'Pandaring' to punctuation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am

A WOMAN, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Punctuation, for the many people who apparently need reminding, is vital for conveying the meaning of words accurately - and getting it wrong can have confusing, misleading or highly embarrassing results.

Scores of examples such as the one above are given in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book devoted exclusively to the art of punctuating and the spiralling decline it has suffered over recent years.

And if further proof were needed that the comma, apostrophe, semi-colon and their fellow marks are under unprecedented attack today, there is the book's own phenomenal success. A best-seller since it came out in November last year, it already has a print run of two million and is about to be translated into four languages, including Putonghua and Japanese.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves has struck a chord with people of all ages across the globe who vaguely sense that something is amiss with the written word - to the utter amazement of its author Lynne Truss. Subtitled The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, it is a whimsical 'call to action' to sticklers for correct punctuation everywhere to unite and fight back against the rampant abuse.

And if secondary school students can get their hands on the book, it may do for their punctuation what years in the English classroom have failed to achieve.

Truss, who swept through Hong Kong this week, puts the crisis down to the liberal educational trends of the 1960s and 1970s and, more recently, the impact of e-mail and text-messaging.

In the book, she points to the 'awful truth' that, for more than a quarter of a century, punctuation and English grammar were simply not taught in most British schools (despite its high international profile, the book is very much written within a British frame of reference).

Teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of students' self-expression but, although A-level examiners annually bewailed the condition of examinees' written English, nothing was done about it.

And with the explosion of information technology just around the corner, Truss writes that it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse.

'The effect of the internet must be exponentially, hugely, greater than anything else that has happened to language before, except printing itself,' she said.

The erosion of punctuation was leading people to give speech precedence over the written word, which they were beginning to see merely as a way of representing what they said.

'My fear is that, if, increasingly, people regard writing as a kind of subspecies of talking, ultimately they won't come to understand any of the conventions of printing at all and then they won't be able to read books,' she said.

'We could end up with just grunting and pointing.'

Truss is ambivalent about whether the fightback can really succeed but very clear about who must be in the frontline of defence: teachers.

'Education has got to be the solution to the decline in punctuation,' she said. 'I don't want people to be able to write like Samuel Johnson. But what I want is some way of making sure that, in the future, people can read and write clearly. What is being lost is clarity.

'The main thing I hope - and I am a bit sad it hasn't happened already - is that someone in education will say we ought to take a look at literacy and ought to make it a much higher priority.

'I think the message of the book is that pronunciation is actually quite an interesting thing.'

The challenge was to make learning punctuation - and grammar - interesting, so that children were able to see why a sentence with a comma in the right place was better than one without.

'The idea that grammar is boring comes from a period when most teaching was boring,' she said. 'Education is all about teaching things in an interesting way now and I am sure they could find interesting ways of teaching grammar.'

During a lunchtime talk at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, Truss demonstrated - to the delight of diners - her idea of a new martial art called Pung Shway Shon for modelling punctuation marks to reluctant learners.

'I would suggest that using martial arts to illustrate the different punctuation marks would be an excellent way of teaching pronunciation in Hong Kong,' she said. 'It would certainly be fun and I'd expect it to be popular here too.'

Another possibility was to take the 'how does it work' approach so common in science education today, in which scientific principles are used to explain everyday objects, and apply it to punctuation and grammar.

'There is nothing more interesting to someone learning how to read and write than to be told how it works,' she said. 'This is the approach that is taken with everything else children are learning, so why should their language be an exception?'

But it was also very important to teach the names of punctuation marks and grammatical forms. If learners could not identify the parts of speech they could not describe how to use them correctly, and would be less likely to do so.

In a city such as Hong Kong, that draws English teachers from many different English-speaking countries, each with their own version of the language, a syllabus that spelt out precisely what pronunciation children should be learning and clear guidelines on the conventions being followed, should also help.

'And there is room for a new children's literature based on play with grammar and punctuation,' said Truss, citing an old children's book called The Grammatical Kittens. In it, two wayward kittens, who have been mixing with some rather rough young felines, are sent to have their syntax sorted out by a friendly local sheepdog.

'I think children are stimulated by that sort of thing,' she said.

The book's success has only hardened Truss's zero tolerance for sloppy pronunciation, as people send examples from all over the world for the 'hall of shame' on her website.

'It has made it much worse,' she said. 'I just get more and more depressed by it. The only thing for me is to go and live on Mars or something so I can escape English.'

So does she have plans for another book?

'I'm half-tempted to write a children's version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves,' she mused.

'I have vaguely thought about it. I do think it would be a worthwhile thing to do a children's version of the book.

'But when people say: 'What are you going to do about saving the language next?', I say: 'Why me? I have done my bit.' I feel that perhaps some other people might take up the cudgels for punctuation.'