Crystal's Clear That Best-Selling Zero-Tolerance Polemic on Punctuation Is Not in the Real World

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), September 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Crystal's Clear That Best-Selling Zero-Tolerance Polemic on Punctuation Is Not in the Real World


Byline: By RHODRI CLARK AND PAUL CAREY Western Mail

It was the book that made grammar sexy, but now one of Britain's leading language experts has launched a broadside at the zero-tolerance attitude of the best seller Eats, Shoots and Leaves. David Crystal, honorary president of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, accuses writer Lynne Truss of being unsympathetic towards greengrocers and many others who are confused by the English language's inconsistencies.

He claims nobody knows what all the rules of English are.

In a new book to be published on Thursday, he says greengrocers - who often write the plural of potato as potato's - are aware enough of written English to realise that words ending in vowels cause problems with written plurals.

At his Anglesey home yesterday, Professor Crystal, who has written a number of text books used by students of linguistics, joked, 'I want everybody who bought her book to buy mine.'

He worked with Lynne Truss on the radio series about grammar that preceded her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation - which has sold more than three million copies worldwide since 2004.

His new book is an 'antidote' to that volume. The title is The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left.

In it Prof Crystal, author of more than 100 books on English, runs through the changing styles of grammar and punctuation over 1,000 years.

He writes that Lynne Truss uses metaphors of vigilantes, balaclavas and criminal damage.

'It has to be a joke. But it's a funny sort of joke.

'She kindly refers to me in her preface as one among several who has been 'inspirational'. I hope I didn't inspire that.

'Lurking beneath the surface there's an 18th-century 'us versus them' attitude here which I find unpalatable.

'I know some greengrocers who are avid readers. On the one hand she says greengrocers don't live by words; on the other they are evidently so linguistically aware that they know about the problems of words ending in vowels.'

He agrees with Lynne Truss's message on the importance of studying punctuation.

'I am as disturbed as she is when I see the rules of standard English punctuation broken.

'One of the jobs of education is to teach the written standard, and punctuation is part of that.

'If kids leave school not having learned to punctuate, then something has gone horribly wrong.'

But he says 'zero tolerance' does not allow for the flexibility English demands.

'It suggests that the language is in a state where all the rules are established with 100% certainty. …

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