The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation!


Lynne Truss

Gotham Books, 2003, 209 pp.   ISBN 1-592-40087-6


A best-selling book on punctuation?  Unlikely.  But it is in Britain!  You have to see the cover: a panda walking away with a smoking gun.  Get it?  Of course it’s British.  So a “period” is a “full stop,” etc.  You have to make a few translations.  (How many punctuation errors have you found so far?  I know you’re looking for them!)


“Some say the British are obsessed with class difference and that knowing your apostrophes is a way of belittling the uneducated.”  Not so, says Lynne, “Punctuation is no more a class issue than the air we breathe.  It is a system of printers’ marks that has aided the clarity of the written word for the past half-millennium....” (Preface)


Note:  Because it complicates things, especially regarding a book on punctuation, I’m not going to put quotation marks around the passages taken verbatim from the book.  Everything that follows is “in quotes” unless it is in square brackets [ ].  Dlm


If there is one lesson to be learned from this book, it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation.  (125)


For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated.  First there is shock.  Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger.  (1-2)


It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days.  ...the world carries on around us, blind to our plight.  (2,3)


Sticklers never read a book without a pencil at hand, to correct the typographical errors.  In short, we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.  (5)  [You won’t have to have anyone tell you if this represents you :)] 


...punctuation is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling”. (7) [The British sometimes put the period outside the quotation marks.  In the U.S. the period almost always goes inside.]


A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.   (9)


The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.  Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart.  Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.  (20)


So if this book doesn’t instruct about punctuation, what does it do? ... This one gives you permission to love punctuation.  (33) Shakespeare’s time, an apostrophe indicated omitted letters.... (38)


But when the possessor is a regular plural, the apostrophe follows the “s”:

     The boys’ hats (more than one boy)

     The babies’ bibs

I apologise if you know all this, but the point is many, many people do not.  (41)


The confusion of the possessive “its” (No apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.” (43)


If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave. (44)


[Regarding the apostrophe]

It indicates strange, non-standard English:

It indicates the plurals of letters

   How many f’s are there in Fulham?

It also indicates plurals of words:

   What are the do’s and don’t’s? (45) [My spell checker doesn’t like that one!]


If you can replace the word with “who is” or “who has”, then the word is who’s:

   Who’s that knocking at my door?  (61)


We may curse our bad luck that it’s sounds like its; who’s sounds like whose; they’re sounds like their (and there); there’s sounds like theirs; and you’re sounds like your.  But if we are grown-ups who have been through full-time education, we have no excuse for muddling them up.  (62)


[The comma mingles] two quite distinct functions:

1.     To illuminate the grammar of a sentence

2.     To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow  (70)

[These] two roles of punctuation sometimes collide head-on....  (71)


Of course, if Hebrew or any of the other ancient languages had included punctuation (in the case of Hebrew, a few vowels might have been nice as well), two thousand years of scriptural exegesis need never have occurred, and a lot of clever, dandruffy people could definitely have spent more time in the fresh air.  (75)


Commas are used when two complete sentences are joined together, using such conjunctions as and, or, but, while and yet:....  (87)


The first rule of bracketing commas is that you use them to mark both ends of a “weak interruption” to a sentence – or a piece of “additional information”.  The commas mark the places where the reader can – as it were – place an elegant two-pronged fork and cleanly lift out a section of the sentence, leaving no obvious damage to the whole.  Thus:

   John Keats, who never did any harm to anyone,

   is often invoked by grammarians. (90-91)


The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person.  I mean it.  More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity.  For example:

1       Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.

2       The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it

sank and swam to the river-bank.

3       Don’t guess, use a timer or watch.

   4    The convict said the judge is mad.    (96-97)


Using the comma well announces that you have an ear for sense and rhythm, confidence in your style and a proper respect for your reader, but it does not mark you out as a master of your craft.  But colons and semicolons – well, they are in a different league, my dear!  (106)


But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes – that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity – well, they are the colons and semicolons.  (107)


...the colon “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words,”... (115, quoting H. W. Fowler)


When two statements are “placed baldly in dramatic apposition”, he said, use a colon.  Thus, “Luruns could not speak: he was drunk.”  (117)


A colon is nearly always preceded by a complete sentence, and in its simplest usage it rather theatrically announces what is to come.  (118)


A classic use of the colon is as a kind fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements:

   Man proposes: God disposes.  (119)


So colons introduce the part of a sentence that exemplifies, restates, elaborates, undermines, explains or balances the preceding part.  (120)


...the main place for putting a semicolon if you are not John Updike is between two related sentences where there is no conjunction such as “and” or “but”, and where a comma would be ungrammatical:

   I loved Opal Fruits; they are now called Starburst, of course.  (121)


True, [the semicolon’s] use is never obligatory, because a full stop [i.e. a period] ought always to be an alternative.  But that only makes it the more wonderful.  (123)


...only full sentences should be joined by the semicolon.  (126)


Linking words such as “however”, “nevertheless”, “also”, “consequently” and “hence” require a semicolon – and, I have to say, this seems pretty self-evident to me.  (127)


...we all know that italics are the print equivalent of underlining, and that they are used for:

1  titles of books, newspapers, albums, films such as (unfortunately) Who Framed Roger Rabbit

2  emphasis of certain words

3  foreign words and phrases

4  examples when writing about language  (146)


...use double quotation marks for speech, however, with single quotations for quotations-within-quotations.... (152)


Meanwhile, the distinction between the big bold dash and its little brother the hyphen is evidently blurring these days, and requires explanation.  Whereas a dash is generally concerned to connect (or separate) phrases and sentences, the tiny tricksy hyphen ... is used quite distinctly to connect (or separate) individual words.  (158)


Double dashes are another matter.  These are a bracketing device... (160)


In case you don’t know the names,

            ( ) are parentheses.  The British call them round brackets.

            [ ] are brackets.  The British call them square brackets.

            { } are brace brackets.  That’s what the British call them anyway.

            < > are angle brackets.   (161)


“One has to dismount from an idea, and get into the saddle again, at every parenthesis.” (162, quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes)


Brackets [called parentheses in the U.S.] are perfect for authorial asides of various kinds.  Square brackets are quite another thing.  They are an editor’s way of clarifying the meaning of a direct quote without actually changing any of the words:  (163)


[Ellipses (...) are used]

1   To indicate words missing ... from a quoted passage

2   To trail off in an intriguing manner ...    (166)


It is still necessary to use hyphens when spelling out numbers, such as thirty-two, forty-nine.


When a noun phrase such as “stainless steel” is used to qualify another noun, it is hyphenated, as “stainless-steel kitchen”. (172)


Certain prefixes traditionally require hyphens: un-American, anti-Apartheid, pro-hyphens, quasi-grammatical.  (173)


The good news for punctuation is that the age of printing has been glorious and has held sway for more than half a millennium.  The bad news for punctuation, however, is that the age of printing is due to hold its official retirement party next Friday afternoon at half-past five.  (179)


But I can’t help feeling that our punctuation system, which has served the written word with grace and ingenuity for centuries, must not be allowed to disappear without a fight.  (184)