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Lynne Truss – Eats, Shoots and Leaves interview

December 1st, 2004 · No Comments

Punctuation vigilante
Championing the rights of the apostrophe to exist may not seem a likely way to gain literary stardom, but author Lynne Truss has done just that with her book Eats, Shoots And Leaves, writes Greg Lowe.

There’s something wrong with the world today.The apostrophe is facing extinction and poor punctuation is proliferating at a breakneck speed accelerated by the scourge of SMS texting and webspeak. The end result: the once musical, rhythmic beauty of the English language is reduced to nothing more than “guttural, matter-of-fact communication”.

At least this is the dark linguistic future as predicted by Lynne Truss’s polemic Eats, Shoots And Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation.
In order to arrest these societal transformations, Truss carves out her own brave new world, a new society led by the “Panda Club” — a balaclava-clad direct action vanguard of punctuation vigilantes, armed with adhesive apostrophes and crosses, who wage war on the plethora of poorly punctuated signs that litter the streets.

“I want stick-on apostrophes. I want you to be able to go down the street and when you see something that needs an apostrophe, stick one on. I think we could correct the world, ” says Truss, who advocates a hundred-fold hike in the cost of SMS texts to halt further linguistic degradation.

This may sound like the insane ranting of someone who’s a verb short of a sentence, but Truss — labelled the “Queen of Pedants” by The Guardian newspaper — has rocked the literary world with her no-compromise manifesto on proper punctuation.

With in excess of two million copies in print, rave reviews from around the world and being able to boast knocking publishing heavyweights like JK Rowling off the bestseller lists, she has obviously struck a nerve.

Speaking from the Shangri La hotel in Singapore at the tail end of her Asia Pacific promotional tour last September, Truss tells New Arrivals about the emotional motivation behind her book and how she was shocked to find myriad kindred spirits wandering the barren plains of poorly punctuated shop signs, movie posters and emails.

“A piece of me dies every time I see something without an apostrophe or with one in the wrong place, ” she explains, “but I’m scared a lot of people — younger people — don’t regard writing as superior form of using language.

“You use language to convey speech and it conveys speech very well, so they [younger people] just condense it and spell it any old way because it’s just trying to convey the sounds of the words they would use. They don’t have an interest in words in the same way my generation would. ”

Essentially Eats, Shoots And Leaves is Truss’s soapbox from where she professes the importance of proper punctuation How it provides the signposts of language that “direct you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play”.

Part rant/part guide, the book examines punctuation marks and their correct and incorrect usage. It also includes commentary from various stylists, authors, journalists and grammarians who have provided supporting or conflicting arguments for the existence — or extinction of — the comma, colon or exclamation mark.

Truss’s treatise also gives a potted history of the development and evolution of punctuation. How ancient Latin, like Thai, had no punctuation at all and how many of today’s punctuation marks owe their existence to a 15th-century family print shop in Venice. Printers’ conventions have in fact been a driving force behind the evolution of punctuation, and one of the biggest influences on how certain marks have fallen in and out of usage.

While Truss does froth at the mouth from time to time and, on occasion, journey down a slightly self-indulgent path — which isn’t that surprising in a publication that fetishises punctuation — Eats, Shoots And Leaves is a highly informative and often entertaining book.

Truss herself is an affable, jovial woman who is a pleasure to talk to. She is quite the opposite of the anally-retentive stickler one would expect to be behind such a creation, and she’s prepared to accept the paradoxical situation her book puts her in.

However, as she has shown that punctuation has developed due to literary and printing trends throughout history, is she not just part of an old guard that refuses to move with the times?

“Although I emotionally want to hold onto stuff — because I think it works — you can’t hang on to it because language is changing, ” she says. “My aim is to make people appreciate what we have while we’ve still got it.

“A convention is a convention only if everyone agrees that’s what it is. If half the people don’t know what a comma is then it doesn’t fit it [the convention]. It’d be awful to think people in the future wouldn’t be able to read the great books because they wouldn’t understand how they were written or what these marks mean. The music of language is lost.

“Somebody said the book was an epitaph for the English language and that really struck home. It was rather chilling. ”

Despite her fears for the English language, Truss has been moved by the overwhelming response Eats, Shoots And Leaves received.

Even the American audience, which has the same British-English version of the book, responded well. “I’m amazed people want to read a book that wasn’t written with American examples or for the American market. The only thing they wanted to know was what do ‘poncey’ and ‘argy-bargy’ mean. ”

While Eats, Shoots And Leaves has afforded Truss fame and fortune, perhaps its best effect has been to give her a greater sense of self-esteem.

“It’s still a bit of a whirl but I now accept it’s a bestselling book. For a time I thought it might be something happening in my brain, that I might be suffering from some strange delusions, ” she laughs. “I’ve always felt I don’t deserve something and it’s nice to see everyone else thinks I do. ”

Tags: Asia Books magazine · books · interviews

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