"Eats, Shoots & Leaves" by Lynne Truss, Introduction–The Tractable Apostrophe

A sharp-eyed editor explains how small differences in punctuation can have enormous consequences.

Here are links to our lists for the work: Introduction–The Tractable Apostrophe, That'll Do, Comma–Airs and Graces, Cutting a Dash–Merely Conventional Signs

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. apostrophe
    a mark used to indicate the omission of one or more letters
    “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’S, DVD’s, and BOOK’S.”
    If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once.
  2. stickler
    someone who insists on something
    By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don’t bother to go any further.
  3. sensibility
    mental responsiveness and awareness
    True, one occasionally hears a marvellous punctuation-fan joke about a panda who “eats, shoots and leaves”, but in general the stickler’s exquisite sensibilities are assaulted from all sides, causing feelings of panic and isolation.
  4. placard
    a sign posted in a public place
    Meanwhile a newspaper placard announces “FAN’S FURY AT STADIUM INQUIRY”, which sounds quite interesting until you look inside the paper and discover that the story concerns a quite large mob of fans, actually - not just the lone hopping-mad fan so promisingly indicated by the punctuation.
  5. dither
    be undecided or uncertain
    A sign has gone up in a local charity-shop window which says, baldly, “Can you spare any old records” (no question mark) and I dither daily outside on the pavement. Should I go in and mention it? It does matter that there’s no question mark on a direct question.
  6. obsessive
    a person who has compulsive preoccupations
    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.
  7. grammarian
    a linguist who specializes in the study of syntax
    Some grammarians use the analogy of stitching: punctuation as the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape.
  8. etiquette
    rules governing socially acceptable behavior
    It is no accident that the word “punctilious” (“attentive to formality or etiquette”) comes from the same original root word as punctuation.
  9. ambiguity
    unclearness by virtue of having more than one meaning
    But unfortunately, when the settlers sent their telegraphic invitation to Jameson, it included a tragic ambiguity: It is under these circumstances that we feel constrained to call upon you to come to our aid should a disturbance arise here the circumstances are so extreme that we cannot but believe that you and the men under you will not fail to come to the rescue of people who are so situated.
  10. unequivocal
    admitting of no doubt or misunderstanding
    As Eric Partridge points out in his Usage and Abusage, if you place a full stop after the word “aid” in this passage, the message is unequivocal.
  11. metaphor
    a figure of speech that suggests a non-literal similarity
    All of which substantiates Partridge’s own metaphor for punctuation, which is that it’s “the line along which the train (composition, style, writing) must travel if it isn’t to run away with its driver”.
  12. pedagogue
    someone who educates young people
    The obvious culprit is the recent history of education practice. We can blame the pedagogues.
  13. erudite
    having or showing profound knowledge
    While other girls were out with boyfriends on Sunday afternoons, getting their necks disfigured by love bites, I was at home with the wireless listening to an Ian Messiter quiz called Many a Slip, in which erudite and amusing contestants spotted grammatical errors in pieces of prose.
  14. apathy
    the trait of lacking enthusiasm for or interest in things
    But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse.
  15. edification
    uplifting enlightenment
    People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others.
  16. parenthesis
    a punctuation mark used to enclose textual material
    For Cutting a Dash, we asked people in the street (outside the Palladium Theatre, as it happens, at about 5pm) if they used proper punctuation when sending text messages, and were surprised - not to say incredulous - when nine out of ten people said yes. Some of them said they used semicolons and parentheses and everything.
  17. inexorable
    not to be placated or appeased or moved by entreaty
    This is bad news, obviously, for chaps like e.e. cummings, but good news for those who have spotted the inexorable advance of lower case into book titles, television captions, company names and (of course) everything on the non-case-sensitive internet, and lie awake at night worrying about the confusion this is spreading in young minds.
  18. unassailable
    impossible to attack
    Meanwhile, the full stop is surely the simplest mark to understand - so long as everyone continues to have some idea what a sentence is, which is a condition that can’t be guaranteed. As the original “point” (so called by Chaucer), it appears to occupy a place in our grammar that is unassailable.
  19. opine
    express one's view openly and without fear or hesitation
    He will opine that if (say) the apostrophe is turning up in words such as “Books”, then that’s a sure sign nobody knows how to use it any more; that it has outlasted its usefulness; it is like Tinkerbell with her little light fading, sustained only by elicited applause; it will ultimately fade, extinguish and die.
  20. ignorance
    the lack of knowledge or education
    Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, severely prescriptive grammarians would argue that, since they were taught at school in 1943 that you must never start a sentence with “And” or “But”, the modern world is benighted by ignorance and folly, and most of modern literature should be burned.
  21. staunch
    firm and dependable especially in loyalty
    Somewhere between these positions is where I want us to end up: staunch because we understand the advantages of being staunch; flexible because we understand the rational and historical necessity to be flexible. In Mind the Stop Carey defines punctuation as being governed “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste”.
  22. pragmatism
    the doctrine that practical consequences determine value
