Mar. 13, 2004
Signs everywhere spell out danger
It's a crisis of grammatical proportions
Bestseller urges sticklers to reclaim the streets
Starbuck was the chief mate of the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby Dick and if he had ever opened a shop selling designer coffee after he retired from whaling, he might have called it Starbuck's.
Of course, Starbucks now dot nearly every city in the developed world and the likelihood of an apostrophe being correctly inserted into chain's name is as remote as Ralph Nader being elected president of the United States.
"Fortune" Hardware on Spadina Ave. inexplicably puts its name in quotation marks, leading one to wonder what genius said it. A sign advertises Womens Fitness at Charles and Yonge Sts. while in an excess of punctuation zeal, a lingerie shop on Bloor St. W. calls itself Her's. Perhaps Her's could agree to donate its unnecessary apostrophe to Womens Fitness, where it is badly needed between Women and s.
Throughout the city you can see local grocers' hand-lettered signs advertising a special on "potatoe's" or the discount stores' offer of low prices on "Video's and CD's." One sees questions written without question marks, exclamation marks used without provocation, commas omitted and the invaluable semicolon nearly disappearing from use.
Most people hardly notice the near-total anarchy in punctuation.
But there are those of us who have the same sort of reaction to Her's or Womens Fitness or Hugh Grant's recent apostrophe-deprived film Two Weeks Notice that others give to fingernails scraping on a blackboard. It sets our teeth on edge. It makes us crazy.
No, we are not pedants. We are sticklers, according to the British author Lynne Truss, whose book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation has become a surprise bestseller in England.
(The title refers to an old joke about a panda that goes into a restaurant, eats a sandwich and fires a gun on the way out. By way of explanation, he shows the puzzled waiter a badly punctuated entry about pandas in a zoological tome.)
Truss likens a typical stickler's reaction to bad punctuation to the stages of mourning, only accelerated:
"First there is shock," she writes. "Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain and anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker."
This is exactly what the present writer contemplated doing to the sides of those TTC streetcars that say, "A friendly reminder. It's still the better way." It would be so easy to turn that misused period after "reminder" to a colon, those lovely twin dots that whisper: "Wait for it."
Truss herself picketed outside a London movie theatre playing Two Weeks Notice with a giant apostrophe at the end of a pole, which she held up after the second word in the film's title.
At 48, she is the author of three low-impact novels and numerous radio comedies. She has worked as a sports columnist and was the London Times' TV critic for six years.
She started obsessing about grammar as a teenager. "When other girls of my age were going to the Isle of Wight Festival and having abortions, I bought a copy of Eric Partridge's Usage And Abusage," she writes.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves grew out of a series titled Cutting A Dash in 2002 on BBC Radio 4. Her British publisher, Profile Books, initially printed 15,000 copies — a number it thought optimistic. A second print run was ordered before the book appeared in stores on Nov.1, 2003. By early December, it had hit No.1 on Amazon.co.uk. It has 510,000 copies in print.
Profile's Canadian distributor, Renouf Publishing in Ottawa, imported Eats, Shoots & Leaves in late October.
Ironically, as soon as the book became popular it also became unavailable here. (I ordered my copy from Blackwell's in England.)
Says Gordon Graham, president of Renouf: "The book came out and we got a hundred copies, our official stock. We sold out immediately. Meanwhile, Penguin negotiated for the rights for North America, so we couldn't restock once we ran out. We got a lot of requests. A day doesn't go by that we don't get four or five e-mails asking about it. A number of bookstores say they are getting the books from England."
"I could have easily sold 150 copies," said Ben McNally, manager of Nicholas Hoare Books on Front St. E., in early January.
The success of the book overwhelmed Lynne Truss, who is now incommunicado at her home in Brighton, on the southern coast of England. She will, however, be in Toronto when her book is published here by Penguin next month.
Her punctuation advice is not original; it has been laid out by venerable grammarians such as G.V. Carey in Mind The Stop (1939), Eric Partridge in You Have A Point There (1953) and Loreto Todd in her Cassell's Guide To Punctuation (1995). But Truss restates it in a hilarious style that appeals to her 21st-century audience.
After she tells us of a 15th-century Venetian printer named Aldus Manutius who invented italics and the semicolon, she adds: "I will happily admit I hadn't heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies."
She calls quotation marks "linguistic rubber gloves" for some writers too fastidious to handle a cliché with bare hands. A semicolon is "a kind of Special Policeman in the event of comma fights." Correct use of the apostrophe announces to the world "that you are not a thicko."
After reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves I telephoned Her's, the ill-punctuated lingerie shop, to ask why.
"I did it for aesthetic reasons; I used to have a silver sign with the apostrophe in gold," owner Linda Voyto told me. "I've had the grammar police here complaining that I'm teaching the public to misspell words. I've been here 23 years and I like the way it looks."
But correct usage is not a matter of aesthetic preference, like choosing pink panties instead of white. Truss exhorts her readers to persist in correcting bad punctuation when they can and not be discouraged by the "Get-a-life" response.
"Sticklers unite," she writes, "you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn't have a lot of that to begin with."
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