Tuesday, December 21, 2010


When you read to yourself, by which I mean, not aloud, do you speak the words in your head? Does the punctuation affect how you speak the aforementioned words? Does it change, as it were, your mental intonation?

It does mine. And hence why I have never understood why people have trouble with most punctuation. I can understand the problems with apostrophes. Even hyphens, to a large extent. The difference between single and double quotation marks is something with which I grapple daily and have decided is a case for inventing one's own convention. But these are all punctuation marks which you can't hear when talking. FULL STOPS, commas, ellipses, dashes, and even the dreaded semi-colon, however, are just representations of how people talk. Seriously, what's the deal, world? Is it really that hard? Can't you just listen to the words in your head and *hear* which punctuation mark to use?

Evidently not. And evidently I am some kind of grammar snob who reads too much, though to be honest I do remember a time when I didn't know how to use the semi-colon, but I seemed to develop the ability spontaneously because it's second nature now. But anyway. Punctuational musings aside and ON TO THE BOOK!

I had to re-rate this book from four stars to three. Somehow I didn't find it so funny the second time. The humour seemed forced, and formulaic (the Oxford comma has its place, by the way). Perhaps linguistics has spoiled me. One year of rabid left-wing hippy pot-smoking release-yonder-children-from-the-shackles-of-modern-education descriptivist linguistics lecturers has cured me (almost) completely of any lingering signs of prescriptivism (for all you who remain unconvinced, Stephen Fry and Language Hat will tell you why descriptivists have more fun).

In any case, I've seen curses rained upon Lynne Truss for her 'smug', 'self-righteous' 'linguistic snobbism', but she's a sweetie at heart, I believe. For all her grouchy, unconvinced and unconvincing attempts to paint herself as a not-too-prescriptive-prescriptivist (if that even makes sense), she's just a language lover (to hyphen or not to hyphen?) at heart. Observe:

"... it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don't know the difference between "who's" and "whose", and whose bloody automatic 'grammar checker' can't tell the difference either. [hear, hear! MS Word, are you listening?] And despair was the initial impetus for this book. I saw a sign for "Book's" with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped; snapped with that melancholy sound you hear in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, like a far-off cable breaking in a mine-shaft [sic]. I know that language moves on. It has to... But I can't help feeling that our punctuation system, which has served the written word with grace and ingenuity for centuries, must not be allowed to disappear without a fight."

And no, it's not just the Cherry Orchard reference that makes my heart go boompity-boomp. No matter how many linguistics lecturers I have, no matter how many blog posts written by celebrities advocating descriptivism I read, I will still share at least some of Ms Truss's sentiments. It's the same feeling of sadness I feel when I contemplate the word 'awesome' and how it can never really encompass all that it used to. The same feeling of tragic loss I experience when I realise that the phrase 'the stuff of magic' is actually kind of funny these days. The same half-smothered regret that is inspired within my soul as I cast around desperately for a synonym for 'random' that doesn't make me sound like an idiotic teen.

It's just nostalgia, pure and simple. Now let us alone, descriptivists.

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