Speak and spell oh so well
It’s hard to credit that Lynne Truss’s rallying cry for punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is now eight years old. At last, with Clare Dignall’s Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave?, a serious (and seriously funny) sequel has hit the shelves.
Lynne Truss has provided the foreword to the sequel and she eloquently asserts the case for accurate punctuation: “The whole point of writing is to transmit a thought from your own mind to someone else’s as clearly and efficiently as possible.” (Isn’t it intriguing that clarity and brevity are the watchwords of every writer-on-writing worth the name.) Clare Dignall offers simple advice to achieve that end and a series of try-them-and-see punctuation exercises.
Lynne Truss was accused of being a grammar fascist, a linguistic purist and a pedant. She was assured that her work was likely to be only briefly fashionable. Far from it, the case for clarity and accuracy is increasingly championed. Even on that most appallingly punctuated of media, Facebook, a circle of international students has established a site championing grammatical and linguistic accuracy. With more enthusiasm than judgment, its response to the accusation of linguistic fascism has been to adopt the tawdry title Grammar Nazis. That may be the tastelessness of youth but some credit is due these young folk for making a stand. Collins’s confidence that there is a customer base for Clare Dignall’s work is perhaps a sign that sloppy writing is increasingly unacceptable.
She starts with that most pervasive source of modern errors, the apostrophe. “No dog’s allowed, please” does of course have a literal meaning far removed from that intended. She covers commas and produces several examples to prove that the meaning of a sentence is dramatically altered by the omission of a comma. Think of “I’m tired of arguing, kids” or “Let’s draw, Auntie”. She covers colons, semi-colons, expressive marks and hyphens. Her work illuminates potential ambiguities, as in “Teenagers who wear hoodies are a bit scary”. (The too-customary double comma round “who wear hoodies” implies that not only are all teenagers a bit scary, but they all wear hoodies.)
Truss’s stylish prose and self-deprecating humour formed a wonderful polemic – the most accessible work on punctuation since Hart’s Rules, first published in 1893 and never out of print since. Clare Dignall’s work may be a trifle less polemical – and none the worse for that – but she has a purpose, the avoidance of the careless, the confused and the unhelpful in writing. She has produced what she modestly calls a workbook. Each chapter provides exercises which test the reader’s knowledge and subsequently seek to develop it. This is a manual for interactive learning. Far from being stuck in a romantic grammatical past, Clare Dignall is explicit: the point of understanding the rules is to make us trustworthy judges of when to break them. She has created the perfect complement to the original and to Hart.
In these days of literacy across the curriculum, when every teacher is a literacy teacher but some a tad uncomfortable as such, Clare Dignall’s witty work might be a useful staffroom raffle prize or a Christmas gift for any colleague less-than-confident with apostrophes.
About the Author
Clare Dignall worked in publishing for over a decade, during which time she frequently lay awake at night agonising over en-rules, terminal marks and the merits of uncoated paper. She lives in West Lothian with her husband and two children.