Tuesday 9 December 2014


I've just read Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I'd known about it for a long time, but only recently got a copy, at a charity stall on a summer's day during the Wimborne Folk Festival. I really enjoyed her combination of passion about the way that punctuation serves proper communication and realism about the fact that language develops.

Especially fascinating were her insights into the history of some of our punctuation marks – a reminder that things weren't always so, which is a helpful corrective to the conservative tendency to preserve things in stone. It was intriguing to see her examples of text from not-very-long-ago-at-all, with numbers of commas and semi-colons that look completely over the top today. She makes the case for punctuation being really significant to the extent to which it (a) makes the meaning completely clear, and (b) helps the reader to enter into the music of the language. But even more memorable was the wittiness of way she critiques her own prejudices as well as those of others.

We've a number of classic children's books on the shelves, and this afternoon over a cuppa I've been reading Amy Le Feuvre's Probable Sons, with a sharper eye (in the light of Lynne Truss) for the punctuation she uses. It certainly has more colons and semicolons that Harry Potter but, given that it dates from 1895, it is remarkably disciplined and a model of clarity.

Some favourite moments from Truss: her mention of a report of a clinic offering semicolon irrigation;  her justifying of her scorn for emoticons (smileys and their children); and her reminder that the unmasking of a document in the government's 2003 dossier on Iraq as a complete fabrication depended, at least in part, on the plagiariser not having removed an erroneous comma.

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