Scare quotes, oh my!
Scare quotes are the quotation marks found around phrases like “gangsta rap,” “shame spiral,” or “security zone”: coinages that may be lingo, that may be jargon, that may even be slang but are more likely excuses where a little distance is in order. The subject of the story may say it’s “the truth,” but we say it’s spinach and â€” ya know what? â€” to hell with it. Scare quotes throw a net around the ideas and assertions media culture hasn’t absorbed yet, stuff journalism’s jobholders may even be a little afraid of.
National Punctuation Day is Aug 22
You know who you are. You’re reading the SubQ and you have to take deep breaths because some submitter doesn’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s.” Or you shudder as someone thinks the plural of banana is “banana’s.” Or you find yourself unintentionally bemused by someone’s misuse of “scare quotes.”
The good news is that you are not alone, if sales of the surprise best-seller Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero-Tolerance Approach To Punctuation by Lynne Truss is any indication. The unlikely smash has topped best-seller lists in the U.S. and Britain, and is among Amazon’s top worldwide sellers.
How did this happen? How did an fussy editor airing her pet peeves about punctuation become an international sensation? Truss herself isn’t sure, and views the whole thing as a “complete fluke.” She hardly expected its success, but takes comfort in knowing there are other sticklers out there. “I wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves because I’d become very animated about illiteracy,” Truss explained. “I had no idea so many people shared my concern. It’s very heartening. Because I’m not myself a parent, I underestimated the extent to which ordinary, decent folk are worried about the kind of education their children are receiving.”
The book is probably not for everyone, as people who aren’t writers, editors or at least mildly word-obsessed may find it a bore. Others may be taken aback by her obsession, which included a regrettable episode of shredding a childhood pen pal for a perceived lack of literacy. She admits that sticklers like her can be “an annoying bunch of people.” But the book has received a boost from the expected friendly journalists, as well as those gearing up to salute National Punctuation Day on Aug. 22. If nothing else, it yields such bits of trivia as learning that 15th-century printer Aldus Manutius the Elder invented both the italic typeface and the semicolon. And she tries to make the process fun, offering up a punctuation game on her Web site, as well as the guilty pleasure of a punctuation hall of shame (where you can even submit your own photos chronicling abuse of the English language).
For all her humor, Truss sees slumping writing standards as a serious problem. She winces at discovering during televised quizzes “that most British people truly do not know their apostrophe from their elbow” and since learning that the United States “is not immune to similar levels of public illiteracy.” She notes the unfortunate timing of it all, as ignorance of the written word comes while written communication has become “the ascendant medium” because of the Internet, which “happens to be the most immediate, universal and democratic written medium that has ever existed.”