It is always lovely to learn that one is not alone. A friend gave me a book that I certainly knew of, yet somehow had never managed to read. The introduction to Lynne Truss’ lively book about punctuation (yes, you read that correctly), Eats, Shoots and Leaves begins, “Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t.” From that point, the soundtrack of my inner thoughts might have been borrowed from the phony off-track betting joint in The Sting. In particular, Truss shares this pet peeve:
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. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.
Before my fellow American sticklers rush to their keyboards and phones to point out that the periods were mistakenly placed outside the quotation marks in the passage, note that Ms. Truss is British. Her book observes British punctuation usage, which, as she says, “picks and chooses.” Sometimes they put their terminal punctuation within the quotation marks, but more often, they do not.
Who cares about punctuation, you ask? Those who wish to be clearly understood and to avoid appearing illiterate, certainly. Most people would at least pretend to belong to this endangered species. And then there are hardcore punctuation vigilantes. As you might imagine, membership in this group is often kept on the down-low. Admitting that you compulsively wield an invisible red pen when reading anything and everything seems tantamount to requesting assignment to text-message Siberia.
We are surrounded by bad punctuation, yet only some of us seem to notice. Truss likens us “sensitive sticklers” to the little boy in The Sixth Sense who sees dead people others do not. Witnessing dead punctuation at every turn, those gifted or cursed with the “seventh sense” experience mild shocks of horror, and must decide whether to speak up or simply whisper to ourselves in disbelief. In the eyes of the world, we are 1) annoying; 2) freaks.
I’m prepared to accept that my fascination with English and its idiosyncrasies renders me an anachronistic idiot savant in the digital age. If the tender sensibility of a natural born stickler is not yours, and you have no idea how to use apostrophes, nor the time or desire to learn—why, you need to hire an inkslinger.