Friday, June 26, 2009

Who Really Started the Great English Punctuation Rush?

We might be inclined to think that it was Lynne Truss of England who started the sudden surge of interest in the comma and other forms of punctuation, and understandably so. After all, her 2004 book about the comma, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, became a phenomenal bestseller in both the United Kingdom and the United States, making thousands of English learners turn to it for guidance on the dash, hyphen, colon, and semicolon. As one reviewer has raved, “The book is zero tolerance indeed. Truss says it doesn’t matter if you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice, ‘If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve ...’ and she lists some ghastly punishments.”

And the marketing success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves had continued even with such dismissive critiques as that of Harvard University English professor Louis Menand, who, as earlier reported in this blog, had debunked the book for committing several dozen punctuation errors itself and summed it up as follows: “Eats, Shoots & Leaves presents itself as a call to arms, in a world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.”

Recently, I discovered that although Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves remains the undisputed market leader in the punctuation-instruction industry, some other book in the genre had preceded it with great aplomb if not as much publicity. That book is The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, an American former English teacher. The book was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2003—or at least a year before Eats, Shoots & Leaves made it into the bestsellers list in London and roared across the Atlantic to become a New York Times bestseller as well.

The New Well-Tempered Sentence is a charmingly illustrated revision of Gordon’s punctuation handbook that first saw publication in 1983. She had enlarged the handbook for the 2003 edition with more extensive explanations of the rules of punctuation and more illustrations. And from the looks of it, the book is a much more instructive, more entertaining—if decidedly Gothic—incursion into English punctuation than Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Although the revised edition was met with mixed reviews—some say the revision “has gotten too clever for its own good” even if the book “is miles beyond any other of its kind”—I think that a marketing effort comparable to that for Eats, Shoots & Leaves would easily catapult The New Well-Tempered Sentence to the former’s best-seller league.

For consider how engagingly and beautifully Gordon states her case for punctuation: “However frenzied, disarrayed, or complicated your thoughts might be, punctuation tempers them. We rarely give these symbols a second glance: they’re like invisible servants in fairy tales—the ones who bring glasses of water and pillows, not storms of weather or love. One quick blink and you’ve caught the comma’s or slash’s or hyphen’s message, or huddled in a parenthetical clasp. Like well-trained prodigies, punctuation marks can exceed your expectations, even defy belief.”

And look at just a few of the charming punctuation prescriptions of The New Well-Tempered Sentence:

Do NOT use quotation marks to indicate a cliché—it only emphasizes the cliché-ishness.

During last week’s monsoon, it really “rained cats and dogs.”

Use single quotes to indicate quotations within quotations.

The teacher made Jedediah write “‘Sod off’ is not an appropriate conclusion to a business letter” 300 times.

A colon introduces a part of a sentence that explains or exemplifies the main idea.

Pain stood in the way like a sheet of glass: you could walk through it, but not without a certain noise.

Besides sniffing cigars and snapping suspenders, there was one thing sure to be on the tycoons’ agenda: money.

There are three reasons for his absenteeism: fear of furniture, aversion to numbers and dollar signs, and a snakebite on his chin.

This is how I found him: mesomorphic, monosyllabic, and debonair.

No wonder then that The New York Times has said of Gordon that she “manages to make the period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, and semicolon sound friendlier instead of forbidding.”

Preview Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence in Google Books

What do you think of my comparison between the punctuation-instruction books of Lynne Truss
and Karen Elizabeth Gordon? Do let me hear from you.

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