New Yorker Lynne Truss review

The New Yorker has a review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (see earlier entry) by Louis Menand. This is a much more careful demolition job than mine. Menand points out inconsistencies in punctuation and that the book was not adapted for the American market. So many books are adapted, far too many, and yet here, where the punctuation rules are different, no changes were introduced.

The supreme peculiarity of this peculiar publishing phenomenon is that the British are less rigid about punctuation and related matters, such as footnote and bibliographic form, than Americans are. An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness. In a book that pretends to be all about firmness, though, this is not a good excuse. The main rule in grammatical form is to stick to whatever rules you start out with, and the most objectionable thing about Truss’’s writing is its inconsistency.

How true this rings. Oh, the times I used to tell my students, ‘You can’t do that. You know, the Americans are even more pedantic than we British are.’ Did they believe me? No – because pedantry is bad and Americans are good. Or if I said, ‘The Americans divide words differently from the British’, it was ‘You don’t like the Americans, do you, because you keep mentioning them.’ (We accepted both BE and AmE from German students, as far as we could, and we had both British and American staff, with the odd Australian or Irish person).

via Language Log.

6 thoughts on “New Yorker Lynne Truss review

  1. Just in case there are still doubters: My experience with Maltese English, English English and American English will attest to the accuracy of your concluding statement. American spoken English is so relaxed that foreigners, myself included for far too long, believe the same to hold true for the written language.
    In reality, written AE is flexible for the master and rigid for the apprentice.
    I tell my European interns to forget about the common notion that Europe has excessive red tape–America has multiples of it–, and then apply the same idea to the written language.

  2. I’m not entirely convinced by the Louis Menand review. In part, his comments aren’t checkable; in the UK edition, there’s no preface, and no foreword by Frank McCourt. On some points, particularly the error of transplanting the book to the USA without revision, it’s a fair cop.

    But despite his credentials, some of the rules he cites seem arbitrary. I’ve never heard of any rule that it’s wrong to use parentheses to add independent clauses to the ends of sentences (I use them sometimes). The dedication (“To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution”) looks fine to me, even though the comma technically ought to be after “Petersburg”.

    He often seems to perceive subtlety of punctuation as inconsistency. I don’t agree with his argument that comma location in relation to “of course” should be consistent: there’s a difference between, say, “Of course, it is” and “Of course it is!”. Same with commas before conjunctions.

    Overall, I think the problem is that Lynne Truss has written the book in an ‘informal literary’ style where punctuation is somewhat more relaxed and stream-of-consciousness. “Then come full stops; colons and semicolons; question marks” would be fine in a literary novel. But it gives a stick to beat her with when she uses it to comment on a formal system.

  3. Ray: I agree the punctuation in the preface is not worth much. As for the inconsistency with bits like ‘of course’, that depends on way it’s used. I don’t know whether he means the two different usages you quote. He does give some quotes to indicate inconsistency, and she is rather asking for it, which I suppose is inevitable with such a book. When I read it, the only thing I noticed was what seemed an overuse of the semicolon, and I do use the semicolon myself. This particular foible I don’t really associate with the rest of Lynne Truss’s approach – what irritated me was her style, and that was exactly what people liked: she writes a very personal and emotional book, as a sort of Bridget Jones of punctuation. And there I think Menand was right: she is the Jeremiah, he writes, of people who get angry at badly placed apostrophes.

  4. a) “The government has been accused of consorting with the devil. It is, of course, nonsense”.
    b) “It is of course nonsense to believe that the government consorts with the devil”.

    Genuine errors apart, I think it comes down to a clash of philosophies. Despite disowning Cecil Hartley, Truss believes that punctuation in part conveys aesthetics and timing, that it’s still intimately related to the mood and rhythms of the spoken word. Menand believes that it’s moved on beyond all that folksy stuff and sees it purely as structural markup (“[Punctuation’s] role is semantic: to add precision and complexity to meaning. It increases the information potential of strings of words. What most punctuation does not do is add color, texture, or flavor to the writing”).

    I suspect that which view is more correct depends on genre and location.

  5. As an American who taught in Australian academe for 15 years, I exulted in Louis Menand’s review of the Truss book. How many times I heard Australian students say that their bad grammar and lack of punctuation was correctly English, and that Americans couldn’t possibly be more correct than the British. (They usually weren’t correctly BE NOR AmE!) The biggest problem in Australia was the use (or non-use)of the apostrophe, and using the comma to create run-on sentences. American writing really is more precise than British, which makes a difference when dealing with students who don’t have any “voice” at all.

  6. I read Louis Menand’s review of Lynn Truss’s best selling book and when I left the New Yorker website the ‘pop-up’ on my internet browser was an advertisement for the New Yorker. It said: “Criticism. Fiction. Humor. Commentary”. Just below that it said: “The inside story of the crisis in Iraq.”

    Wonderful!

    I went back to his review and now reproduce below the following, which I think we can all benefit from by reading closely:

    “An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness.”

    What? Are all Britons syntactically lax? Or just the writers of books on English grammar which sell well in America? And conversely are all Americans the coiners of finely honed and grammatically perfect prose? If so, perhaps it is the Americans – not the British – who the true inheritors of that miracle of invention, the English language.

    Mr. Menand, it seems to me, carries a weighty chip on his shoulder. (Perhaps he has another on his other shoulder, in which case he would be perfectly balanced.) Perhaps it is all due to the success of Lynne’s (foreign) book, which has the temerity to retain British punctation. Perhaps it is because she is a woman. Perhaps it is because the English language is called English (when we all know that the English are merely sloppy amateurs who can’t tell their asses from their elbows).

    The corollary is that Americans are precise, serious and professional. They are sticklers for good grammar and would never fight a war without just cause or to promote FREEDOM.

    To which I am forced to blow a raspberry.

    I apologise if all this sounds a little harsh and trace anti-American. (The latter is not true; American literature and Americans – my fiends at least – are great.) True, it is often said by us Brits that as a race they lack irony. This is undoubtedly true of the people who wrote the text on the New Yorker website pop-ups. And it may be true of Mr. Menard. Hopefully it is not true of his readers.

    I suspect that Mr. Menand’s real affliction is that of sour grapes. To this one might note that there is an expression – and which by the way is 100% American – which addresses this sad state. It is this:
    “Get a life!”

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