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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 2, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Bad Punctuation, Mean Girls, Cowell, and Fiddler on the Roof

It's only a little book, but it's some of the cleverest writing you'll see this side of Judith Martin's "Miss Manners" books.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation! is Lynne Truss's heroic attempt to keep the English-speaking world from losing those tiny marks -- .,?!'(]";:-} and italics -- that allow us to help readers understand what written words actually mean.

The title of the book comes from a joke based on a misplaced comma. Everyone knows that the panda eats the shoots and leaves of the bamboo tree. But when a writers puts down the sentence "The panda eats shoots and leaves" and then remembers some miserably mislearned rule about commas, it can come out as "The panda eats, shoots, and leaves."

The crime in that sentence was not committed by the panda.

Truss's book is not the most efficient means of remembering -- or, given the quality of writing classes these days, learning for the first time -- the rules of punctuation. But it's certainly the most entertaining.

By the end, you'll know why you're never quite comfortable with signs that say things like this:

"Fresh" Pizza

Pant's pressed and folded

Apartment's for sale or lease

Lands' End

Its' finally here!

Rons' Auto Repair

Mens restroom

"No" payroll check's accepted

In fact, by the end of this book you'll want to go around equipped with magic markers so you can correct these miserable excuses for written English.

The only thing she gets wrong is when she tries to explain how Americans place marks like .,;:! and ? relative to quotation marks. But she suffers from the handicap of being British and therefore unfamiliar with the Chicago Manual of Style and other sure guides to American usage.

Some American readers will hesitate over terms like "full stop" and other British terms for punctuation that differ from the names they didn't bother to teach us properly in American schools. But keep going -- all will be made clear, I promise.

And for those of you who don't know what's wrong with that list of incorrect signs, I'll give the answers at the end of this column.


Mean Girls was an unusually enjoyable high-school movie, not because it was particularly brilliant, but because most high-school movies are so utterly wretched.

These days, movies about high school have more to do with previous movies about high school than with anybody's actual experience. So Mean Girls had only to return to something like reality in order to stand out above all the others.

Fortunately, the screenplay by Tina Fey, the smug but funny female "newscaster" on Saturday Night Live, is funny in all the right ways. While there's a decent share of slapstick and sex-related humor, it's kept in proportion, and most of the humor arises out of witty dialogue, believable character reactions, or extravagant narrative jokes -- like the recurring hit-by-a-bus gag.

This isn't quite the reinvention of the genre that Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club represented back in the early '80s. But it is fresh and funny.

However, it's not the second coming of comedy, so the only reason it was the number one movie last weekend is that the other new releases were so wretched.

How wretched? When my wife and I unexpectedly found ourselves with the time to catch a second film on the same weekend, we resorted to older movies.

We gave Hellboy about forty-five minutes, at which point, finding that we would rather watch the inscriptions erode off of headstones, we walked out.

Then we went to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie that I loved, but my wife had not yet seen.

On second viewing, I like it even better -- and, while my wife found it strange, she also enjoyed it.

But as we left the theater, the woman in front of us was heard to say, "That's the worst movie I've ever seen in my life."

At once I felt mortified. What if that poor woman only came to see it because I recommended it so highly in the Rhino? Is it my fault she saw a movie she hated so much?

But no, it's not my fault. I told you enough about the film that nobody should have been surprised that it was arty and difficult.

That is, it was arty, and it was difficult, but it was not difficult because it was arty. The artiness actually helped clarify what was happening.

No, it was difficult because it was excellent science fiction.

Most movie sci-fi is like Star Trek -- it's all about seeing familiar characters going through the same old motions as on TV shows, only with a bigger special effects budget. The stuff that is called "mind-bending" in such movies bends your mind so very slightly that it is imperceptible from a distance of fifteen minutes.

But Eternal Sunshine is like the best of written sci-fi -- it truly gives you an experience that you could not get any other way, and yet is still relevant to the real world.

To receive such an experience, you have to watch the film with everything held in abeyance. You know that you don't yet understand everything that's going on. So you absorb what you do understand, and continue watching with the expectation that you will have to revise the meaning of what you've already seen, over and over again, as the story unfolds.

Not everyone is capable of this mental exercise, and not all who are capable actually enjoy it. So if the lady ahead of us was on either of those lists, it's no surprise she didn't like Eternal Sunshine. It doesn't mean she's dumber or smarter than those of us who love the movie. It just means we're different.

But in case she never got the connection to reality, let me just say that Eternal Sunshine, while it looks edgy, is in fact a deeply civilized film. It affirms that there is something in us that is more than the sum of our experiences. Even if our memories are erased, we remain who we are. Furthermore, even painful memories have value, and it's a mistake to wipe out the past in order to make the present more comfortable. Those aren't bad messages -- and they're just the tip of the iceberg of powerful meanings that this movie delivers.


