and grieve If Lynne Truss wants to set herself up as an authority on language, says Benedict le Vay, she should improve her English Avere 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 Lynne 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 22 THE SPECTATOR 10 January 2004
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. There is not. Later we get sloppy uses such as 'added in' where the 'in' is as redundant as the 'up with' in 'met up with'. Small matters (not like punctuation, Lynne), but warning of more serious offences against precise English.
In having a go at whoever thought of punctuating the band's name Hear'Say in the silly way that it is (and it was only a stupid pop band desperate to draw attention to itself) she writes: `. . the group thankfully folded within 18 months of its inception.'
I'm sorry, but I beg to differ. They were not full of thanks in their folding. She has written the complete opposite of what she meant, and her poor command of English has led her to it. Truss gave thanks but that is not conveyed in the use of such an adverb which must qualify the verb. Similarly, ignorant people would write: The prisoners will hopefully arrive for execution on Tuesday so I can then go home.' The prisoners are not full of any hope. I hope they will arrive on Tuesday. They will, I hope, arrive on Tuesday. She should have said: 'The group, I was pleased to note, folded after 18 months.'
She writes of how Keith Waterhouse, a great professional, ran his Association for the Abolition of Aberrant Apostrophes. This is good, but she adds he was 'cheered on by literally millions of readers'.
Oh dear. If! had a pound for every time a reporter misuses 'literally' I would be as rich as Lynne Truss. Literally means it happened exactly as the words say, no debate. Did millions of readers actually shout hurrah for Keith Waterhouse at their breakfast tables, astonishing their spouses and children as the Rice Krispies went flying; did they shriek out on the crowded Tube train to the astonishment of fellow commuters? Or did an unknown quantity merely approve?
Am I protesting too much? Not enough, to judge by the way Truss says offences such as leaving an apostrophe out of its 'arouse feelings not only of despair but of violence'.
She as good as throws her toys out of her pram when people leave question marks off the end of questions. But she repeatedly uses question marks on what are clearly not questions: 'I wonder if Drifting Snowflake is male and unmarried?' In fact on page 141 she warns against exactly this error. And earlier we read: 'Perhaps the colon was more "literary" than the semicolon?'
The question mark is here trying to usurp the job 'perhaps' has already done. Then again she writes: 'Shouldn't the commas be removed in cases such as this, he asked?' Good God! I remember being bawled at for this error in Science 3C. 'Le Vay, you miserable maggot, I'll string you up with redundant question marks if you ever do that again. Double detention!'
Again, as she loses the plot on the subject: 'I wonder why?' That's just a statement of what I wondered. Just because it has the word why in it doesn't make it a question, even in the irritating Australian world of rising non-interrogatives.
Well, now I have set sail my pompous frigate of correctness, it is your turn, dear reader, to blow me out of the water for my errors. Broadside the bulkheads of ignorance, sever the shrouds of supposition, explode the magazines of pomposity. Go on. It's fun.
Benedict le Vay 's books Eccentric Britain and Eccentric London are published by Bradt. Eccentric Edinburgh and Weeping Waters will be published in 2004.