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A Brief History of Sticklers, Part 2

Last week we presented an excerpt from Robert Lane Greene's fascinating new book, You Are What You Speak, tracing the origins of "language sticklers" back to the early days of English. In this second excerpt, Greene concludes his history of sticklerism with the recent success of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

Fowler began the century with his careful, witty usage dictionary; Strunk passed the baton to White in midcentury, and advice became commands. By the turn of the twenty-first century, there was little new to be said about grammar, punctuation, or usage. So the best way to get attention was to pass on the old rules louder and more irately than ever before. And here we return to our theme: the politics behind the claim that language is going to hell in a handbasket on greased wheels these days.

How might we gather that Truss is concerned about more than just punctuation? The first thing we might look for is someone not overly shy about making statements that are flatly false. And sure enough, near the beginning of her furious little volume, she says that grammar and punctuation are "simply not taught in the majority of English schools." if that was true wed expect that nearly everything written by people educated in england in the last few decades too look like this but it doesnt seem to be so Mistakes may be more common than Truss would like, but to say that grammar and punctuation are "simply not taught" in most schools beggars belief.

A bit later on, Truss again enjoys the indulgence of the story that is simply too good to check: "There is a rumour that in parts of the Civil Service workers have been pragmatically instructed to omit apostrophes because no one knows how to use them anymore." This simply doesn't pass the laugh test. Sure, we get the weasel-worded introduction "There is a rumour," and of course some civil servants are incompetent writers. But the scene of a department head telling her staff, "Okay, everyone, it's time to stop using apostrophes—it's simply too much of a bother" is surely more urban legend than even rumor. Truss's own success in Britain as well as America reminds us that every office has at least one of her beloved sticklers, who would throw an almighty fit at any such injunction.

Truss goes on to describe her early days as a stickler in a passage that speaks volumes.

While other girls were out with boyfriends on Sunday afternoons, getting their necks disfigured by love bites, I was at home with the wireless listening to an Ian Messiter quiz called Many a Slip, in which erudite and amusing contestants spotted grammatical errors in pieces of prose. It was a fantastic programme. I dream sometimes they have brought it back. Panelists such as Isobel Barnett and David Nixon would interrupt Roy Plomley with a buzz and say "tautology!" Around this same time, when other girls of my age were attending the Isle of Wight Festival and having abortions, I bought a copy of Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage and covered it in sticky-backed plastic so that it would last a lifetime. (It has.) Funny how I didn't think any of this was peculiar at the time, when it was behaviour with "Proto Stickler" written all over it.

What's going on here? "Tautology" isn't a grammar error; it's a logical one, with either unnecessary reinforcement in a phrase ("free gift," also called a pleonasm) or a statement written so that it can't be falsified, for example by definition or circular logic. Think of Yogi Berra's "You can observe a lot by watching."

This isn't nitpicking (although one could be forgiven for picking the nits off of the self-appointed world-beating nitpicker). It shows a major problem in many people's thinking about language errors: category error.

"Grammar," to the language specialist, is how words and sentences are built from meaningful components. It describes how nouns are made plural or verbs put into the past tense; how individual words can be bolted together into phrases, clauses, and sentences that obey the rules of syntax.

But for those to whom Lynne Truss is a hero, everything from spelling convention to word choice to logic is, somehow, "grammar." And in the popular imaginationTruss typifies and electrifies, "grammar" always gives one and only one correct answer to any question. This is the distillation of Strunk's ethos: say it loud, show no doubt, and never, ever change your mind.

Admittedly, Truss says her book is about punctuation, not grammar. But from the "tautology" mistake, it seems she isn't quite sure what grammar is anyway or doesn't much care. The important thing she wants you to take away is that she cares obsessively for the Rules, whatever they are.

What about the political content of Truss's fury? It seems too obvious to be accidental that Truss mentions—not once but twice—sex and its consequences. She was learning punctuation while "other girls ... were getting their necks disfigured by love bites" and reading Partridge while "other girls ... were having abortions." When Truss mentions the years of her schooling—1966 to 1973—we finally see our culprit. It is the 1960s and all that went with it: free love, rebellion, drugs, protest, permissiveness, even the poor Isle of Wight Festival. It was the end of the sure and simple world of the 1950s, when the scariest thing around was Elvis's pelvis. It was unsettling even for those who enjoyed it. And for those who like certainty, it must have been pretty hard indeed.

Once life was simple, and there were rules, by God. Then the kids started putting flowers in their hair and occupying the universities. After that, the teachers got so scared that they threw out the rulebooks, started teaching "freewriting," and saying "Express yourselves." Now nobody knows the bleeding difference between its and it's. The great majority of English schools simply do not teach grammar or punctuation.

The idea that there was once an age when people knew better crops up again and again in prescriptive rants. Truss betrays this with temporal phrases. "The disappearance of punctuation (including word spacing, capital letters and so on) indicates an enormous shift in our attitude to the written word, and nobody knows where it will end." (Emphasis added.) Truss doesn't spell out when exactly it was that people once worshiped the written word and punctuation was sacrosanct. But if this chapter has taught you anything, it is that no such period ever existed. To be sure, we can point to exam questions from turn-of-the-twentieth-century schools that seem to indicate that once every boy and girl got a frighteningly thorough education in grammar and writing. But this is misleading. At the turn of the twentieth century, few boys and girls actually got this education; many still lived in the countryside and skipped school to help their parents in the fields. Others, in the cities, dropped out to take factory jobs as soon as they were able. In both Britain and America, illiteracy is actually far lower today than in the past, not higher.

A hundred and forty years ago, one in five Americans was illiterate. Now less than one in a hundred is—and this fall began during a hundred years of "separate but equal" dismal schools for blacks in America. In Britain, illiteracy is rarer still. It may be true that formal grammar was taught more extensively in good schools in the past. But the notion that once upon a time, every schoolboy was an H. W. Fowler, every schoolgirl a perfectly punctuating Lynne Truss, but today no one can put two words together simply holds no water. Where is the former golden age of the written word?

But never, as the hack journalist says, let the facts get in the way of a good story. Truss and her followers, and their many predecessors over the centuries, want to enrage, not educate. Language is in terminal decline! Soon we will not be able to write at all, or perhaps even speak!

This isn't true, just as it wasn't when Swift said the same in 1712. But "declinism" sells; it sells political books, and it sells politically tinged language books. It is telling that Truss's follow-up book was not on educational reform or remedying inequality. It was Talk to the Hand, on the decline of manners—another New York Times bestseller.

Excerpted from You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene Copyright © 2011 by Robert Lane Greene. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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