(Host) Would the Declaration of Independence meet the standards set in a grammar book now high on the bestseller list? Commentator Allen Gilbert takes a look.
(Gilbert) A grammar book – yes, a grammar book! – is on the New York Times best-seller list. The book is “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” by Lynne Truss, a former British sports columnist. It’s a witty look at common writing mistakes. Truss’s focus is punctuation. The title, in fact, was chosen to illustrate the importance of commas. With a comma in this series of words – Eats, Shoots and Leaves – you’ve got a gun-toting restaurant patron who doesn’t want to pay his bill. Without a comma – Eats Shoots and Leaves – you have a description of a panda bear’s gastronomic preferences.
I have to admit that I’m a bit of a grammar nut myself. I learned to diagram sentences as a school kid, and I’ve taught German students the difference between simple and progressive aspect of English verbs. I still insist that restrictive dependent clauses begin with “that,” and that nonrestrictive dependent clauses began with “which” – and should be preceded by a comma.
But I agree with points made by Harvard English professor Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker magazine article on “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” Professor Menand notes that the most important thing about punctuation is consistency. He also says that great punctuation is not necessarily the basis of great writing.
Menand points to numerous inconsistencies in Truss’s own writing. And he notes that punctuation rules change over time and across cultures.
Given that this is the national holiday weekend, I grabbed a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to see if I could spot any grammar or syntax mistakes in that famous document. Oooh! Right off I noticed that a bunch of common nouns are capitalized, “which” is used to introduce restrictive clauses, extraneous commas are inserted, and necessary commas are left out.
But somehow these errors mean little now – if indeed they were errors at the time the Declaration was written. The reason is that the Declaration is a superb piece of writing. An analysis by Steven Lucas at the National Archives Web site explains why. Lucas parses the sections, sentences, phrases, and words of the Declaration to show the document’s superb construction. The article is worth a look.
For writers who cringe at the thought of a committee editing their work, it’s interesting to see how Congress tinkered with Jefferson’s language. In many cases, Congress improved Jefferson’s draft. For example, Jefferson wrote that men are “endowed by their creator with inherent and unalienable rights.” Congress simplified the phrase to “certain unalienable rights.” Elsewhere, Jefferson wrote, “To prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.” Congress thought it was just fine simply to say, “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” Congress even chopped out whole sections of Jefferson’s draft.
With editors such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Wythe, Jefferson’s prose was in good hands. I doubt that he needed a best-selling grammar book. Would that all writers could be so lucky.
This is Allen Gilbert.
Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.