VANESSA SHARPE on ‘The Great Punctuation Debate: The educated panda vs context and content’

Lynne Truss (2003) believes that she has a sixth sense for bad punctuation. Despite her apparent lack of education, she has taken it upon herself to become an expert on it. She is almost tempted to take matters into her own hands; by banding together all those who feel likewise, armed with marker pens and paint, and revolting against the masses of ‘illiterate’ people within society. Not only do incorrect casual hand-written signs in shop windows, that would spark only mild irritation within a small percentage of the general public, infuriate her but also misplaced, or non-existent punctuation that is not as noticeable, sickens her. For instance, when Warner Bros released Two Weeks Notice, she descended upon cinemas with a trusty hand-made apostrophe on a stick to protest the lack of punctuation within the title.

Even though Truss seems a bit extreme…most of the time… there are a large number of people who may partially agree with her views, but would not act upon the impulse to vandalise signs or, even have numerous punctuation marks on sticks of varying length stored away somewhere. Also, towards the end of her book, Truss speculates that if grammar and language as a whole, is to continue on its apparent course, it will soon become outdated by the internet and other forms of communication, such as texting. Truss even goes so far as to say that this process of decay is already under way and has been for some time.

David Crystal (2006) declares that the lack of education from the 1960s-2000, with regards to punctuation and grammar, can be blamed on the education boards and teachers for not upholding that it was an important part of the curriculum. Therefore those who were educated within this timeslot should not be made to feel idiotic or inept, as they missed out on a vital part of today’s standard education. Furthermore, he believes that self-help books on punctuation are no use for people who are learning from scratch, as this kind of information needs to be taught at an early age. Crystal also believes that correct punctuation can rely heavily on the context within which it is used. For example, within prose, the reader will have a general understanding of what the author is referring to in a sentence like ‘surrounded by barbed wire, armed solders guarded the prisoners from watchtowers’. He also speculates that to what extent we even need punctuation and whether people would mostly still be able to understand one another without it.

Crystal’s views seem more palatable than Truss’s end-of-the-written-word apocalypse notions. Even though I think that Kindles lower the standard and experience of reading, it must be said that sometimes certain things just need to move with the times as the internet will open up many new possibilities and make literature more accessible for the general public.

However, if Crystal had his way would the panda still be able to ‘eat shoots and leaves’?

VANESSA SHARPE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crystal, D. (2006) The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Truss, L . (2003) Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  London: Profile Books

LUCY HALLMARK asks: ‘Martinis? Sure, would you like lemon peel and an apostrophe with those?’

Who’d have thought that years after Miss Trunchbull drummed ‘Mrs D- Mrs I –Mrs F-F-I’ into the children in Matilda’s classroom that people would still be unable to grasp the basic elements of punctuation and grammar?

However, today people are so concerned about our language, that we find ourselves caught somewhere amongst ‘punctuation heroes’ and ‘text speech’. If we put ourselves at one end of the scale with Lynne Truss and John Richards, the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, then we essentially believe that apostrophe misuse should be up there with the Ten Commandments: ‘You should not abuse punctuation’.

Truss (2003:7) claims punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling’ and without it ‘there is no reliable way of communicating meaning’ (2003:20). She compares herself to the boy in ‘The Sixth Sense’ who can see dead people, claiming that those who can see dead punctuation which others cannot, have a ‘seventh sense’ (2003:3). Grammar perfectionist Truss has, however, found herself come under criticism when Richards (cited in Moore, 2008) claimed, of apostrophes: ‘Lynne Truss can write what she likes but she’s got to justify why you might use one when there are no missing letters and no possessive sense’. The most common punctuation howler is the ‘Greengrocer’s apostrophe’ where the writer tries to pluralize words using an apostrophe and an ‘s’ where it’s not required. This was also mentioned by Moore who found herself wondering how expensive Martini’s were compared to your average Martini. Moore (2008) claimed that owing to incorrect use of apostrophes, they are now being used as ‘visual garnish’.

