Monday, September 04, 2006

At last--a little comma sense

In my school days, when boys started shoving each other and throwing punches, bystanders would chant, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" This served not only to further incite the combatants, but to draw an appreciative crowd. I always shook my head at such juvenile behavior and continued on my way.

Until now. Apparently, I've grown bloodthirsty in my old age, because a fight's brewing and not only am I eager to watch it, I'm yelling, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" so all of you will gather 'round and enjoy it with me. Check out this juicy article from yesterday's Guardian:

Stand back for a war of words - and of commas, apostrophes and split infinitives. One of Britain's leading language experts has attacked Lynne Truss's bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves for its 'misconceived' and 'deeply unnerving' zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

David Crystal, a former colleague of Truss who once advised her that a book about punctuation would never sell, condemns the author for joining the ranks of 'linguistic fundamentalists'. He also criticises John Humphrys, the Radio 4 Today presenter, over his book championing the rules of grammar. Truss's publisher has hit back, however, insisting language rules are vital in situations such as job applications.

The cover of Crystal's new book openly mocks that of Eats, Shoots and Leaves with a picture of a panda under a road sign showing an exclamation mark and the title: The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left.

Did you see that? Did you see it? Crystal doesn't even wait until Page One to throw the first punch; he does it in the title. Yes, right there after "Shot" we see a serial comma.

This is one fight I've gotta see.

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Neal said...

But if Crystal is using grammar rules that Truss doesn't agree with to prove his argument (I'm sure he's not), then he's barking up the wrong tree. Surely the story to take away here is: Truss believes that grammar rules (never mind which ones) have a place, Crystal doesn't. Personally, if that's the argument, then I side with Truss, and as proof of that, I point to my argument that one _should_ use a serial comma (even if she doesn't agree with that herself).

You see where I'm coming from?

Crystal is a big name in linguistics, but I don't know whether he's qualified to judge on English grammar. Both Crystal and Truss are, in their own way, playing to the "pop linguistics" audience, and this argument is more evidence of it.

I still haven't read "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", but as time goes on my desire to decreases...

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, I'm not rhapsodizing over the entire forest, Neal, I've just stopped to admire this one lovely tree. Any man who uses a serial comma in the title of his book has at least one admirable quality, don't you agree?

GeorgianaD said...

I haven't read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but I had it on my list. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought leaving out the last comma in a sequence is AP Style for journalists. Isn't it the Chicago Manual the "final authority" for fiction writers? I struggle with commas.

Anyhoo, I like a good fight, too, Brenda.

Neal said...


Leaving out the serial comma may well be "correct" style for journalists, I don't know, but it almost certainly doesn't come from the Chicago Manual. That manual was developed as the style guide for the Chicago University Press, and as such has become very popular with academics and technical writers (I fall into the latter category). It's almost certainly where I learnt to love the serial comma. I don't know whether the fiction community use it (Brenda?), but I'd be surprised.

Here in the UK, the serial comma is still usually left out, but as a technical author, I've seen so many examples of ambiguity in writing that I go to lengths to avoid it. Using a serial comma is just one way of doing that.

Another example, favouring my side of the pond for a change, is the use of quote marks. I understand that in the US it's still common to leave puncuation outside the quote marks, whatever the context. So you'd say something like:

"I'll have cheese, apples, and bananas".

(if I understand it correctly -- it still looks just too strange to me)

But Chicago says to use the UK style, in order to avoid ambiguity. The UK style is to keep punctuation with the context of the quote:

"I'll have cheese, apples, and bananas."

Brenda: nice analogy. I agree that a serial comma in the title of a book by a Brit is a thing to be proud of!

Brenda Coulter said...

I agree that a serial comma in the title of a book by a Brit is a thing to be proud of!

I wonder, Neal, whether that was intended to tweak Ms. Truss or whether Crystal is a true fan of the serial comma. He sounds like a bit of an anarchist, so it might very well be the former.

Georgiana, the final authority for any fiction writer is the house that publishes her. They all have their own styles. Some abide by the Chicago Manual and some don't. Harlequin's house style is not to use the serial comma.

[Neal wrote] I understand that in the US it's still common to leave punctuation outside the quote marks, whatever the context. So you'd say something like:

"I'll have cheese, apples, and bananas".

Common, yes. But not correct. That's not a matter of style any more than your greengrocer's apostrophe is. Some people just don't know better.

GeorgianaD said...

Thanks for the clarification. I'm still comma happy.

Neal said...

You know Brenda, that's what I love about this blog. You learn something new every day! :-)

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, Neal, but maybe I answered too soon. I was thinking of direct quotations and had completely forgotten about scare quotes. (Are they called that in the U.K.?) I do often see scare quotes with the period after. Is that wrong? I don't know, and I haven't time to look it up today.

Here's a scare quote:

Susan told us her "big news."

I'd punctuate it that way. But others might do it thusly:

Susan told us her "big news".

Neal said...

Hi Brenda.

Yes, that's just what I was thinking of. I have heard the term "scare quotes" but I don't think it's in common use over here -- mainly because no-one uses them I guess!

Anyhow, I'm sure Chicago recommends avoiding them because of ambiguity. Compare:

Type "delete".


Type "delete."

In one, the poor old user would be scratching their heads wondering why nothing was deleted. (OK, go with me here, maybe we're talkig about running some antiquated operating system on an old PDP 11 ...).

(Having just typed up all that, I guess that's a direct quote, rather than what you're calling a scare quote. Ah well, it's first thing in th e morning here, so I'm allowed the odd "slip". Hee hee. Whatever, Chicago still advises against it.)

Brenda Coulter said...

Yesterday at the airport, I (finally) bought a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I'm looking forward to reading it, but don't know if I'll get to it this week.