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Grammar, ahoy!

Ah, the New Year is now truly upon us; today I took down the tree.

I have a fondness for books about the history of the English language. Or, I should say, I have a fondness for Bill Bryson's two books, Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, and Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. Indeed, for several years I wasn't even aware that he'd written anything else, let alone extremely funny travel books, all of which I also now treasure.

Right now, I am reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, which is a delightful little book that is a great deal funnier and more charming than its subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, would indicate. I admit, I fall under the heading of what she terms a "stickler". I can't see the misuse of apostrophes in its/it's, your/you're, and so on, without screaming (internally, usually) IT ISN'T THAT DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND, YOU MORONS. Certainly nowhere near as difficult as trying to puzzle out some English spelling idiosyncracies. How hard is it to remember that "you're" is a contraction of "you are" while "your" obviously isn't? Didn't Schoolhouse Rock do a catchy segment on this? I guess nobody remembers much of "Grammar Rock" beyond "Conjunction Junction", anyway.

So anyway, Truss's book is a little gem, and I thought I'd share just two bits with you, in the hopes of causing you to run out and read it (bearing in mind of course that I got my copy for free, because raqs received two for Christmas). For its entertainment value or else the sense of vindication, if not for actual corrective purposes.

"Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn't have a lot of that to begin with. Maybe we won't change the world, but at least we'll fee better. The important thing is to unleash your Inner Stickler, while at the same time not getting punched in the nose, or arrested for damage to private property."

"Some historians of grammar claim, incidentally, that the original possessive use of the apostrophe signified a contraction of the historic "his"; and personally, I believed this attractive theory for many years, simply on the basis of knowing Ben Jonson's play Sejanus, his Fall, and reasoning that this was self-evidently halfway to "Sejanus's Fall". But blow me, if there aren't differences of opinion. There are other historians of grammar who say this Love-His-Labour-Is-Lost explanation is ignorant conjecture and should be forgotten as soon as heard. Certainly the Henry-His-Wives (Henry's Wives) rationalisation falls down noticeably when applid to female possessives, because "Elizabeth Her Reign" would have ended up logically as "Elizabeth'r Reign", which would have had the regrettable result of making people sound a) a bit stupid, b) a bit drunk, or c) a bit from the West Country."

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
jenlev
Jan. 10th, 2005 04:15 am (UTC)
i like the part about "Elizabeth Her Reign" very much. and as someone who cringes and second guesses myself about some aspects of grammar, it's rather reassuring. *g*

the book sounds delightful. :)
barkley
Jan. 11th, 2005 04:45 am (UTC)
I've got the Schoolhouse Rock's DVD, and it has all of them on there. And unlike Battlestar Galactica, it actually holds up upon rewatch. That could be because I never had it in my head as fine drama. But the songs are still catchy.
kylielee1000
Jan. 14th, 2005 07:13 am (UTC)
You know, I was told I would find Eats, Shoots and Leaves charming, and in fact, I find it so incredibly irritating, with so many technical errors (and Britishisms in punctuation that I perceive as errors) that in fact it is unreadable.

But this is just my reaction on the basis of picking it up in the bookstore and flipping through it. Ironic, isn't it?

If you like grammar books, you can't go wrong with Fowler's. I have the Third, but the Second is also very amusing.
eregyrn
Jan. 14th, 2005 07:27 am (UTC)
Ah well. This doesn't surprise me, as it's a strong flavor, and I wouldn't expect it to appeal to everyone. The little facts of punctuation history I'm finding fascinating, as I *didn't* know much of it; the recommendations for other books, which sprinkle the text, are proving useful to me as I make a list of what else sounds fun to find (Fowler included); and, the style of humor happens to hit me just right (which of course, it wouldn't everyone).

(and Britishisms in punctuation that I perceive as errors)

But... it's a book written by a Brit. For Brits. And the intro the American edition explains that is was decided not to change that -- plus she frequently discusses differences in standard British versus standard American punctuation (and what are nonstandard but becoming-popular usages). That, I find equally fascinating -- and useful, because I correspond with a lot of Brits, and of course if you're reading in any fandom, including Stargate, there's tons of fics by British writers, and I've honestly long wondered about some of the things they do that look weird to my eyes (and wondered if they were correct in Britain, or like the all-too-common use of "he was stood" for "he was standing", if in fact they are still incorrect, and merely mystifying).

So for me, the fact that it's from a British viewpoint is a positive selling point -- although that's something I might have mentioned in extolling it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )