Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Drinks, milks & pops

The thing that's kept me from purchasing a copy of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves comes even before the dedication, where Louis Menand (The New Yorker, issue of 2004-06-28) claims the first of the grammatical errors occurs.

I can't get past the front cover. I would've hyphenated the subtitle as follows: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

Hyphenate an adjectival compound when it comes before the noun it modifies.

However, style guides in recent years tend toward recommending omitting this hyphen so long as it produces no ambiguity. Or if the phrase is sufficiently established in everyday language.

And this is where Truss misses the boat. Acknowledging the fluidity, the differences, the choices, the grey areas.

Though she has persuaded herself otherwise, Truss doesn’t want people to care about correctness. She wants them to care about writing and about using the full resources of the language. “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is really a “decline of print culture” book disguised as a style manual (poorly disguised). Truss has got things mixed up because she has confused two aspects of writing: the technological and the aesthetic.

The function of most punctuation — commas, colons and semicolons, dashes, and so on — is to help organize the relationships among the parts of a sentence. Its role is semantic: to add precision and complexity to meaning. It increases the information potential of strings of words. . .

What most punctuation does not do is add color, texture, or flavor to the writing. Those are all things that belong to the aesthetics, and literary aesthetics are weirdly intangible.


Menand comes close to correctly identifying the problem, but doesn't, quite.

The problem: punctuation, and grammatical correctness generally, is often a judgement call. When is a phrase "sufficiently established"? When is there no ambiguity? How do you know if a clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive, or when it's been punctuated incorrectly and means something else entirely?

The rest of the article is an interesting discussion of "voice" — the thing writers aspire to imprint on their work and which editors recognize as a thing of great value to be cultivated and preserved.

Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either.

Of course, good writers know when to break the rules, and good editors know when to allow it.

The rules help to carry meaning a far way, but in good writing there's also an ineffable something conveyed. Our aesthetic sensibilities remain largely subjective.

(This is why I love Saramago — his commas pause in the same rhythm as my brain breathes.)
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