The present of a book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, with the sub-title The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, has triggered off for me a remembrance of and a veneration for the structure of the English language (see how nervous I’ve become). It reminds me of Winston Churchill’s remark, how at school he was not deemed very bright, and so had to repeat several years of study. But he comments that while cleverer boys went on to study Latin and Greek, he had to remain with a three-fold grounding in English grammar. As a result, he says that he got into his very bones the structure of the English sentence, “which is a noble thing”.
When I look back over the teaching of grammar, in my case by an eccentric Rosminian brother nicknamed “Rocker” Roche, a pedant if ever there was one, I realise how unfortunate I have been.
There was a turn against the teaching of grammar and the structure of the sentence in the second part of this last century. The emphasis was laid on the imaginative aspects of language, to the detriment of the ordinary English sentence. Grammar and spelling counted for nothing in the imaginative and descriptive setting. This attempt was only partially successful, and ultimately doomed to failure, because language has other duties to serve in the ordinary explanation of ideas and theories. So a situation arose where grammar was only taught in the service of foreign languages, and they were not particularly helped by the lack of knowledge of the grammar of the native language.
One of the great books of grammar for me was that of JC Nesfield, first published in the late 19th century, in the heyday of parsing. Every word has its reason, every clause has its purpose, and to wrestle with main clauses and subordinate clauses was great fun. Analysis and synthesis, complex and multiple sentences, relative pronouns and adverb clauses, of which there were many: they all formed part of a structure, and when that was there, the descriptive and poetic could enter in.
Nesfield’s Manual of English Grammar and Composition is a book I would dearly love to give to members of liturgical commissions of the Church. Who knows the distinction between “genus” and “species”? Many are the mistranslations through the failure to understand, for example, that the word “man” is genus, and does not refer to individual men, who are the species, as indeed are the women. But the word “man” has been struck out of the words of consecration at the Mass because it doesn’t seem to include women, which is a nonsense, and shows that, however clever our liturgical experts are in dancing round the altar, they have not been trained in the basics of language.
Language is like mathematics in some sense: the building up of the structure of numbers. Music is a supreme example of this. Likewise, in art there is structure, and all great artists must have some geometrical knowledge of the human form and of nature. Structure is at the heart of all knowledge, particularly theological knowledge. The image, then, of the dry and dusty grammarian is rather false, and we elders do a great disservice by dismissing the very thing that gave us our ability to write and study. However, there is one consolation, that most things in life are dependent upon a mathematical concept expressed in words: the swing of the pendulum.
The young are finding those truths which have been rejected by their elders, and are discovering the joys of the apostrophe and the comma, rather in the same way as they are discovering the joys of theology, and not some souped up sociological creed and liturgy. So three cheers for the Apostrophe Society, and down with the exclamation mark, which is only a way of telling people that you haven’t sufficient language to express your mood.
We must preserve the full stop, and I think most would agree that it is quickly obvious that not to use the full stop brings nonsense on our pages. The comma is a delicate being. It dances on our pages, and its incorrect use creates many problems of understanding. It introduces essential pauses, clarifications and emphasis. The comma indicates a short pause. It is useful in lists, and brings light on our darkness.
There are some people who know that apostrophes and commas are important, but have little idea how to use them, so for safety’s sake they sprinkle them with abandon. So on our high streets we see notices for “pub lunche’s”, “potatoe’s salad”. They occasionally get it right: “dinner’s served here”. Then there is the headline, “Titanic disaster: priest dies” when it should read “Titanic disaster priest dies”.
To protect against libel claims, the question mark is often invoked. A statement is made of a very libellous nature,
which concludes with a question mark: “Jack and Jill went up the hill?”, otherwise Jill would certainly have sued, because she never went up the hill with Jack. The finances of the Daily Muckraker are protected for another day.
Before I finish, I should give you the explanation of the title for those who have not seen the book.
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. “Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” So there is a stern conclusion to this lighthearted New Year piece, to take your grammar more seriously, and as the blurb on the book’s cover says, “Punctuation does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death”.