English language more respected in HK, says author

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 August, 2004, 12:00am

Best-selling stickler Lynne Truss saw a sign at the weekend that showed her the way forward. It said: 'Don't step on a moving gangplank when the ferry is rolling heavily under the effects of high sea waves.'

Asked at a Foreign Correspondents' Club lunch yesterday whether she had found any funny misuses of English in Hong Kong, the author and journalist said the language was shown more respect here than it received in most English-speaking countries.

'The one thing I noticed was a perfectly grammatical, wonderful sign on the Star Ferry,' she said. 'The person beside me couldn't believe I was so moved. But that's the kind of sad life I have.'

Her love of punctuation has seen two million copies of her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation printed since its release in November.

The sign affirmed one of the book's arguments - that people who learn English as a second language often have a better grasp of punctuation than native speakers.

'If you're learning a foreign language, you learn the parts of speech and you learn the grammar. You have to,' she said.

Schools in English-speaking countries should study methods used to teach grammar and punctuation to those learning English as a second language, she said.

'Take some sort of guidance from how it's taught as a foreign language, because clearly that works,' Truss said. 'People who learn English as a foreign language are much more precise about [punctuation], don't have as much trouble and actually enjoy learning the spelling.'

Her message that the future of the printed word is threatened by e-mail and text messages 'reaches more people than I thought', she said. Truss wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves believing it would make no money. She was sure people would consider her a 'complete nerd' and that many would only be interested in finding her grammatical errors.

She was wrong on all but the last prediction. While most have welcomed her stickling, reviews in London's The Times newspaper and in The New Yorker belittled her failure to hyphenate 'zero tolerance' or use a comma before the restrictive clause in her dedication.

'I wrote the book to take punctuation away from its image as something for mean-minded people. But the mean-minded have tried to take it back, which is very disappointing.'