Amazon , Waterstones Share on Anxious about the apostrophe? Confused by the comma? Stumped by the semicolon? Join Lynne Truss on a hilarious tour through the rules of punctuation that is sure to sort the dashes from the hyphens. We all had the basic rules of punctuation drilled into us at school, but punctuation pedants have good reason to suspect they never sank in. It is not only the rules of punctuation that have come under attack but also a sense of why they matter.
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Lynne Truss: Stop the apostrophe catastrophe! Make it stop! Just switch on a radio in the vicinity of a person you suspect of being a pedant. You might like to sit forward with a pad and pencil, or you might just want to sit back and watch with your mouth open.
Anyway, the news comes on, and the pedant listens with half an ear, while brushing her teeth. The causes are a sedentary lifestyle and the universal availability of fast food. The spokesman has pronounced it "sed-ent-ary". A couple of minutes later, a woman on the airwaves describes how she will sometimes pick up her child and then "lie it down again". And then, with an unexpected swiftness — almost before you realise what is happening — she opens a drawer, removes a gun, raises it to her head, and blows her brains out.
This is an appeal on behalf of the pedant. Consulting detailed statistical research that I have just made up, it seems that the average pedant in this country sees or hears between 50 and shocking errors of English every day. More than half of these errors are silently absorbed, without any outward show of pain or anxiety. However, at least 10 errors will cause them to "stop in their tracks" or "gasp aloud in horror", and one or two will result in serious breathing difficulties or howling.
Can this terrible state of affairs be allowed to continue? What can be done? In my public persona of "Queen of Punctuation", I am popularly supposed to be the sort of person who regularly upbraids the illiterate, but I honestly never point out mistakes in a manner to cause hurt feelings.
I just die inside, quietly. I mean, to take a couple of examples, I have recently noticed that quite clever people are using the word "enervate" definition in Concise Oxford: "to deprive of vigour or vitality" as if it means its exact opposite, "energise". Similarly, I talk regularly to someone who is trying to obtain a patent, and he always calls it a "pain-tent".
Am I being kind not correcting my friend? Or am I just being a moral coward, not wanting to give him cause for disliking me? But I still worry. Why would I want to ruin the lives of innocent children by giving them the rules of the apostrophe? Do I want to impose my own misery on others? Sometimes I even witnessed this life-ruining at first-hand — when, while promoting the book, I would go out with film crews to find misplaced apostrophes on high streets.
At the start of each filming day, the assigned jobbing cameraman would have only a vague idea of the reason he was there "Like a comma, right?
Would this nice man go home later to his wife and children — to all outward appearance, the same person, but oh-so changed in this one regard? There is nothing humanitarian about it. My excuse is that I am willing to sacrifice the future mental wellbeing of a few kiddies for the sake of a greater good: for the sake of continuing to celebrate the beauty of the printed word. This is not a fight for English — English can look after itself.
Correspondents to my website are often children — children who complain about a the signage at their schools, b the illiteracy of their parents and teachers, and c their unaccountable feelings of loneliness. To order, call Telegraph Books on or visit www.
BOOK REVIEW: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss
Lynne Truss: Stop the apostrophe catastrophe! Make it stop! Just switch on a radio in the vicinity of a person you suspect of being a pedant. You might like to sit forward with a pad and pencil, or you might just want to sit back and watch with your mouth open. Anyway, the news comes on, and the pedant listens with half an ear, while brushing her teeth.
Death to the otiose comma