It can happen so easily. Looking back over the last three years, I find I have written enough words in this newspaper to fill a substantial book. Yet no single manuscript has been submitted before it has been vetted by my sharpeyed wife. Like Latin homework at school I can check, check and check again; yet, inevitably, it returns with pencilled corrections. Sometimes, it is true, she questions the clarity or emphasis of a passage, but all too often it is a misplaced comma, an inappropriate semi-colon or a vagrant full stop.
It is not that I don’t understand punctuation; not long ago I wrote a school textbook on the subject. Nor do I lack ready reference: Fowler, Gowers, Vallins and the classic Carey’s Mind the Stop are at arm’s reach.
My despair is only deepened by my belief that punctuation is important: not only does it avoid confusion but it operates as the articulated joints of language, making it immediately understandable, precise, and even, one may hope, occasionally elegant. Macaulay certainly achieves that by using the gamut of punctuation possibility with the same sensitivity as the conductor who takes his orchestra through a complex passage by a variety of exactly timed and chosen gestures. Jane Austen is the master — or is it the mistress? — of the semi-colon: despite sentences which are often long by today’s standards, she makes them a pleasure to read. And try Proust without punctuation.
Lynne Truss has written a jolly book about punctuation. And jolly good it is too. Disingenuously, she presents herself initially as a pedant or a “stickler”; but, by the end, it is clear that she is passionate about punctuation, and for all the right reasons. Didn’t Bertrand Russell define a pedant as “A person who prefers his statements to be true”? And her passion for the truth of punctuation is fuelled by her fear that we are losing an essential tool of our written language through carelessness or ignorance. Does an email, or even a txt msg, merit good punctuation? Yes, if we want our communication to be read and understood. I received an email recently which was unintentionally insulting to a group of worthy parishioners all for the lack of a comma. Which is why the panda went into a café for a bite, fired a gun and left. He had just read his own entry in a natural history book: “The panda eats, shoots and leaves.” But this book is more than a philippic against punctuation louts; Lynne (for her jolliness positively demands the use of her first name) provides an excellent primer. Punctuation has developed from a simple indication of pauses in material written to be read aloud into a sophisticated notation governed by necessary rules. Of course it has changed, both for practical reasons and for reasons of fashion. Nowadays we rightly avoid punctuation where the meaning is clear without it, while our forefathers used it at every interstice.
Some of the rules are invariable; some are a matter of taste. Accepted American punctuation differs in certain respects from English. Much literary ink has been spilt between authors and their editors through disagreement about arbitrary questions. Lynne guides us through this, and disentangles its complexity through her commonsense discrimination and apposite examples. The most apposite example is the book itself. Jolliness, I fear, places greater demands on punctuation than a more sober treatment. For those who feel that they need a quick refresher course, or for those who, through an accident of birth, were schooled during that lengthy period when illiteracy was pursued as a conscious educational policy, this book is accessible and fun. It will save you the labour of studying the standard authorities, with whom Lynne is occasionally minded to disagree.
You will also enjoy her excursions into history. Her hero (she wishes she could have had his babies) is Aldus Manutius, who invented the italic typeface and printed the first semi colon in the 15th century. And if there is one mark that Lynne likes more than another, it is the semi-colon. I am with her.
We cheerfully accept the punctuation given in the Bible, forgetting that it was not in the original manuscripts but inserted much later. And it can make a difference. Alter the placing of a comma and you can alter the sense. Take Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief: “I say to you this day you will be with me in Paradise.” Whether you place the comma after the first “you” or after “day” could depend on your views on purgatory. At his trial, Roger Casement unsuccessfully argued that an unpunctuated Act of 1351 could, with appropriate comma placement, excuse his treason. Given that there are 17 ways in which commas can be used, including the Oxford comma, the yob’s comma and the defining comma, some confusion is excusable.
It is tempting to seek out solecisms in any book which presents itself as a guide to writing. But the only one that leapt at me is Lynne’s version of the old fashioned mode of address: “Mr A. Franklin, Esq.” — only marginally better than a secretary of mine who addressed an envelope to “Mrs Jones, Esq.” It has stuck in my mind these 30 years. But I have to be careful, too. My revered books editor has expressed the hope that this review will persuade me to use “a few more of the little devils”. I shall examine the differences between my copy and the printed page with care.
Dylan Thomas’s last words were apparently a query about the placing of an apostrophe. While this does not equate to raging against the dying of the light, it was a good question on which, like the panda, to leave.