- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

They may be an unusually polite crowd, but the grammarians are at each others’ throats. Like a gaggle of Trotskyites fighting over a particularly dense paragraph of “Das Kapital,” they are shedding pools of ink in defense of their version of The Truth.

Who will win is a question I can’t possibly answer. The English language is an ever-evolving beast, and it could just be that all the arguments prompted by Lynne Truss’ best-selling punctuation guide “Eats Shoots & Leaves” will be rendered irrelevant by the next big linguistic innovation to come out of the Internet. After all, e-mailers probably have a greater influence over the way we use language than any august authorities.

In the meantime, though, the debate is certainly fun to watch.

“Eats Shoots & Leaves,” a tirelessly good-humored attempt to save the apostrophe from extinction, was one of the surprise publishing successes of last year. When Miss Truss, a journalist and broadcaster, set out to write her short but entertaining book, she was happy to accept a publisher’s advance of a mere 15,000 pounds sterling (about $27,000). After all, how many people out there would really want to read about such an esoteric subject? Then again, before the success of Dava Sobel’s “Longitude,” how many people would have admitted to being interested in the ancient art of navigation?

Miss Truss, who prefers to describe herself as a stickler rather than a pedant, is the kind of person who feels a stab of pain whenever she witnesses an apostrophe being abused. The sight of a shop advertising “video’s” or selling “apple’s” is enough to send her into a silent rage.

Early last year, when she found that London was festooned with posters advertising the Hollywood film “Two Weeks Notice” [sic] she decided that the time had come to mount a counter-offensive. As she writes in her introduction: “Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in ‘The Sixth Sense’ who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation.”

It took her only six months to write the 200-odd pages of text devoted to the mysteries of the semicolon, the dash and the e-mailer’s all-purpose favorite, the ellipsis. Within weeks of publication, “Eats Shoots & Leaves” had become Britain’s fastest-selling book. Around half a million copies have been sold, which means that Miss Truss is now a very rich stickler indeed. An American edition is due to appear in April.

(The enigmatic title, by the way, derives from the old and painfully contrived joke about a panda who walks into a cafe, eats a sandwich and then fires a gun. When the puzzled waiter asks for an explanation, the departing panda tosses him a badly punctuated wildlife book in which a panda is defined as an animal that “eats, shoots and leaves.”)

Does the success of the book mean that the apostrophe’s future is now assured? Not yet. As Miss Truss observes, part of the problem stems from the fact that, from around 1960 onwards, a generation (myself included) passed through the education system without being taught the rudiments of grammar.

Under the recently introduced national curriculum, schoolchildren do get to grips with commas, colons and all the rest. But a great deal of damage has already been done. And as more and more of the under-30s turn to communicating by text-messaging, the rules seem set to become even more vague.

Even one or two conservative commentators have reservations about signing up for Miss Truss’ crusade. Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times of London, devoted a Safire-ish op-ed column to questioning some of her arguments.

Although he admired the book’s tenacity, Mr. Jenkins regards colons, semicolons and dashes as useless paraphernalia. Miss Truss’ prose style is too tangled for his taste: “The more precise a language the less it needs punctuating. Cicero, Livy and Virgil need no breathing pauses. Their Latin was beautifully structured and controlled. The same was true of the American Constitution.”

Another Times columnist, Rod Liddle, went a step further, denouncing Miss Truss in an article deliberately stripped of all punctuation aside from periods. Miss Truss’ bestseller is, he argues, simply a vehicle for unadulterated snobbery: “It is middle class vindictiveness and smugness. It is a stick with which to beat the lumpenprole. Theyve got the vote and we live in a supposed meritocracy. But the thick bastards still cant use punctuation. Thats the subtext.”

Mr. Liddle is surely wrong. Whether or not you have much time for the semicolon, the rules of punctuation enhance clarity, which in turn has a democratizing effect on language. Allow everyone to follow their own rules, and we will end up with the linguistic equivalent of a Baghdad roundabout in rush hour. Dodging rampaging trucks and runaway cars, Lynne Truss is doing her best to get the traffic lights working again.

The BBC is routinely accused of failing to give air-time to conservatives, so I suppose I ought to be pleased that the corporation is running a TV series devoted to the innermost thoughts of a former luminary of the Tory party. Unfortunately, the figure in question happens to be Alan Clark, author of stylishly gossipy political diaries and an unabashed admirer of Adolf Hitler (known in the diaries as “Wolf”).

Published a decade ago, his record of his life as a junior minister in the Thatcher administration achieved notoriety for its uninhibited comments about his colleagues and the great British public in general. The book is now being dramatized on the digital TV channel BBC4 with John Hurt in the lead.

If it is authentic snobbery you want, then Alan Clark is your man. An Old Etonian (a graduate of England’s most prestigious boarding school, Eton) who inherited a family fortune — and a castle too — he pines for the days of “government by the upper class.” Like a refugee from “The Magnificent Ambersons,” he sees himself surrounded by impostors, upstarts and real-estate agents. Obsessed with the purity of the race, he once toyed with the idea of leaving the Conservative Party to join the racist National Front. The destruction of Nazism, he tells a journalist over lunch in 1981, was “a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races.”

Clark — who died in 1999 — was a respected military historian but an abject failure as a politician. It tells you something about the social makeup of the Conservative Party — even under the anti-Establishment leadership of Margaret Thatcher — that somebody with his toxic views could have managed to reach even the lower rungs of the ministerial ladder. (Clark clearly thought he had the talent to rise even further, but was very much in a minority.) To see him being turned into the hero of his own TV series is a little depressing. But then, the British do like a character. And Clark is the BBC’s ideal kind of conservative: privileged, faintly absurd and no serious threat to anyone.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.


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