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David Hutchinson's column.

Byline: Evening Gazette

Ever felt you're on a hiding to nothing? Well, this column does today - because whatever follows may raise passions and prejudices.

It is also likely to involve intense scrutiny to pick even the slightest foible and faux pas.

Above all, it could very well provoke the reaction "So what?" Plus references to "boring old git" or "doesn't he have a life?"

And why? Because the talk is all about spelling and punctuation and grammar.

The spark has been the runaway success of a little book by journalist Lynne Truss called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, published by Profile Books at pounds 9.99.

In just over a month it has sold 400,000 and topped Waterstone's Top Ten list.

Ms Truss has expressed surprise at the speed at which the book has taken off. She is a self-confessed obsessive about bad punctuation.

And the nerds and nit-pickers of this world sense their day has come.

Ofsted only this week highlighted the subject of standards of literacy and numeracy with a report revealing up to half of primary school teachers were not up to scratch.

Years ago that great journalist, columnist, novelist and playwright Keith Waterhouse set up a hypothetical organisation called the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe.

It may have started off as a one-man campaign to abolish such abominations as potato's, tomatoe's, pizza's and so on, but it developed into a general desire for the standards of English usage to be raised.

On punctuation - does it matter, is it important and who cares?

The answer is yes. But does it affect the meaning if you see Mens Toilets, as opposed to Men's? And, does it confuse to see cauliflower's or even Xma's trees? Surely no-one could doubt what those letters and words stand for.

Well, it matters for consistency, mutual acceptance, understanding and even aesthetic appreciation.

There are examples where punctuation can totally alter meetings.

Lynne Truss cites the sick man who sent a telegram to his girlfriend: Not Getting Any Better Come At Once. How she read it was: Not getting any. Better come at once.

The problem and the beauty of language is that it is so versatile. Many people 30 or 40 years ago predicted the demise of the written word. The contrary seems to be true.

The use of Internet, e-mail, text-messaging and so on has perpetuated the written word.

Thanks to Lynne Truss's (or should it be Truss'?) book, the nerds are having their belated day.

The volume may be slim, but it reflects a much more fundamental problem facing our standards of literacy and the future of our language.

PS: Eats, Shoots & Leaves is itself a punctuational joke. A panda goes into a pub, has a sandwich, pulls out a gun and discharges it, then departs. When the barman asks why the animal throws a badly-punctuated wildlife book at him, under the letter P he reads: Panda, eats shoots and leaves.
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Title Annotation:Column David Hutchinson
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Dec 13, 2003
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