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Truss speculates that if grammar and language as a whole, is to continue on its apparent course, it will soon become outdated by the internet and other forms of communication, such as texting.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

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

  1. Jo Close says:

    Perhaps the ‘decay’ reported by Truss is really just ‘change’. Grammar, lexis, and phonology change over time, so why shouldn’t punctuation?

  2. Matthew Hampton says:

    Unfortunately this is one of the great language debates that will never be solved. If the film name ‘two weeks notice’ needs an apostrophe in weeks in a normal sentence why should that apostrophe be ignored because it’s a film title? The small percentages of people who constitute extreme attitudes towards the omission of apostrophes in instances like this are well within their rights to do so. However I cannot agree that ‘if language continues on its apparent course, it will soon become outdated by the internet and other forms,’ because for me grammar and language will always be totally and completely contextual. If language was changing for the worse, surely this is only a good thing because the English Language would become easier to learn for both first and second language speakers?
    If I was told that I had no choice but to choose between the Lynne Truss camp or the David Crystal camp I would have to say that I favour the opinion of David Crystal, on the grounds that if a child is in school 6 hours a day, 5 times a week, then this is where the child will be exposed to the most language. Therefore surely if a child is being taught grammar poorly and in an environment with 100 other children that are also being taught grammar poorly, then it would have an effect on their grammar usage, however if there is a noticeable lack of grammar in a sentence we speak, does this really effect the meaning of the sentence?

  3. Olivia Windmill says:

    This is a really interesting read, I agree how irritating punctuation can be when used in a non-standard way.

    However when you describe how;

    “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”

    I struggle to see how this point can still be relevant today. It was at least 15 years ago when character count was an impacting factor upon the usage of punctuation and spelling in text messages as there was a need to not go over the character count as this would cost the ‘texter’ more money. However with today’s technology, character counts are are a thing of the past, and with features such as ‘AutoCorrect’ is it possible that texting is no longer having such a negative effect which Truss is describing here?

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