Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Up to a Point, Lord Copper

Those of you who pay close and rapt attention to the literary pages of the English broadsheets will have noted the excellent reviews Lynne Truss has been getting for Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation. And rightly so - one of the many great aphorisms that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has given Western culture is Tara's pithy comment on why she no longer surfs the Internet: "I used to go online but everyone's spelling is so bad, it's depressing."

And she's right, of course. Most of people that post to fora (oh, forums, then, if you must) are either unspeakably lazy or virtual illiterates. And if even the basic courtesy of correct spelling is not being observed, what hope punctuation, grammar and syntax?

None at all, I'm afraid. Miss Truss's book is good, but not as good as I had hoped. I'm not sure I care for the tone she employs in the book - all the best correct English usage books have gloried in extremely arch tones, as best typified by the legendary HW Fowler and his great work, The King's English. HW always gave the impression that any time he caught a man with the blood of a split infinitive on his hands, he gave the bounder a damned good thrashing.

Utterly OTT, but there's no other way to go about it I'm afraid. To say that a living language, any language, has rules is fallacious - a language has conventions. That whole business about split infinitives that so concerned old school grammarians - it's a throwback from Latin, it has nothing to do with English. There is no good reason not to split an infinitive in English, and the very powerful one that infinitives should indeed be split, if it adds power and clarity to what is being communicated. To boldly go is to show the pioneering spirit; to go boldly is not to forget one's galoshes.

While the conventions are not rules set in stone like the Ten Commandments, that does not excuse for one instant people being either ignorant or oblivous to them. The reasons these conventions exist is so that everybody can tell what everyone else is talking about. We must agree on what words mean, and what punctuation marks mean, for, if we don't, then we build our very own Tower of Babel, and we're reduced to hieroglyphics.

Always presuming we're not reduced to hieroglyphics already, as those cursed emoticons invade all forms of communication and correspodance. I've just thought of my own emoticon for the correct treatment of the emoticon devotee:


Can you guess what it is yet?

If anybody has trawled south this far, I presume that you have some interest in the language, its future and its correct use. As such, may I reccomend the finest guide to punctuation that I ever came across. These Notes on Punctuation are from a book called The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas, and it's Thomas' genius to use the punctuation symbols to illustrate their meanings, and all in less than one thousand words. In five minutes, the secret to correct punctuation is yours, and then the world is at your feet.