Thursday, July 11, 2013

We're Serious About Our Punctuation

by Giselle Renarde

This isn't the post I thought I'd be writing.

See, I'm currently in the woods.  Vacationing.  It's great--you should try it some time.

I fully intended to schedule this post to go up on its own.  Of course, I ran out of time and didn't get it done.  Scratch that.  I didn't even get it started.  If I'd written this post last week, it would have been about Steven King's "On Writing."  Man, I'd have had great things to say about that book!

But this week I picked up Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, and I have even more to say about this little treasure.  It's a book about punctuation, if you're not familiar.  A best-selling book about punctuation, mind.  You'll find it classified as "Reference/Humour," but perhaps "Humour/Reference" would be more apt, because it's laugh-out-loud funny.  Or maybe I'm just a nerd.  Yes, I'm definitely a nerd.

Nerd.  Grammar Geek.  Serious About Punctuation.

That's me.

Although Eats, Shoots & Leaves contains instructional-ish referency-ness, I'm not sure it would appeal to those of us who aren't at least a little bit militant in our nerd-dom.  Lynne Truss's approach to the evolution of punctuation isn't militant, but she takes no prisoners when it comes to those who get the basics wrong.  In that sense, I guess she's saying what we're all thinking.

...or, at least, what I've been thinking...

...and I've been thinking it for a long time, holding my tongue, trying to keep it to myself because, gee, I don't to offend anybody...

Aww, screw it.  Some authors may be offended by the content of this post.

I follow other authors on Twitter.  I read their blog posts.  I cringe.  I cry.  I writhe in pain.  And why?  Because a good many professional writers in our genre have only the most tenuous grasp on the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

"So what? That's what editors are for!"

Umm... okay, but do these editors give your blog posts a once-over before you hit that orange Publish button?  No?  Thought not.

Let me speak briefly as a reader: when an author tweets, "Its my book and here's it's cover," or when their blog post contains lines like, "There going to they're house," I honestly shout at my computer.

I shout, "You're an author!  You need to know when to use its and when to use it's.  You need to know their/there/they're.  Okay, sure, I've heard that Hemingway didn't have the best grasp of English language conventions, but you ain't no Hemingway.  YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS SHIT."

When a writer obviously lacks textual communication skills, they automatically go on my NO WAY IN HELL I'M BUYING YOUR BOOK list.  I'm telling you, kids, it's a damn long list.

And, who knows?  Maybe these authors' books are edited by the best of the best and I've got nothing to worry about... but... well, there's no diplomatic way to say that some editors don't know an apostrophe from a hole in the ground.  Pair 'em up with the authors who never learned the basics and you end up with a book that looks like it was written by a middle school student.

Whoo... I've been trying not to say that for years!  Feels good to get it off my chest.

I take my punctuation seriously.  Without naming names, I'll tell you very discreetly that I no longer submit work to one particular editor because this person had no compunction about filling one of my short stories with comma splices.  Yeah, you heard me right.  I'm talkin' comma splices in every paragraph. 

Why?  Why would you do such a horrible thing to an innocent author?  Let alone an author with a punctuation sensitivity!  Next time just stab me in the throat, why dontcha?



Not that I'm a punctuation ogre (obviously).  I'm flexible, where style is concerned.  I was told early on in my writing career that semi-colons had fallen out of fashion in contemporary erotica--dashes should be used instead.  Okay, whatevs.  I can swing that way.  In fact, I've swung.  I almost never use semi-colons anymore.  Gave 'em up cold turkey.  Don't even crave them with my morning coffee.

Style is variable.  I have no problem with authors playing with punctuation for stylistic purposes IF (and only if!) they know their shit.

And, yes, an astute reader can tell the difference.


  1. the its/it's mistakes drive me bats too. i don't own this book but have heard it quoted so often, i may just have to pick it up. thanks for the post, Giselle. enjoy your holiday.

  2. Oh Giselle! Do I ever feel your pain!

    I know there are some authors who are dyslexic. I can accept the notion that such individuals might nevertheless possess great imaginations and be able to pen a fine story. However, I don't want to read that story until AFTER it has been edited! Problems with punctuation, word usage or grammar will simply kill my enjoyment of a book, no matter how creative and expressive the author might be.

    Meanwhile, I think in the majority of cases the problem is simply laziness or being rushed. Yes, I'm guilty of that myself, particularly in commenting on blogs or dashing off a quick reply to someone's email, but I always try to remember to check at least once before hitting Send or Publish - to spare myself deep embarrassment!

    I have had guest bloggers who've sent me posts riddled with typos and "grammaticos". All I can do is cringe.

