June 21, 2004

Reads, zaps and digresses

Lynne Truss may believe that "people who put an apostrophe in the wrong place ... deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave", but apparently she herself isn't very careful about where she puts her commas. In a New Yorker review posted today, Louis Menand comes down on Truss like a whole squall line of Jovian thunderbolts, and after his first 1200 words, there's not enough left to hack up and bury.

He starts this way:

"The first punctuation mistake in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” (Gotham; $17.50), by Lynne Truss, a British writer, appears in the dedication, where a nonrestrictive clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from there. “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” presents itself as a call to arms, in a world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax."

He ends his discussion of Truss by pointing out that her fans are mad as hell

"and they do not wish to be handed the line that “language is always evolving,” or some other slice of liberal pie. They don’t even want to know what the distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause might be. They are like people who lose control when they hear a cell phone ring in a public place: they just need to vent. Truss is their Jeremiah. They don’t care where her commas are, because her heart is in the right place."

Having vaporized Truss in about 1200 words, Menand devotes the second half of his review to an interesting series of digressions about the differences between speech and writing and the nature of a writer's "voice". Punctuation plays a minor role in this discussion, and Truss almost no role at all.

Menand may have foolish, hypocritical and incoherent ideas about possessive antecedents, but he can sling a mean lightning bolt, and I think it's fair to say that Truss was asking for it. And after the smoke clears, Menand tells a couple of nice stories about W.H. Auden, James Agee and Luciano Pavarotti.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 21, 2004 11:30 PM