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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stephen Fry, Lynne Truss & Grammar

I just ran across this video done by Stephen Fry and Matthew Rogers about grammar. I started it expecting one of those "ho ho, look at the philistines" tidbits, but it ended up being a sweeter, more compassionate entreaty to be mindful of how strict adherence can destroy a joy in language. I interact with people in a text-based medium all the time - probably more than when I actually talk out loud to humans, sadly - and I know I cringe and want to drop a *you're when I see the possessive substituted for the contraction. But, unless I'm dealing with a troll, that is an uncharitable thing to do. Let's just have a good time, slash be inventive.

(More videos can be found at RogersCreations)
(And if the embed is jacked, which it always is, link here.)

Fry's sexy little ramble hits the ambivalence I felt when reviewing Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves - he name-checks her as well at some point - which is about punctuation, an even more abstruse subset of grammatical rules than your usual split infinitive nonsense. Typographical rules tend to be scattershot and local, and many of them are in place because of physical limitations of typesetting machines that no longer factor. Sure, the grocer's comma makes me laugh a lot of the time, like a sign hanging in the hospital coffee room when my son was hospitalized that managed to put an apostrophe in every word that didn't need one, and removed them from the ones that did. Which, thank the signifier for that badly needed laugh. The original review of Truss's book is below.


Recently, the boy made a sign for the door of his bedroom that reads "Keep Out. Not for baby's." His spelling is largely self-taught, as he is not yet in kindergarten and I am a somewhat lazy parent-educator. This made me have a Noam Chomsky-ish melt-down about the concept of generative punctuation. Lord, is the grocer's comma innate? Is it mapped on our brains like the double negative? Am I really his mother?

This book has been sitting on my bedside table for no less than two years. I read it only when I can't be bothered to go in search of my real book or the book with which I'm cheating on my real book. For some reason, I don't think of this book that fondly when I'm not reading it, and then I'm pleasantly surprised whenever I pick it up again. But I have this jarring sensation when I read it, akin to the feeling I get when I read articles about neuroscience: holy buckets, I'm using my brain to think about my brain! She's using punctuation in a book about punctuation. Hey, don't bogart that. 


This book makes me feel weird because I don't think of myself as a stickler. I am both lazy and exuberant when it comes to punctuation. I have an unfortunate love affair with the semi-colon; it cannot be helped. I also overuse parentheses because I think they are funny. (I tried, and failed, to not type a parenthetical comment here; oh crap, and there's the semi-colon.) My comma use borders on the Henry Jamesish. Why make simple declarative statements when things can be jammed together into one enormous run-on sentence, comma splices everywhere, and...my word, what has she done with the verb? This is the kind of writing this book provokes from me, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. 

When I was living in a dorm my first year of school, the housekeeper would put up missives with the most tortured punctuation all over the building. She was a kindly women, older, and cleaned up our crap for probably not much more year than was required for tuition. (Unsurprisingly, I only spent a year at this institution.) Regularly, jerk students would correct her signs and laugh about how bad the punctuation was – and it truly was bad. This has always bothered me. Of course good punctuation provides a clarity of expression when attempting to convey a clarity of ideas. Of course. But sometimes you should just pick up your fucking towel's, jackholes, regardless of whether they possess anything. 

It was a relatively painless way to brush up on the punctuation rules I've now largely forgotten, and will no doubt forget again in roughly fifteen seconds. I usually have the attention span of a very distracted raccoon when it comes to non-fiction, so it is saying something that I finished this book at all, even if it took two years. Oh, look! something shiny! And that does it for my three exclamation points for the year, alas. 

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