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Sloppy writing, sloppy minds

Why a guide to correct punctuation is flying off the shelves.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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  • Sloppy writing, sloppy minds

One of the most unlikely recent successes in the book world has been Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Being a light-hearted guide to the importance of correct punctuation, it is hardly the kind of thing you would have expected to fly off the shelves of Waterstones and Books Etc. Certainly, her publishers Profile thought so, giving it an initial print run of 15,000. Next month, the print run will reach over 500,000, and in spring 2004 the book will be published in America. Truss has made £750,000 in the process, and made fellow freelance journalists such as myself very jealous indeed.

You would have thought a pernickety fascination with good English would have been the preserve of a small coterie of ferocious pedants who constantly write letters to the Daily Telegraph about greengrocers’ apostrophes. But the success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves seems to indicate that a lot of us are concerned about the lamentable state of the English vernacular today.

Certainly, the number of greengrocers’ apostrophes out there is depressing, while email correspondence and internet messageboards suggest that a lot of people are either unable or too lazy to spell words correctly. Our newspapers are riddled with split infinitives and dangling participles. And sentences beginning with the word ‘and’. Ditto for sentences without verbs. You know, like Tony Blair uses. Ignorance and errors. Sloppy spelling, sloppy minds. Stupidity all round.

I believe that behind the success of Truss’ book is anger at the British education system. Two generations now have not been taught grammar. The post-1960s consensus, that state education should be less didactic and ‘pedantic’, and more creative and pupil-orientated, has left a sizeable proportion with a feeble grasp of the English language and, consequently, little interest in it.

It is a serious matter. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between poor education and disposition to crime. Inarticulate people who cannot spell properly are also more likely to be unemployed. Those with a firm grip of language and grammar are more likely to have emerged from a fee-paying school, where such things are still emphasised. Good English should not just concern pedants, but anyone who calls themselves an egalitarian, too.

  • Death by multiculturalism

It’s interesting to watch the arguments over what should happen to Saddam Hussein – especially from the anti-war camp. Those who have for months urged that the Iraqi people must decide their own fate are now in a flap, saying that Saddam mustn’t be tried by Iraqis since they would invariably put him to death. No, he must be tried internationally, like Slobodan Milosevic.

The problem is that if he is sent to The Hague, there is no reason to believe that his case won’t end up like Milosevic’s, ie, it will go on for years and years. If, after this, Saddam achieves some kind of life sentence he will become a rallying figure for the disgruntled Arab world, a metaphor for the evil West keeping the Muslim world in proverbial chains. Alternatively, if Saddam is ever tried under American law, there is the possibility he will be executed – and as a result become a martyr.

So why not let his countrymen put him on trial? It is against them that he committed the vast majority of his crimes. And if they do put him to the sword, it will be seen as a decision made by fellow Arabs, fellow Muslims. Surely the anti-war lobby agrees that the Iraqis should be masters of their own destiny, particularly those from the multiculturalist, postmodern wing? After all, if capital punishment is part of their culture, who are we to say it is wrong? We mustn’t judge ‘the other’ by our standards or foist on them our Eurocentric abhorrence to capital punishment. That would be the greatest crime in the world.

  • Maiden the suburbs

Since I did not really enjoy watching the creaking Motorhead the other week, a part of me was apprehensive about going to see the legendary Iron Maiden at London’s Earl’s Court arena on Friday.

I was not disappointed. For men in their late forties, their energy on stage was something to behold. Watching them belt out old classics such as The Trooper and Run To The Hills in front of a heaving multitude was awe-inspiring. While, like Motorhead, a lot of Iron Maiden’s recent songs are merely derivative of their material from their 1980s heyday, some, such as Brave New World and Fear of the Dark do stand on their own and work particularly well live.

The most relieving aspect of the evening was the non-appearance of the trendies. While Motorhead have always had a mainstream kudos and credibility among the NME style-fascists, the post-Darkness so-called rock revolution has had little visible impact on Maiden gigs. Yes, Wheatus did have that hit about ‘listening to Iron Maiden, baybee’, and Justin Timberlake has been spotted wearing one of their famous t-shirts, but otherwise there has been no evident gentrification of their fans. They remain for the most part an ungainly collection of unattractive, nerdy, mulleted social misfits and emotional cripples. These people didn’t come from Hoxton or Soho to see the gig; Maiden fans live in unfashionable cities like Birmingham or Sheffield or hail from the dreary London suburbs of New Malden or Sevenoaks. There was not a trendy in sight.

To their credit, traditional metal fans are some of the politest people you will meet. And little do they care for the whims of fashion or for the shallow, bovine desire to be seen as part of the in-crowd. As AC/DC once sang: ‘For those about to rock / we salute you!’

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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