Finding the #Write #Words? No. 13 Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Continuing the description of books on words in post 1 list, which you’ll find here.

Book 13: Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

Hardback, 209 pages, including a bibliography. It was published by Profile Books in 2003; my version is that edition and I bought it then for £9.99. You can obtain a used copy for around £3.00. The current version, published by Harper Collins in 2009, is available in paperback for £8.99.

The book is subtitled ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.’ It provides 7 chapters, ‘Introduction – The Seventh Sense’, ‘The Tractable Apostrophe’, ‘That’ll Do, Comma’, ‘Airs and Graces’, ‘Cutting a Dash’, ‘A Little Used Punctuation Mark’, and ‘Merely Conventional Signs’.

I bought it because punctuation is rapidly deteriorating, even in the work of professional writers, to whom it should matter a great deal. I’ve always been a believer in the adage that to break a rule effectively, you need to understand it fully.

Opening randomly, at pages 168/169, I am in the penultimate chapter ‘A Little Used Punctuation Mark’ and the ambiguous nature of the chapter’s title immediately becomes clear: this one deals with the much-abused hyphen.

‘One of the most profound things ever said about punctuation came in an old style guide of the Oxford University Press in New York. “If you take hyphens seriously,” it said, “you will surely go mad.” And it’s true. Just look how the little blighter escaped all previous categorisation until I had to hunt it down on its own for this teeny-weeny, hooked-on, after-thought-y chapter. It’s a funny old mark, the hyphen… Yet there will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: if it’s not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts.’

The chapter continues in the same vein, pointing out the value of the hyphen and demonstrating that we should throw it away only with serious caution. ‘In the end, hyphen use is just a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier.’ Lynne Truss makes serious points with humour, backed with examples, to make us question the questioners. Punctuation has developed over the centuries; reading ancient manuscripts, often devoid even of the humble full stop (period, if you’re in the USA), is tedious in the extreme. So, let’s keep our useful apostrophe, the much-abused comma, the misunderstood hyphen and the contentious semi-colon, shall we? After all, they do so little harm but an awful lot of good in making our writing clearer, don’t they?

Rather amusingly, my MS Word live editing program highlighted ‘old style’ in the sample above. It clearly felt this should be hyphenated, which was an incorrect suggestion, as the phrase refers to a style guide that happens to be old, not a guide presented in an ancient style: no hyphen required! An illustration of how vital it is for us, as writers, to use our knowledge and experience when employing any automated editing program.

English is a complex language, made up of words from many countries, and borrows rules of grammar, punctuation and even style from those originating lands, which makes it interestingly familiar to learners but also frequently frustratingly baffling to the same students.

Those learning the English Language will find help on pronunciation here. And you’ll find a friendly group on Facebook through this link. Post 2 is here, post 3, post 4, post 5, post 6, post 7, post 8, post 9, post 10, post 11, and post 12 here.

4 thoughts on “Finding the #Write #Words? No. 13 Eats, Shoots and Leaves

  1. Correct punctuation can save lives. The difference between, Let´s eat, gramma, and Let´s eat gramma, can be deadly. This is a great book and should be on every writers desk.

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    1. Thanks Lynette. Punctuation is gradually being eroded, so I think it’s vital we writers keep using it properly, otherwise misunderstandings will become rife. I know a lot of people confuse the dash with the hyphen; both have their special uses, of course.

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