Eats, Shoots and Loses Credibility

Yes, I’m late to the party: I just finished reading Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves–eight years after the first American printing.

One reason I took so long was that I picked up the book at a publisher’s booth at ALA, probably in 2004 or 2005, and, leafing through it, saw this in the preface (on page xxiv, as part of the explanation for the American printing not being an American edition):

They are unlikely to spot that American usage interestingly places all terminal punctuation inside closing quotation marks, while British usage sometimes “picks and chooses”.

[British punctuation preserved.]

To which I said...BUT THAT’S WRONG! American practice places commas and periods inside closing quotation marks. Colons and semicolons follow closing quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points go inside or outside depending on whether or not they’re part of the quotation.

And said, basically, “if she gets that so wrong, how can I trust the rest of a supposedly ‘zero tolerance” guide?” And didn’t read it.

But, choosing my usual semi-random nonfiction book last time I was at Livermore Public Library, I picked it up and thought, “Hey, that was the preface, maybe the book’s just fine.” And checked it out.

The book is at times amusing. I don’t believe it will improve my erratic use of dashes, colons and semicolons (I found her guidance as erratic as my usage). And, well, there’s this on page 152-153:

…and American grammarians insisting that, if a sentence ends with a phrase in inverted commas, all the terminal punctuation for the sentence must come tidily inside the speech marks, even when this doesn’t seem to make sense.

So she’s blatantly, proudly ignorant wrong in the heart of the book as well as in the preface. And apparently cowed her editors and copy editors so much that they let the flatly incorrect statement stand (or are professional editors in Britain actually that ignorant of American usage?).

I don’t think of this as an American grammatical rule; I think of it as an American typographical rule–I call it the “flyspeck rule.” Namely, a period or a comma following a close quote looks like a flyspeck, some dirt that just happened to settle on the page. That’s not true for question marks and exclamation points, which go where they belong syntactically. (If it’s the end of a sentence, it can’t be a colon or semicolon, so we won’t go there.)

So then I went to Frank McCourt’s foreword. Which I must assume was written for the American edition–as it has seven quoted phrases, in all seven cases with a period or comma inside the close quote. Five of the seven are wrong British practice, as far as I can tell. All seven, of course, are correct American practice.

Did I enjoy the book? By and large, yes. Do I regard Lynne Truss as a trussworthy–oh, sorry, trustworthy–guide to punctuation usage? Nope. And my dashes (in particular), colons and semicolons may still be less consistent than they should be.

3 Responses to “Eats, Shoots and Loses Credibility”

  1. ksol says:

    Ah, but it is an amusing book! I lightened up on grammar and even spelling considerably after reading McWhorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.” He convinced me to relax; it is an evolving language.

  2. Michael Golrick says:

    For me, one of the biggest results from the book was to get people to actually pay attention to punctuation!

    And, by the way, I love your distinction: “I don’t think of this as an American grammatical rule; I think of it as an American typographical rule–I call it the ‘flyspeck rule.'” (With which rule, I agree.)

    Now if we could only get people to understand the proper use of:
    — I and me
    — “inverted commas” (not to be used for emphasis)
    — apostrophes.

    But I fear it may be a long, continuous fight. Thanks for the smile today!

  3. waltcrawford says:

    I agree with both of you–and I should look up McWhorter’s book, although it’s unlikely to make me less of a (slight) prescriptivist where spelling and grammar are concerned. Of course, Authoritative Texts that aren’t so much that are nothing new: Strunk & White had a fair amount of bad advice and fell into its own proclaimed errors.