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)


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


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

  1. Lisa Kirby says:

    Whilst I am sure that I would sound far less prescriptive to agree with the argument offered by Crystal, I am afraid that I, like Ali, must stand in the same corner as Truss. Though I must confess that I have not yet decided to don a balaclava or join any society which battles to preserve correct pronunciation, I am likewise frustrated by the widespread ignorance that is shown to the basics of good grammar. I fully concur with Truss’s assertion that ‘punctuation is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling” ’.

    Crystal is justified to suggest that if a person can understand the context of a written piece, then overly prescriptive attitudes to grammar are unnecessary, yet this attitude can sometimes result in the meaning of a text being at best ambiguous, and at its worst misleading. Reading an article which is badly punctuated is like listening to nails being scratched along a chalk board, you may not wish to react but the goose bumps which arise all over the body compel you to put a stop to the aberration. For this reason if no other, I, along with Truss, Ali and countless others will continue to highlight the poor use of grammar when it rears its ugly head.

  2. I agree with both Ali and Lisa. Even though Crystal suggests that understanding is the key issue, surely the use of correct grammar and spelling must be preserved or the language will disintegrate into a deluge of text-talk and illogical comma useage. I wear my balaclava with pride 🙂

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