Sticklers Unite!

I just finished reading Lynn Truss’ excellent book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. “Bestselling grammar book” is not a phrase you hear often, but this one is, and for a reason: in an impassioned, intellectual, and often quite humorous way, Truss makes her case for the importance of grammar and punctuation. The title comes from a joke whose punchline highlights the difference between “eats, shoots and leaves” (not a dinner guest you want in your house) and “eats shoots and leaves” (a panda).

Lynn Truss is probably at the forefront of the small subset of society that cares deeply and perhaps disproportionately about correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I too am part of this subset, and nodded along in complete agreement when I read, “To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.”

Perhaps the best argument Truss makes for punctuation is that its function in written communication and in literature is crucial; see the above example about the panda. One comma changes the meaning of the sentence entirely. Likewise, “You’re home” and “Your home” also have completely different meanings (in the former, you are at home; in the latter, the home in question belongs to you).

Those who rely on spellcheck to catch these errors are sunk; as this Slate article points out, spellcheck software is great at catching “nonword” errors, like “hte” instead of “the”; however, it doesn’t understand context, so it won’t stop you from using “complement” when you mean “compliment.” Web browsers, for the moment, have surpassed some spellcheck software; in the past five years, according to the Slate article, “Web browsers have become better at spelling than most humans.” What a thought: maybe the next Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? will be Are You Smarter Than Your Browser? Someone call Ken Jennings.

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