  3. Yes, the sad truth is that though the publishing revolution has had many positive effects, one of the not-so-positive effects is there are now plenty of people out there editing and publishing whose level of grammar and usage expertise is not what it should be, the more energetic of whom will actually *introduce* errors in the course of "correcting" their authors' manuscripts. (And then sometimes they don't send proofs, and their errors go straight to the readers--and make the *authors* look bad.)

    A big part of the problem, I think, is that people are taught a lot of bogus or overgeneralized rules--by pedantic instructors, not literary professionals--whose application can result in ugly or even blatantly wrong edits. So people with a little bit of (faulty) knowledge go out into the brave new publishing world thinking they know the job, when they really don't. And once they're in business (often as the only editor in the house, with no truly expert and experienced editors to answer to or be guided by), these people may never get a reality check, in a marketplace that's now completely "un-juried."

    On semicolons: They may be somewhat "out of fashion," but they're part of the toolbox, they have a purpose, and I think it's unfortunate for a publishing company to dictate their overall presence or absence. We're supposed to develop individual styles and voices, aren't we? Well, things like semicolons (used judiciously, of course) can be part of that. Moreover, depending on exactly what one is doing in a given sentence, a ban against using a semicolon can be a real hindrance. (In my experience, substituting a dash is not always a viable option--again, depending on exactly what one is doing in the sentence.) Sure, some writers can go an entire career without finding the need for a semicolon. Fine. It depends on the shape and voice and texture of one's work. (There might even be a great writer out there who never uses question marks, for that matter. Fine.) But if semicolons are going to go out of fashion, I say let that be based organically on writing trends, not arbitrarily on publisher fiat. Don't get me wrong: I think it's fine for a publisher to say, "Your style is a little too formal for our readers, so though your piece is well-written we can't use it"; or "This 2,000-word story has twenty-five semicolons: could you look it over and see if you can repunctuate some of those sentences, as we find the prevalence of semicolons to make for a tedious rhythm?" That's very different from a categorical prohibition against a particular punctuation mark.

    I'm a great lover of good style and the felicitous use of the language toolbox... but I have to say that in my humble opinion, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is to good usage what Fifty Shades of Grey is to fine erotic literature. Everybody here is much smarter than Lynne Truss. Mind you, I'm not knocking you for liking the book, Giselle. It sounds like you enjoy the validation it gives as far as getting irked by sloppy usage, and I can definitely relate to that. But... well, I already wrote a multi-screen rant about ES&L elsewhere, when the book was new, so I'll stop here. (:v>

    1. There is one author whom I have edited who uses so many dashes that I had to remove about half of them, inserting periods or (occasionally) semi-colons in their place!

    2. Oh, and if you'd like to post the link to your RSL rant, I'd be interested in reading it. I haven't read the book but many individuals whom I respect have criticized both the information and the exposition.

    3. I mean ESL. For some reason I keep thinking it's called "Roots, Shoots and Leaves"

    4. one of the things i've noticed is that beginner editors tend to over apply rules. they don't understand that punctuation in fiction, just as any other element, is part of the tone & style of the work. a character who speaks in choppy fragments will require a different punctuation from one who speaks in long-winded sentences.

    5. Here's that link. (Thanks for your interest, Lisabet!) It's probably the rantiest (or at least the longest-and-rantiest) thing I've ever written for public consumption. And I can't believe it's almost ten years old! But it shows, with my dated references to IMs and no mention of texting. Also: Though I know I took the time to self-copyedit it, I note that like everything else my piece is not itself free of errors. (:v>

    6. Jeremy, what an eloquent and well reasoned critique! (Everyone else - read it if you get the chance!) I particularly liked this:

      "...the qualities that enable people to communicate well – whether orally or in writing – are good thinking first and good expression second. One has to bring maturity, sensitivity, and judgment to a situation before one can expect to communicate with delicacy and grace. Horse; cart."

    7. Thank you so much, Lisabet! (:v>

  4. Jeremy! Did you just somehow accuse me of liking 50 Shades? That, I categorically deny.

    I do like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It's nice and ranty. It's a rant in book form, really--although, that's exactly what makes it unapproachable for the people who really need it. She calls them down too often. If I didn't know my its from my it's and I wanted to learn, I'd probably pick up this book and put it right back down. I would feel like the author was calling me stupid (because she totally does that), and I'd be like, "Fuck you, lady," and that would be that.

    In a sense, it's a book for people who don't need it.

    Okay, back to the woods...