    There is a rumour that in parts of the Civil Service workers have been pragmatically instructed to omit apostrophes because no one knows how to use them any more - and this is the kind of pragmatism, I say along with Winston Churchill, “up with which we shall not put”.
  23. tolerance
    willingness to respect the beliefs or practices of others
    At least if you adopt a zero tolerance approach, when you next see a banner advertising “CD’s, DVD’s, Video’s, and Book’s”, you won’t just stay indoors getting depressed about it.
  24. vigilante
    a person who takes the law into his own hands
    And while I am very much in favour of forming an army of well-informed punctuation vigilantes, I can foresee problems getting everyone to pull in the same direction.
  25. abomination
    hate coupled with disgust
    There will be those, for example, who insist that the Oxford comma is an abomination (the second comma in “ham, eggs, and chips”), whereas others are unmoved by the Oxford comma but incensed by the trend towards under-hyphenation - which the Oxford comma people have quite possibly never even noticed.
  26. pedantic
    marked by a narrow focus on or display of learning
    Yes, as Evelyn Waugh wrote: “Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic.”
  27. slipshod
    marked by great carelessness
    Or, as Kingsley Amis put it less delicately in his book The King’s English (1997), the world of grammar is divided into “berks and wankers” - berks being those who are outrageously slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise.
  28. proofread
    read for errors
    At The Listener, where I was literary editor from 1986 to 1990, I discovered that any efforts I made to streamline the prose on my pages would always be challenged by one particular sub-editor, who would proofread my book reviews and archly insert literally dozens of little commas - each one of which I felt as a dart in my flesh.
  29. prerequisite
    something that is needed or obligatory in advance
    A degree in English language is not a prerequisite for caring about where a bracket is preferred to a dash, or a comma needs to be replaced by a semicolon.
  30. illiterate
    a person unable to read
    The second shows a bunch of vague, stupid-looking people standing outside a building, and behind them a big sign that says “ Illiterates’ Entrance”. And do you want to know the awful truth? In the original drawing, it said, “ Illiterate’s Entrance”, so I changed it.
  31. tractable
    easily managed
    As we shall see, the tractable apostrophe has always done its proper jobs in our language with enthusiasm and elegance, but it has never been taken seriously enough; its talent for adaptability has been cruelly taken for granted; and now, in an age of supreme graphic frivolity, we pay the price.
  32. precede
    come before
    When the possessor is plural, but does not end in an “s”, the apostrophe similarly precedes the “s”: The children’s playground
    But when the possessor is a regular plural, the apostrophe follows the “s”: The boys’ hats (more than one boy)
  33. possessive
    serving to express or indicate the act of having
    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.
  34. solecism
    a socially awkward or tactless act
    If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation.
  35. misconception
    an incorrect assumption
    It features in Irish names such as O’Neill and O'Casey: Again the theory that this is a simple contraction - this time of “of” (as in John o’ Gaunt) - is pure woolly misconception.
  36. succumb
    consent reluctantly
    In fact one might dare to say that while the full stop is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon, and succumbing to burn-out from all the thankless effort.
  37. punctilious
    marked by precise accordance with details
    British readers of The New Yorker who assume that this august publication is in constant ignorant error when it allows “1980’s” evidently have no experience of how that famously punctilious periodical operates editorially.
  38. quotation
    a passage or expression that is cited
    The present Apostropher Royal, Sir D’Anville O’M’Darlin’, concerns himself these days with such urgent issues as the tendency of “trendy publishers” to replace quotation marks with colons and dashes, the effect of which is that pairs of unwanted inverted commas can be illegally shipped abroad, split down the middle to form low-grade apostrophes and sold back to an unwary British public.
  39. exception
    an instance that does not conform to a rule
    All this is about to change, however, because there are areas of apostrophe use that are not so simple, and we must now follow the apostrophe as it flits innocently into murky tunnels of style, usage and (oh no!) acceptable exception.
  40. satirical
    exposing human folly to ridicule
    The satirical magazine Private Eye once printed one of the letters from Biro’s representatives, incidentally, under the memorable heading, “What a pathetic way to make a living”.
  41. heresy
    any opinions at variance with the official position
    A heresy since the 13th century, this law states that a balance exists in nature: “For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its.”
  42. fulminate
    criticize severely
    Moreover, what many people don’t know, as they fulminate against ignorant greengrocers, is that until the 19th century this was one of the legitimate uses of the apostrophe: to separate a plural “s” from a foreign word ending in a vowel, and thus prevent confusion about pronunciation.
  43. ruse
    a deceptive maneuver, especially to avoid capture
    Evidently there used to be a shopkeeper in Bristol who deliberately stuck ungrammatical signs in his window as a ruse to draw people into the shop; they would come in to complain, and he would then talk them into buying something.
  44. pun
    a humorous play on words
    Those spineless types who talk about abolishing the apostrophe are missing the point, and the pun is very much intended.
  45. abolition
    doing away with a system or practice or institution
    The next day after the abolition of the apostrophe, imagine the scene. Triumphant abolitionist sits down to write, “Goodbye to the Apostrophe: we’re not missing you a bit!” and finds that he can’t. Abolish the apostrophe and it will be necessary, before the hour is up, to reinvent it.

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