Eats, Blogs & Leaves

By Jennifer Garrett

One person's revolution is another person's pain.

Just ask Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. A self-described stickler for punctuation, she despairs at the misplaced apostrophe, the erroneous colon, the dangling comma — all of which are far too commonplace on the internet, where the motto seems to be: Faster, Blogger! Kill! Kill! Kill!

Nevertheless, Truss acknowledges that "this is an exciting time for the written word: it is adapting to the ascendant medium, which happens to be the most immediate, universal, and democratic medium that has ever existed." With the ever-expanding power of the blog, more and more people have the opportunity to voice their ideas in the public arena. But why is blogging so powerful? Because blogs are the unedited voice of the people. And why is blogging so horrifying to sticklers like Truss? Because blogs are the unedited voice of the people. Though Blogger gives everything else away for free, sadly the service does not come with a cranky grammar bitch with blue pencil in hand. Luckily for you, however, it does come with a spell-check and an edit button. These tools are your friends. Use them.

A blogger must be a writer and an editor if he wants to attract and keep readers. A well-written blog indicates respect both for the medium and for the reader. Proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar are not merely the tools by which anal-retentive freaks like me get their kicks; they give words meaning, clarity, and, if you're lucky, beauty. Proper punctuation can mean the difference between comments full of flame wars and comments rife with meaningful discourse.

Be kind to your reader. Capitalization and punctuation are the easiest ways to indicate exactly what you're trying to say. It's time for a little tough love, people: Anyone who types in all lowercase needs to be taken out back and beaten. You are not e.e. cummings; you are not being "artistic." You're just too lazy to hit the shift key. If you can't be bothered with the extra keystroke, I can't be bothered to read your site. Don't turn off readers before they even get to your words. (A refusal to capitalize is just one grammar horror that can be spotted at first glance. I can also spot an overuse of the ellipsis at 50 paces. There are two reasons to use an ellipsis (and neither one is because you don't want to write a transition): Use an ellipsis to indicate words omitted from a direct quote or to trail off intriguingly. If neither of these are your intention, try a period. Dot. Full stop. Terminal punctuation can be your friend.)

Both the agony and the ecstasy of blogging is the ability to publish your words so easily; one might even say at the push of a button. This ease-of-use, however, seems to be accompanied by lack-of-use; our internal editors appear to be on eternal vacation when it comes to the internet. "It's just an e-mail" or "It's just a blog" are no excuses for rushed thinking (or even rushed typing). The world can wait a few more minutes. Sit back for a second. Compose your thoughts. Then release to the world your 800-word treatise on why Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is the greatest movie ever made.

Taking time before you write is just one step in the process of the well-written blog. Read over your posts before you publish them; read them over after you've published them. Personally, I always find mistakes after I hit the publish button. (It's a curse.) But if you find the mistakes first, you can avoid that annoying e-mail from the grammar police: "Dear Blogger: You suck. In your post 'Why Barbie Is Bad,' you incorrectly used 'it's' when you should have used 'its.' I'm just telling you this for your own good. Love," And if you think people don't write these messages, you are sadly misguided. (Okay, maybe I just write these messages.)

I'm not asking that you be able to name the preterit, imperfect, and subjunctive forms of the verb 'to be.' You don't need to know the 17 reasons to insert a comma into a sentence. (Although, if you did know all 17 reasons, that would be totally hot.) The best way to better grammar: Simplify. If you don't know whether or not to use a colon, a semicolon, or a dash, cut that sentence down! Brevity is the source of wit, after all.

Every blog is a learning experience. You will make mistakes. (I've lost count of how many I've made in this article alone.) Everyone makes mistakes. (In fact, The New Yorker delighted in pointing out all the errors in Eats, Shoots & Leaves.) But let them be honest mistakes, not careless ones. Otherwise, I will report you to the Apostrophe Protection Society. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Jennifer Garrett is a writer and editor living in Boston. She believes that to err is human; to blog, divine.
Phillip E. Pascuzzo is a designer and illustrator living in New York.

Published: Monday, August 16, 2004, 10:33