Monday, November 28, 2005

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

The buffer zone between the cultures of print and spoken language is contracting fast, and for me that's more of a good thing than a bad one.

An obvious consequence of this development is that any zero tolerance approach to punctuation is going to have a torrid time of it trying to sort out digital media that show little respect for the geographical boundaries of convention. (Maybe half of the copy that I read on-screen places the full stop inside the closing pair of double quotes, whilst the other half insists on locating it just outside. Yet I'm damned if I ever notice as there's usually little danger of miscontruing the meaning of the text. )

Lynne Truss explains that apostrophe means "turning away" in ancient Greek, and that was to have been my response to her book, left unread on my bookshelf since its arrival on Santa's sleigh a couple of years ago. Then I found out what an excellent job she has done of winding up the transatlantic sticklers - especially the staff of the New Yorker.

"An English woman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces", whined Louis Menand in that most punctilious of publications.

What really bugs him though is that Truss's little book made it unchanged to the top of the US best-sellers list, "a typesetting convenience that makes the book virtually useless for American readers", in the instructive sense at least.

They may know how and when to season their printed text with semicolons, but how many Americans of your acquaintance can do proper joined-up handwriting?

Most of my Guatemalan correspondents have yet to discover the joys of punctuation, but caligraphy is something that is drilled into them at school. Many of a certain age have also learned to type - on typewriters - so when they send emails they judiciously indent their paragraphs out of habit.

I'm halfway through Truss's polemic and have unexpectedly warmed to her waspish sticklerishness. I may even entertain the hope that this year's stocking includes her latest rant in full charicature, Talk to the Hand. Misanthropy is clearly an ideal way for the middle-aged to keep the fires of youthful rebellion alive.

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