Points to Prove
Lynne Truss makes her mark
By Felix Cheong
Lynne Truss is a writer and journalist who started out as a literary editor with a blue pencil and then got sidetracked. The author of three novels and numerous radio comedy dramas, she spent six years as television critic for The Times of London, followed by four (rather peculiar) years as a sports columnist for the same newspaper. She won Columnist of the Year for her work for Women’s Journal. Truss also hosted Cutting a Dash, a popular BBC Radio 4 series about punctuation. This led to the writing of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The book became a runaway success in the UK, hitting number one on bestseller lists and selling in excess of 500,000 copies.
Truss was recently in town on a two-day stopover to promote the book. Minding his manners and enunciating his words, Felix Cheong had a 45-minute conversation with her and found the 50-year-old surprisingly genial.
FC: What do you think of people who dismiss you as a grammar fascist?
LT: I haven’t really heard that term but well, I would probably say, they should read the book. Because I don’t think I’m a grammar fascist. What I really care about – the reason why I wrote the book – is to point to changes happening in the language. I must talk about my own feelings about what’s been lost and my own feelings are quite strong. I’m passionate about what’s been lost. I don’t think that means what I want should prevail. I think what I want is for everybody to write like Samuel Johnson but that’s not going to happen.
Obviously, we’re living in a time when language is under pressure to change. I think it’s just a good moment to draw a line in the sand about language: Look, this is what we’re losing. Do we really want to lose it? In most cases, most people would say, “What’re you talking about?” and certainly don’t care at all. A lot of people would say, “I don’t care if language changes because that’s what language does.” A few people would like it to remain the same. I do have a lot of sympathy for these people. That’s generally the position. I don’t like to shoot people for misusing a semicolon or anything!
FC: Do you find the same problem with punctuation cutting across other European languages?
LT: I don’t know enough about it but I know there’s been a lot of interest in the book in France, Germany, Italy and so on. They talk about it. In Sweden apparently, there was a big debate on television about the fate of punctuation. It must be the same thing that’s happening to every other language that requires any kind of finesse.
Somehow, email and the internet are kind of flattening out all the graciousness of language and making it a very blunt instrument. It must be happening in other languages too. Of course, it’s still possible to communicate, but not as subtly.
FC: How do you feel about punctuation being used as emoticons?
LT: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, using punctuation marks as graphic art. I think it’s quite interesting they’ve been invented, because they point to what’s wrong with email. You can’t put enough into the words somehow.
FC: What do you think accounts for this sort of dumbing down?
LT: There’s certainly been a shift of society in all sorts of ways. I think that the idea is: whatever people do, it’s ok. It’s become uncool to say that there’re standards.
FC: Political correctness taken to an extreme?
LT: Yes, maybe. I think political correctness is involved. The finer part of that is that, really, ultimately, literacy has been, in my mind, connected entirely very much with social mobility. It means that people set standards to which they can aspire. If those standards don’t exist and people are told that whatever they do is fine, then I think ultimately it works against them.
Sometimes, it’s almost a wickedness keeping people stupid. I actually think they want to keep some people stupid. I know it can’t be as cynical or as planned as that, but it seems to operate sometimes in that way.
FC: Isn’t this, in some ways, more democratic?
LT: I think in the end, it’s un-democratic. I actually think it’s more divisive, because it keeps people where they start. I think social mobility is a wonderful thing. I benefited from it so I see it that way.
What I’m doing is to draw attention to a system that’s definitely on the way out. A system or the way that we represent argument and story in print – it’s on the way out. It’s useful just to know that, because technology is so huge. Its influence is so huge. So it’s just drawing attention to what is lost. So that maybe clever people can invent something to replace it.
FC: Would you say that Eats, Shoots and Leaves is one book the Americans will never be capable of writing?
LT: I don’t know. My take is that they like rules a lot. They would’ve written a book that’s about rules rather than have jokes and anecdotes. They’re generally not very good at poking fun at themselves.
FC: How has your background as a comedy writer helped you in the writing of this book?
LT: I think it’s certainly helped a lot. Also, working in radio. It sort of fills in an extra dimension. I actually think it’s quite a BBC kind of book.
FC: What’s the one question you wished reporters ask you but they never do?
LT: How do you get to be so lovely! [Giggles.]QLRS Vol. 4 No. 1 Oct 2004