  5. LOL. No, I didn't mean to imply you liked FSOG! (:v>

  6. I just spilled my coffee pounding on my desk in agreement with you, Giselle! I'm an English teacher working as a sub for the past 10 years, but students always submit their stuff to me because they know I'm kind (of a sucker) and I'll proof-read their papers, especially college entrance essays. Sheesh! I don't know WTF their teachers do, but explaining grammar concepts correctly seems not to be in the mix. As a long-term sub, and in my previous life as a teacher, I'd read each batch of papers then design mini-lessons around mistakes I found in many of the papers. Then they'd be offered the chance to rewrite the paper for a better grade. Those who took that offer said they'd learned what mistakes to avoid in the future. Alas, that common-sense method is out-of-date and considered too old-fashioned to be of any use. Sigh.

    If you liked Truss' style, pick up a copy of "Talk To The Hand", in which she expounds in her biting style, on the "Six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door." In other words, she calls people out for their utter rudeness in public. Since I still have kids in college, I also work in a clothing retail store in an upscale mall where I can't afford to shop, even with the discount. There are some polite people, and some friendly ones, but the majority of "John and Jane Q. Public" are rude, ignorant, and imbued with an inalienable sense of entitlement that precludes them ever noticing that there are other people in the store, others in line also, or the fact that you might already be taking care of some other person's needs. If you don't jump immediately to toady for them, you must be excoriated publicly, so you learn the shame of your ways.

    We're heading up north for our camping vacation soon, also to an area with no wi-fi or cell phone signal unless you drive over an hour into town. I can't wait! I never understood hermits before, but I'm beginning to understand why living as far away from other people is an attractive proposition.

  7. Oops! My bad! I meant to end with "as far away as possible from other people is an attractive proposition." Mea culpa! I should have proofread it 4 times, not just 3!

  8. Even the newspapers; today, Don't seem to value; either good, grammar; or punctuation, as a "matter of fact?, One of these times... I'm gonna write about that: if I can save up enough clippings to do a blog about it.

    Conversely: it has also been said: that-- editors no longer actually edit anything, anymore!!! And if your manuscrip't isn't nearly "perfect" they won't rad, beyon, the firsts paragraphs So it's behoove, all of us, too learn the basics craft. Whereas, if we broke the rules: we should, at least, know what rules, we're breaking!!!

    1. Snort! Now I'm spitting out my coffee! Brilliant, Daddy!

    2. joining Lisabet in the snorts. the horror!

  9. Now I m ust read Eats, Shoots and Leaves! Someone actually gave it to me, and it's in the to-be-sorted pile in my new office. (Did I mention my new office? Due to seniority or accomplishments or some such, I was given permission to move to an office with a window, a view and more shelves than my old one in the English Dep't of the local university.) I will be teaching Creative Writing in September, and I've chosen 2 writing handbooks, but I'm also looking for little lessons here & there that might be useful. I assume my young wannabe writers will make the same grammatical mistakes as my captive audience of students in first-year English. For those who aren't sure whether standards are going down, I have evidence. For about 20 years, I've been giving grammar tests. In past years, there were always 2-3 students out of 35 who got 100%. Last year, I had a class of 40 students, and half got less than 50%, & the highest score was 80% (objectively marked).

  10. Sad commentary, Jean.

    And on the bright side, I did find Eats, shoots and Leaves in a thrift store today. (they actually had 2 copies) I figured the serendipity alone was worth the buck I spent.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if it is something that can be learned. We can learn punctuation but I really love is the music of words, and that takes time. But punctuation helps.


  12. Hi Garce-
    Count Basie once said something to the effect of: " Notes are just notes; anybody can play them. Music is what happens between the notes."

    1. One thing that drives this editor crazy (one out of many) is that so many new writers pick up their bad grammar habits from the works we're complaining about, assuming that, since those are already already published, they must be correct. [grumble, grumble, danging participals, unworkable participial phrases beginning every paragraph, grumble...]

    2. OMG, Sacchi. I could write a book of weird urban legends about the rules of grammar that students (including the older-adult kind) pick up -- Goddess knows where. One of my students, who actually wrote quite well but apparently by instinct, believed that apostrophes should be used to indicate a very large number of things. So she would refer to "dozens of apples" (no punctuation) but "millions' of people." Another student defended his unworkable participial phrases by saying he had experience as an editor. This meant he had lived in a small town here on the Canadian prairie where he produced the town's weekly newspaper, and his subscribers were too polite to criticize his style (eyeroll). Then there are students who are afraid of gerunds and participles because they've been told that all "ing" verbs are "passive." (It surprises them to learn that "passive voice" is completely something else and has nothing to do with "past tense.")

    3. I worked briefly as a graphic designer at a rural newspaper chain (while also working as a copy editor for other people). Once or twice I offered input when the mighty editor's prose was particularly faulty, but he did not seem to appreciate that a whole lot. (:v>

      I also used to volunteer for an online "grammar questions" service. The people asking for help were mostly people studying English as a second language. Their English was usually quite advanced, but they too had picked up some bizarre "rules."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.