.

When I was researching Eats, Shoots amp; Leaves, I found that 60-odd years ago (as opposed to 60 odd years ago - although I'm sure some of them have been unusual to say the least), in 1939, when he wrote the classic guide to punctuation Mind the Stop, GV Carey gave just one paragraph to the apostrophe because there was so little to say about it. Evidently everyone in those days could comfortably differentiate the singular possessive apostrophe ("the girl's dress"), the plural possessive apostrophe ("the girls' dresses"), and the contractive apostrophe ("Why can't I have a dress?") - even when there was a war on. "If only all marks were so easy," Carey amazingly remarked. Sixty years later, GV wouldn't recognise the place. Vans advertise Bobs' Transport; on TV, one catches the latest instalment of Footballers Wives; "Winner of the editors award" says a proud sign in the window of a bank, without indicating how many editors had anything to do with it. Gone are the days when greengrocers were the only chaps chucking apostrophes about without due care and attention, with their lemon's and grape's. A terminal "s" on any word nowadays throws people into a quite ghastly state of notational ignorance, with the result that a waitress named "Gladys" will be given the name badge "Glady's" - and she will wear it.

There is a sign for an antiques shop near Colchester that says "ANTIQUE,S" (with a comma), and a sign outside Didsbury which says "DID'SBURY". As for ignorance of the plural possessive apostrophe ("Dead sons' photos"; "Editors' award"), much entertainment may of course be had by pedants imagining the discomfort of the sole adult learner during "Adult Learner's Week" or the kind of fun had by the lonely, partner-less attender of the "Member's May Ball". But mainly, apostrophe misuse is not a laughing matter. In fact, when I see a sign on a shop that says "Open's Friday", I rarely pause for a light-hearted chuckle before searching round for a big rock to heave through the offending window.

Sensible language experts such as David Crystal reckon that we are watching the terminal, dazzling burn-out of the apostrophe: we should just sit back and observe the phenomenon through a bit of tinted glass. Language is a living thing, after all; it always sorts things out in the long run. But it's hard for those of us who are susceptible to the "Aieeee!" and rock-throwing response when we see seemingly well-educated people not knowing their its from their it's, because it means stupidity is winning.

We want to do something. In Eats, Shoots amp; Leaves I do gently suggest it is time for the formation of punctuation vigilante groups with pots of paint and ladders. I get quite carried away with the idea, actually. Do you have your own balaclava? Got a gun? When the film Two Weeks Notice came out, I stood outside the Odeon Leicester Square with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick, demonstrating how the title could be so easily corrected to Two Weeks' Notice, but recruitment to my punctuation vigilante force turned out to be more tricky than anticipated. The most heartening news I had while writing about the apostrophe, in fact, concerned a piece of stupid, racist graffiti in New York. Someone had written "Nigger's out" on a wall. And underneath it a rather excellent pedant had added, "But he'll be back shortly".

A few years ago it might have been fairly argued that the niceties of punctuation were the province of only writers and editors; the rest of us didn't need to know. At the New Yorker in the 1940s, the humorist James Thurber got into regular fights with his editor Harold Ross because they differed so much over the use of the comma - both of them doubtless aware that this was an argument that might look pretty trivial to spectators not professionally involved. Ross would put commas in; Thurber would take them out; they threatened each other with ashtrays, and on one occasion the exasperated Thurber typed out a verse of Wordsworth - sarcastically adding New Yorker-style punctuation - and sent it to Ross: She lived alone, and few could know When Lucy ceased to be, But, she is in her grave, and, oh, The difference, to me.

But a funny thing has happened to the written word in the past few years.

It has exploded. Everyone's a writer. Moreover, with the internet, everyone's an editor and publisher as well. And it now seems a rather cruel trick that a whole generation was sent out into the world without the simplest notion of how to write a sentence, or where to put the punctuation to prevent (say) the sign for "Dick's in-tray" from turning into the rather sinister "dicks in tray".

In the 1960s, when dastardly educationists decided that grammar was a silly old-fashioned thing, I believe there was a hazy idea of the immediate future as a benignly post-literate place in which the ability to construct a sentence would be faintly remembered as an ancient (lost) technique akin to mixing woad or fashioning arrowheads out of bits of flint. They really thought the written word was on the way out, and that verbal self-expression could be better achieved if you removed the very means by which we verbally express anything at all. Whereas in fact (nobody could have anticipated this), it was the printed word that was on the way out. In what historians of the future will doubtless call "a bit of a turn-up", along came the internet, email and the mobile phone, to challenge traditional forms of writing and reading, and provide a global verbal forum for anyone with a keyboard and a telephone line. The language of the internet encourages an almost anti-grammatical approach to language, with words run together (or separated by "dots"); meanwhile, email acceptably adopts the anti-grammar of self-important haste, neglecting initial capitals, using exclamation marks a lot (!) and linking phrases with the dash ( - ) or the ellipsis (. . .) .

Ask around and you will find that most people now believe, in the first years of the 21st century, that there are two distinct sorts of writing: 1.email writing, which is fast, democratic and self-consciously slapdash, breathlessly suggesting that life's a bit short for bothering with spellings and semicolons and stuff 2.real writing, which theoretically occurs on other occasions, but mostly doesn't.

Of course this is an exciting time for the written word, simply because there is suddenly so much of it. But it is worth pointing out that the main reason the language of email has been taken up and lauded with such general enthusiasm is not because it is good, or new; but because it neatly covers up a quarter-century of under-education and makes the semi-literate feel OK about themselves.

However, the plucky little marks are still going, despite all the onslaughts. They are not dead yet. Given half the chance, the apostrophe still flits about like Tinkerbell, rescuing a bizarre sentence such as "Prudential: were here to help you" by making it clear that it's actually "Prudential: we're here to help you." The ever-willing comma chases around the hillside of language like an over-eager sheepdog, herding words into the right pens, so that a notice that says "No dogs please" (an indefensible generalisation, since most dogs rather make a point of it) is properly rendered "No dogs, please". The muscular colon and semicolon provide internal energy to long sentences containing complex thoughts; and the manly dash - like this - lifts separable phrases quite clear of the surrounding prose, using both hands and a considerable power of push.

Exclamation marks and question marks provide tone of voice. Italics provide instant emphasis. Brackets do their (isn't it marvellous?) bracketing thing. Meanwhile the indispensable hyphen makes sure that unpronounceable words such as shelllike and deice emerge clearly as shell-like and de-ice.

Finally, as for the wonderful ellipsis (or three dots) . . . what can I say?

I discovered in researching the history of punctuation, incidentally, that I was in love with the colon. I had no idea this would be the result, and I haven't told anybody this before, but actually I always fall in love with a character in my books, and by the end of Eats, Shoots amp; Leaves I adored the colon and wanted to have its babies. On which bizarre note (sorry), here are two letters which show just how thoroughly we rely on punctuation of the simplest kind.

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy - will you let me be yours?


Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours, Jill.

Eats, Shoots amp; Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Profile Books, pound;8.99 post free (RRP pound;9.99)Tel: 020 7421 6182Email: asha.chong@profilebooks.co.ukApostrophe Protection Society www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk

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