Magazine article The Spectator

Pluck Truss and Grieve

Magazine article The Spectator

Pluck Truss and Grieve

Article excerpt

Were you given the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves this Christmas? If so, you were one of hundreds of thousands of people who received this chunky little crusader against poor punctuation. But although author Lynnc Truss is engaging and entertaining in tackling greengrocers' apostrophes, etc., her own English turns out to be less than perfect.

While Truss is to be congratulated on bringing the subject to the nation's attention, and indeed for making a mint out of what was given out without charge as a Briton's birthright to those educated before 1965, she is not to be excused for using poor English to do so.

In a feature about her book in the Daily Mail - where I work as a subeditor when not writing books - she wrote:

Nobody could have anticipated the explosion of writing that would come about as a result of the Internet, the email and the text facility of the mobile phone.

Never mind the illogicality here - anybody could have, in fact, even if they didn't what is worrying from a guardian of the language is the use of the word anticipated. It is a classic indicator of a little learning being a dangerous thing. It sounds so much more learned than expected, supposed or believed. But it means properly to take action before an expected action, as the Latin (before, take actively) shows.

If, being a fawning creep, I spring up and open the door for the editor, I anticipate his departure. If, however, I merely sit there expecting it, I am not anticipating anything.

Further, people clearly did anticipate the Internet, emails and texts, by creating ISPs, websites, email systems, mobilephone masts, etc.

True, this is a fine point which would not matter to the average tabloid editor who is worried only about clarity, but it should matter to someone lecturing us at great length about our use of English. But then Truss treats us to the classic example of a sentence requiring punctuation:

Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off

Again, she is wrong. Adding punctuation would change the meaning (a full stop after talked and a comma after after), if this phrasing were acceptable. It isn't. Afterwards is the adverb, after the preposition. So the unpunctuated version has only one meaning, the punctuated one none. The cutting was half an hour afterwards.

Thus the clear blue sky of Truss's correctness has been smudged by a minor cloud and then a darker one. What of the book itself?

On reading the first page of the acknowledgments, I heard alarm bells ring on the redundant English desk. She writes: 'Modern writers such as [list of names] were all inspirational.' Leaving aside the question of whether 'an inspiration' or 'inspiring' would be more precise, what is the word 'all' doing in the sentence? Nothing, except creating confusion. If it is not those on the list, were all modern writers inspiring, including the ones she is attacking?

On the same first page, she thanks yet more who 'set me off on this journey in the first place'. Where else do you start from but the first place? It was not encouraging, but much worse was to come. The redundancy desk was clearly unmanned throughout. She writes later: 'Before we start tearing our hair out at sloppy, ignorant current usage, first let us. . . '

What is the use of the word 'first'? She has already defined when this activity should take place. First in this setting can work only, therefore, if there is a second and third. …

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