As an erstwhile grammar pedant, I found a kindred spirit in Lynne Truss.
To clarify, I still care about grammar—my left eyelid twitches every time I see a whose/who’s mistake—I just don’t complain about it as loudly as I once did. I used to be an editor by profession, so for years I used that as my excuse for being annoying about grammar: I simply brought my work home with me. Then I started blogging and found that I was not nearly as thorough copy editing my own writing as I am with others’ writing, so I called off my niggling. I still notice the mistakes, I just stay quiet about them and think poorly of the person who made them.Unless it’s a comma mistake. Those commas are slippery, and I dare not even think ill of someone who uses them improperly since I know that I will do it in the very next sentence I write.
My grammar hang-up is probably a big part of why I don’t text. That and being too cheap to ante up the $0.10 per-message fee. Yes, I could buy a texting plan, but then I’d feel compelled to text to get my money’s worth. I’d rather just be an inconvenience to my friends and family and force them to call me.
But, Lynne Truss’s book.
I liked it. It was one of the books my spouse checked out from the library for me for Christmas. I’d been a little slow making my way through the stack, and he alerted me Sunday evening that he’d exhausted his renewals and the lot of them were due today (Wednesday). I was about halfway through Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, so I finished that early Monday evening, and with several hours to spare before my 1:30am bedtime, I went through the remaining books and picked the one I thought I’d be most likely to be able to power through between then and Wednesday morning. It was between this one and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and I picked this one. (Now I’m really going to be talking about the book. I promise.)
So, I’ve said I liked it, and this is what I liked about it: Truss tackled a subject that’s both dear to my heart and about which I feel a little embarrassed about how dear it is to my heart, and she did it with self-conscious (and occasionally self-deprecating) British humor. She took the subject seriously, but did so in a very funny way. I laughed out loud many times while reading this book.
Some specific examples of things that elicited a chuckle from me, startling my cats from my lap:
- Truss writes about James Thurber’s long-term and argumentative professional relationship with New Yorker editor Harold Ross. “Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: ‘Why did you have a comma in the sentence, “After dinner, the men went into the living-room”?’ and his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. ‘This particular comma,’ Thurber explained, ‘was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.'”
- “Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous.” It took me more than ten years splicing commas (or rather, splicing together independent clauses with commas) on accident to finally learn how to use—and love—the semi-colon. In other words, I like this joke because I finally get it.
- Truss illustrates the importance of the hyphen by pointing out the difference between “extra-marital sex” and “extra marital sex.”
And, finally, one that affects me personally, since I have a “double-barrelled name”:
- “I have heard that people with double-barrelled names are simply unable to get the concept across these days, because so few people on the other end of a telephone know what a hyphen is.”
I discovered early on that I must say “dash” if I want someone to understand what goes between my two last names. And still people frequently try to use my first last name as my first name. I’ve actually had people correct me when I’ve told them my full name. My spouse has the same hyphenated surname, and he has it even worse because both of our last names can be male first names. It’s a good thing we don’t get too uppity about what we’re called.
At any rate, I’m glad that I got this one in—just under the wire, too. I finished it at 8:22am; the kids and I leave for the library at 9:00am.