Saturday, February 21, 2004


THIS ABOVE ALL
The importance of punctuating thought
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghWHO would believe that a book on the proper use or abuse of punctuation marks like commas, colons, semi-colons, apostrophes, hyphens, questions marks, exclamation marks, italics, full-stops etc would be of any interest to anyone except for proof-readers of texts? Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (Profile Books) is just that and yet about the most instructive and amusing book I have read in a long time. Its interest is not limited to grammarians, sticklers of literary norms ó or proof readers. It is meant for all who love the English language.

Not many people realise that a punctuation mark placed in the wrong place, or wrongly inserted in a sentence, can totally alter its meaning. A good example is the title of the book based on the dietary habits of panda bears who live on bamboo shoots and leaves. If you insert a comma between eats and shoots (eats, shoots) the sentence will imply that panda eats, fires a gun and departs. Similarly writing about the execution of King Charles the First of England, a child wrote "Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off." It makes no sense until you insert a full-stop after "walked and talked" to read, "Charles the First walked and talked. Half an hour after his head was cut off."

Oriental languages such as Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit as well as those that evolved out of these were blissfully unaware of the importance of punctuation. For centuries, punctuation remained a matter of concern only to languages of Latin origin. "Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour and stop." writes Truss, Thomas. McCormack gives it musical overtones: "To tango the reader into pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken line would convey."

For example, take the commonest punctuation mark, the comma. Some writers, notably Shakespeare, used it with great abandon, others considered it dispensable. It has been compared to the claws of a feline:

A cat has claws at the end of its paws,

A commaís a pause at the end of a clause.

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera was very fussy about punctuation marks. He fired his old-time publisher who insisted on replacing a semi-colon with a full-stop.

Another example where the absence of a comma could be a matter of life or death is the sentence: "The convict said the judge is mad." Without a comma it would appear that it is the convict who thinks the judge is mad. Now place the comma after convict and another after judge and the sense conveyed is exactly the opposite: "The convict, said the judge, is mad."

Did you know that the question mark was not known till the 15th century?It was invented by an Italian, Aldus Manutivus (1450-1515). Nobody knows how he decided to give it the shape it has today. It was unknown to the classicists, Greek or Sanskrit. If used at all, it has to be put in reverse in scripts like Arabic, Persian, Urdu which are written from left to right. None of the sacred texts ó the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita or the Guru Granth Sahib have question marks even after sentences posing questions.

With the growing use of e-mail and Internet, we have the resurrection of what was popular as a childrenís word game in which a letter of the alphabet stood for the word it sounded like. A familiar example was inviting a lady for a cup of chai: "BBG, T POG." To which the bibiji replied, "No thanks, P K I C G."

Truss quotes another: "I saw Jim ó he looked gr 8 ó have you seen him ó what time is the thing ó C U there 2 morrow." Or the verbal shorthand "CU B48." Can you work this out?

A friend has the following message painted on the door of the bathroom to guide guests whose bladders are bursting: For U 2 P.

With such examples culled from Lynna Truss I trust you will C why her book is worth buying. Dear reader, "C U next week."

Eccentric English

I have an uneasy feeling that I have come across this piece earlier in some journal. But Vipin Buckshey of the Visual Arts Centre of Delhi has sent it to me and it makes very amusing reading about the vagaries of the English language:

"We will begin with a box, and the plural is boxes; but the plural of ox became oxen not oxes. One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese, yet the plural of moose should never be meese. You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice; yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

"If the plural of man is always called men, why shouldnít the plural of pan be called pen? If I spoke of my foot and show you my feet, and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet? If one is a tooth and whole set are teeth, why shouldnít the plural of booth be called beeth?

"Then one may be that, and three would be those, yet hat in the plural would never be hose, and the plural of cat is cats, not cose. We speak of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say mother, we never say methren. Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him, but imagine the feminine she, shis and shim. (Shim...what a beautiful mistake! hai na?) Letís face it! English is a crazy language.

"There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins werenít invented in England. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

"And why is it that writers write but fingers donít fing, grocers donít groce and hammers donít ham? Doesnít it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

"If teachers taught, why didnít preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

"If Dad is pop, how come Mom isnít mop?

"Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship?

"Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

"We have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm goes off by going on."

Timely mistake

When my friend and I paid a visit to the famous monastery of Towang (12,000 ft) in Arunachal Pradesh, the elderly monk at the information desk handed us a descriptive pamphlet. As my friend glanced at it, his mouth suddenly dropped open in surprise. "This must be a mistake!" he exclaimed. "It says the monks rise each morning at 3 am."

The monk at the desk smiled. "Itís definitely a mistake," he said. "But itís true."

ó (Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)

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