However, not everyone believes that a marker pen should be at hand at all times in case we need to correct grammar and punctuation in the street. David Crystal (2006:153) believes that those sensitive to the ways language works won’t be fooled forever. Language cannot be put in a cage, as it exists to enable us to think and talk about life, which is messy and complex, therefore language must accommodate this. Crystal maintains (2006:161) that what we really need to worry about are ‘false friends’ arguing that spelling rules are the clearest indicators of standard English and so need special attention. He also explains how children shouldn’t be taking all of the blame. John Humphries (cited in Crystal, 2006:155) states ‘I wish the basic rules of grammar were still taught to every child’. This statement relates to a so-called ‘barren period’ of 1960-2000 when formal grammar was not taught at most schools. A great deal of care is now taken in teaching the national curriculum in schools, explaining and imposing rules of grammar. As this help wasn’t available for a forty year period, those who grew up during this time have turned to self help books such as ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’. However. Crystal argues further that these usage manuals, however well written, are of little use to us as linguistic education must take place whilst we are young, claiming ‘if usage manuals lived up to their promises, we would be home and dry by now’ (2006:57).

It is debatable whether our troubles with punctuation are due to ignorance and laziness. We have now come through a technological revolution, and as Crystal (cited in Moore, 2008) claims ‘punctuation has always been a matter of trends (…) subject to changes in fashion’.

LUCY HALLMARK, English Language undergraduate,  University of Chester (UK)

References

  • Fernandez, C,. (2009). ‘Punctuation hero’ branded a vandal for painting apostrophes on street signs.  The Daily Mail, [internet] 18 August.

Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1207301/Punctuation-hero-branded-vandal-inserting-apostrophes-street-signs.html#ixzz1sUqgp3oN

[Accessed 24 October 2012].

  •  Moore, V,. (2008). Apostrophe catastrophe! The rogue apostrophe is spreading like measles. It’s time to fight back…. The Daily Mail, [internet] 18 November.

Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1086832/Apostrophe-catastrophe-The-rogue-apostrophe-spreading-like-measles-Its-time-fight-.html#ixzz1sUrKecKO [Accessed 20 October 2012]

HEATHER BINGLEY asks: ‘Apostrophes: necessary or nuisance?’

In the critically acclaimed ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, Lynne Truss, a self-proclaimed ‘Language stickler’ (2009:1), asks ‘isn’t it time to recognize that the apostrophe needs our help?’(p.37). After being used simply to mark dropped letters in the 17th century to being used to mark a possessive, indicate plural, and to indicate non-standard English (p.37-44) (to name only a few of eight jobs the poor apostrophe now has) we have to ask ourselves if we really need the apostrophe? Does the apostrophe need to perform all of these duties, and do people care if it is used incorrectly?

In many cases the answer appears to be ‘no’. However there is an obvious attempt to grasp an understanding in terms of applying the apostrophe. Victoria Moore, a journalist for ‘The Mail Online’ states in her article ‘Apostrophe Catastrophe’ that ‘the poor apostrophe is the subject of more abuse than any other dot, dash or squiggle’. Yet when she points out the blatant errors in signs and posters, people have a seemingly defensive attitude towards their use of grammar, with the bar manager of a ‘swanky Charlotte Street Hotel in London’ justifying his use of the apostrophe in ‘Martini’s’ as correct because he ‘checked it on google’. Though a loose justification it does show an attempt at understanding the rules of usage, something which is a recurring theme throughout the article. When Moore shows Anam Islam, a ‘young graphic designer’ his mistake in the sentence ‘threatening to copy plan’s’, plastered on the window of Copywell, a printing and copying centre, he says he is surprised by the mistake as he ‘watched a documentary on apostrophes the other week and thought [he] always got them right’. People do want to use the apostrophe correctly but don’t seem to understand how. Is this their fault?

David Crystal says ‘no’. In ‘The Fight For English’ he states that there was a ‘forty-year wilderness which lasted roughly from 1960-2000’, in which ‘[T]eachers spent a lot of time explaining about rules, and not just imposing them. And examiners would only give marks if those explanations were understood.’(2006:155). This has led to a generation of people unable to accurately use the apostrophe; people like Anam Islam who try to teach themselves the rules and fail. Crystal states that ‘‘Do it yourself’ linguistics’ will fail as it is too late. He suggests that ‘Linguistic education needs to take place while we are young…. when we can find the time, resources, and help’ meaning that self-help books like Truss’s are somewhat useless, and although they help with a general understanding they are not a panacea. If they were, the problem would have been abolished with the first self-help grammar book.

With this in mind can we say that the apostrophe is a dying mark? Can we say that people don’t care?

HEATHER BINGLEY,  English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crystal, D. (2006) The Fight for English: How language pundits are, shot and left. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, V. (2008) Apostrophe catastrophe! The rouge apostrophe is spreading like measles. It’s time to fight back… [online]. 18th November [Accessed 15 October 2012],  available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1086832/Apostrophe-catastrophe-The-rogue-apostrophe-spreading-like-measles-Its-time-fight-.html#ixzz1sUrKecKO

Truss, L. (2009) Eats shoots and Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation . 4th edition. London: HarperCollins.

ALI HUMPHREYS asks ‘Who cares anyway as long as we know who ate it, shot it and left it?’

Being a self-confessed language ‘stickler’ I thought nothing could change my opinion on the importance of correct punctuation. It is true that when an incorrect spelling rears its ugly head in my vicinity I feel my temper fraying and I have to stifle a sigh. Much like Lynn Truss (2003), I felt the need to don a balaclava and campaign against the battering the apostrophe receives concerning the misunderstanding of ‘it’s’ being a shortened version of ‘it is’ and the matter of ‘its’ belonging to the gender questionable ‘it’ perched in the corner. This was until one man began to make me question my hard earned language pretension and I am now battling with the concept of ‘If it makes sense, does it matter?’

According to David Crystal (2007) who wrote a book in response to the best-selling ‘Eat, Shoots & Leaves’, punctuation is unnecessary for the majority of the time, and as long as meaning remains intact there should be no emphasis on correct punctuation. This is a valid argument, as context and prescriptivism are not known for going hand in hand, (e.g. freaking out because ‘CD’s for sale’ has been scrawled across an A4 sheet at a car boot sale is not seen as having much grip on the wider world). However, what concerns me, if affecting context is the real case here, does that not need monitoring? To me, punctuation is the guidance of context. It literally marks out the way in which we intend our words to be interpreted using a series of symbols. The ‘Dear Jack’ letter, demonstrated in Truss’ book (2003:9) outlines this perfectly. Only punctuation is changed, yet the semantics of the letter transforms completely. If we are to deem that punctuation necessity is dependent on whether context is affected we would surely need to devise some sort of test method for conducting on any literature ever produced, in order to see if without punctuation the correct meaning is being conveyed. This is highly unpractical, although would create jobs in a tough economic climate.

Crystal seems to have been aiming at the concept of developing a common sense attitude to punctuation. If it can still be read, and the supposed meaning is blatant, then there is no need to ‘be that guy’ who seeks out managers of shops to painfully argue that ‘potato’s’ being written on a sign is rotting the minds of the young and damaging our society.

Despite knowing this, I cannot see my quiet seething at the misplaced apostrophe being something I will overcome any time soon, and I cannot help but wonder if the nation simply needs a master class in how to punctuate.  The apostrophe has worked hard to get where it is, and people deserve to know why it should (or shouldn’t) be there.

ALI HUMPHREYS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crystal, D. (2007) The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left. 2nd edition. Ch 23 ‘context’, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Truss, L . (2003) Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  London: Profile Books

Welcome to ‘Language Debates’

Dear English Language blog readers

These blog entries have all been crafted by University of Chester (UK) English Language undergraduates, many who are participating in a module called ‘Language Debates’. Each student introduces and comments on issues of controversy within the public and academic worlds of English Language and Linguistics. These issues include: attitudes to language use (the ‘prescriptive’ v ‘descriptive’ debate); political correctness; taboo language; relationship between language and thought; is English a ‘killer’ language?; cultural imperialism and the ESOL industry; language acquisition, nature or nurture?; the nature of meaning, semantics or pragmatics?; the ‘phonics’ controversy in schools; the ‘Standard English’ debate.

Your comments/opinions are very welcome, though of course will be moderated for intolerant language.

The blog-writers have been advised to check their posts for factual inaccuracies and are entirely responsible for the material uploaded here.

Let the debates begin!

Dr Matt Davies, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for BA Single Honours English Language, University of Chester (UK)