What’s the Point?

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a book that has been on my reading wish list for quite some time now; a book about grammar (punctuation, actually) with a sense of humour and, as I find, liberally sprinkled with slang and even some mild expletives. Definitely more user-friendly than the prescriptive grammar books that have passed through my life to date.

I have, on several occasions, attempted to make up for my lack of basic education in grammar – wanting to know the correctness of things more than anything else. Unfortunately, it has been rather difficult until now. In primary school, I seem either to have been the victim of a total lack of grammatical education or else privileged with a natural ability in writing that had me promoted to the ‘they-know-their-stuff-already’ group on transfer between schools. As the result of one such school transfer, I still do not know how to do joint writing properly. The school I left taught script later and the one I arrived to taught it earlier so I still write unjointedly, as it were. It looks a bit like this …

… Sort of! That’s word-processed using my own personal font from myscriptfont.com. The chance that I could right in such rigidly straight lines is unlikely and, actually, not really desirable.

So, anyway, tangent aside, secondary school was no better. There was one substitute teacher that took it upon themselves to teach us the obviously-unknown basic structures of the language. However, the complete over-intonation of the definite an indefinite articles led to a general level of mirth that did not allow us to proceed to matters of any significance. My word order in essays was frequently held up for the general amusement of class despite being genuine attempts to create effect. The injustice stings to this day! I was, then, as now, in no position to present logical arguments in favour of artistic licence in the creation of effect. For much of my usage, I simply refer to P.G. Woodhouse. While there may be those that would argue with his use of the language, there are none that would win – not least because he is no longer with us.

By third level, we were expected to already know our grammar; presumably having absorbed it from the aether. My first stab at college – including the study of English – went well enough, as I was reasonably proficient at expressing myself.  The second stab at college was also was no problem, grammatically-speaking. It was on progression to masters level that my use of punctuation was to get me in trouble. I did commit myself, having reached masters level, to learn the proper use of words and duly invested in what I considered to be an authoritative tome on the matter – the Collins Good Grammar. (Now I’m not so sure if it is Good Grammar by Graham King with the publisher’s logo placed deceivingly relative to the book’s title and, curiously, omitting the author’s name on the cover.) I experienced difficulty with it, however, and just couldn’t seem to grasp the nettle. It was a number of years before I fully realised why.

It was at the other end of my MA that the trouble came. My submission was criticised for ‘awkward phrasing’ and, worse, ‘superfluous commas’. I duly rewrote some of the offending sentences and thinned out commas; but without any real knowledge of what was correct and what wasn’t.

That was my entire grammatical education. A failure for me in that I did not know right from wrong.

So, in beginning to write more frequently again, I decided to have another go at getting it right. Still having my copy of Good Grammar mentioned above, I decided the random-page approach. It’s a learning technique I have where I pick up a textbook, read random pages or selections of pages until I have read most of the book and have a generalised feel for what is going on. Then, I start from the beginning and work through methodically. I find it a very good approach for learning things that are not necessarily progressive, where it’s best to have an idea of all the concepts involved before trying to nail them down individually.

I’m not sure how long it took me to get to the introduction but, when I did, I spotted something that may have provided a very major block to my self-educational experience. Let’s have the offending paragraph in full:

Does being good at grammar help you in life? Thousands of people who hold down down highly-paid jobs can hardly spell or compose a coherent letter without help. Even The Times, regarded as a paragon of grammatical certitude, slips up with comforting regularity: ‘According to the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit,’ it reported recently, ‘one in four 16- to 20-year-olds have reading problems and more than a third have trouble with spelling.’ (the first have should be has, to agree with its antecedent one in four). Embarrassingly, this slip-up occurred in an editorial on the need for the rigorous teaching of grammar.

That, I’m afraid, is a matter of opinion at best and, from my point of view, illogical. Because it is not, in meaning, ‘one in four’; it is ‘one in four‘. It is 25% of that group; it is one-quarter of them. It is more than one person. Therefore, they have reading problems. One of those four people has a reading problem. One in four of those 245,567 people have reading problems.

I’ll curtail the rant in order to explain why it is that I want to rant. The idea that there is such a thing as ‘correct grammar’ is something that is embedded in our culture – even if we are not actually taught that correctness. It’s like in basic science – we learn that light travels in straight lines (the pin-hole camera experiment where we see an image upside-down) and also travels in waves (the ‘two slits’ experiment where light travelling through two holes in a box cause an interference pattern at the back). In essence, these two, slightly contradictory, facts remove the very solidity of our existence – matter and energy are the same. ‘Everything’ that we think of as existing has a wave-particle duality where it can be one or the other. What we think of as solid is, in fact, not. In grammar, our perception that there are solid rules that make absolute sense and have been meticulously worked out and are logical is just our perception too. It’s not real.

Finally, enter the book that has spurred the creation of this article. I borrowed Eats, Shoots and Leaves from my local library with hope in my heart. The humorous title and the cover artwork of a panda removing the superfluous comma means that the author does not take themselves too seriously; is writing about an important subject – clear communication is important – without the overbearing didactic tone of a grammar Nazi. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a mostly personal journey by the author, Lynne Truss, through nit-picking and stickling over the poor teaching and use of punctuation. It has many examples of how poor punctuation can, and does, cause confusion and misunderstanding. It had me laughing out loud on quite a number of occasions but, more importantly, it approached the subject of punctuation from a point of view of clarity of meaning rather than of right and wrong. Can we appreciate the difference between, “The convict said the judge is mad” and “The convict, said the judge, is mad”. It’s much more fun, though, discussing the relative moral positions of extra marital sex and extra-marital sex.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves has given me a freedom that I have always been lacking in my life before. I write (or type mostly) for quite a number of reasons and composing English takes up quite a proportion of my life. I have always felt inadequate in the face of semi-colons and the use of hyphens versus dashes. This book is the beginning of a journey. There is no ultimate right and wrong in grammar or in punctuation. There is language that is used well and language that could, perhaps, be improved upon. I now start a journey towards competent, and maybe even stylish, usage of the language that I use so much. My goal is no longer to be ‘correct’. It is to be aware, knowledgeable and skilful in my usage.

I have already begun this journey with the, again humorously titled, You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies; a book by Eric Partridge described on Google Books as follows:

This standard work on punctuation has long been judged the foremost study of the subject. It reveals punctuation to be both an indispensable craft and an invaluable art – a friend, not an enemy.

And it is most certainly non-prescriptive. It is in line with modern linguistic theory that grammar (and punctuation) can only be descriptive and not prescriptive – we can only say for sure how it is used, not how it must be used. The book shows many possible variations of many sentences with regard to how they may be punctuated. The author does give value judgements – ‘this is unclear’, ‘that is overkill’ – but it dictates no absolute rights and wrongs.

What a relief! After so many years of not knowing if my grammar and punctuation were right or wrong, I discover that it’s my perception of there actually being a right and wrong that is at fault. It is a journey that I can commit to. No end point, as such, but the possibility to keep on improving and developing for a lifetime.

Now if I can only find enough allies to get a proper irony mark included in this font!