In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King embarrassed himself by sneering at the kind of music presented in American Idol. His words became particularly embarrassing when he held up, as a contrast, the music presented on channel 12 of XM Radio -- "X Country." While I'm sure X Country meets the needs of a certain segment of the listening public, and has its own standards of excellence, let's just say those standards don't have much to do with melody, tone, meaning, or pitch.

The real irritation, for me, was to see King dismiss an entire range of musical styles with contempt, merely because it isn't the kind of music he likes.

Since his own writing is often dismissed by critics who are unequipped to understand, let alone criticize it, you'd think he would extrapolate a little lesson from that, and allow the possibility that to dismiss an entire genre might be a mark of stupidity or ignorance rather than coolness.

The fact is that American Idol -- this year, at least, since I never watched it during the first two years -- gives some talented unknowns a chance to perform songs from many different genres. Which means that it isn't just one kind of music.

In fact, if King were interested in learning something new, he might have profited from watching this year's shows. Since the performers remain the same, watching them switch from genre to genre can tell us a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of each genre, and the demands they make on the singers.

For instance, the week when they sang country was illuminating. We'd heard some of these singers absolutely kill when performing in other genres -- but with one exception, their voices simply weren't big enough for country.

Again with one exception, they all died miserably when singing the Gloria Estefan catalogue -- but in this case, it was because they didn't understand the pose of most African-Latin music. You need an attitude of intensity and passion in order to bring off even the cheeriest tunes. Singin' with a smile don't cut it.

(Of course, it didn't help that Gloria Estefan has not exactly pushed the envelope. I would have loved to hear what these singers might have done with the music of Ruben Blades or Caetano Veloso or Chico Buarque or Maria Bethania or Gilberto Gil -- songwriters who aspire to something more than merely letting kids dance.)

The Barry Manilow week was the most illuminating of all. Manilow has long been in disrepute, but it's worth remembering that for many years, he -- along with Paul Simon and the team of Bacharach and David -- kept alive the tradition of the well-made song.

The proof was the fact that his songs did not have to be sung exactly as Manilow sang them (whereas Estefan had to bring along her band, since any other arrangement would expose the music's emptiness). Manilow rearranged these songs to fit the voices that would sing them; he made them mean different things because someone new was singing them. Almost everyone sang at their best; and several renditions were actually better than Manilow's own.

Not only that, but through the process of American Idol's season, we've been able to watch several of the performers make real discoveries about their own talent. Jennifer Hudson found her voice. La Toya London learned how to loosen up and take possession of songs. Amy Adams found out that she was a country singer -- who knew?

Of course, Fantasia Barrino was in command from the start -- alone of all the contestants, she was already a pro, and the excitement with her is merely to see just what wonderful things she'll do with whatever genre she attempts.

We've also learned from the contestants who failed. John Stevens and Jon Peter Lewis proved that no matter how likeable and decent you are as a human being, you have to find the notes and, just as importantly, the soul of a song. Here's the test: Close your eyes during the performance and imagine listening to the song on the radio in your car. Would you turn it up, or change stations?

And the saddest of all is George Huff. He got perfect advice from Manilow -- and ignored it, wrecking his song that week. He completely misunderstood Estefan's music. It's obvious that Huff only wants to sing one kind of song, one way; and since there are already singers who sing that kind of song that way much better than he does, and he shows no sign of being willing to learn anything, he's doomed.

Look, these kids represent the challenges performers face in the real world. When I direct young actors, I find that the ones who think they're talented are impossible to work with. They won't learn. They won't take direction.

But the ones who approach each role as a new challenge, and are eager to listen to good advice from any source -- even a middle-aged director! Even Barry Manilow! -- they make amazing progress, learning not just how to solve problems in this play, this song, this scene, but also general artistic skills and tools that will serve them well for the rest of their careers.

Which brings me to Simon Cowell. His book I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But ..., written after season 2, is an astonishingly valuable book. Part memoire, part inside-scoop, and part textbook for beginning singers, I found every page of it fascinating.

Of course, it helps that week after week, he's the judge who consistently gets it right and says it clearly -- I began reading with a great deal of trust in his judgment.

Sure, Cowell says things a bit more harshly than he needs to.

But I remember my own experience in a graduate writing program in a major university. Having had years of experience as a professional writer, and having taken part in rigorous professional writing workshops as both teacher and participant, I addressed the real problems of the stories the other students were writing and offered possible solutions.

A couple of months into the semester, the teacher came to me and told me that the many of the other students had come to her and asked her to get me to stop.

Not because I was wrong (though of course most of the students didn't actually want to communicate with an audience of volunteer readers, so my criticisms were really irrelevant to what they thought writing was about).

No, they just wanted her to shut me up because I was so rude.

But I wasn't rude. I was clear. I assumed that the other writers in the class approached their fiction as I did: Each story is an artifact, which may or may not be effective at the task for which it was designed. Only when I've learned how to perfect it can I invest in it emotionally as something that tells "the truth."

They handled it the opposite way -- they invested in it immediately, so any criticism was taken as a personal attack.

They thought a writing workshop should be a therapy group. They had actually come together for encouragement.

How, with that attitude, could they possibly learn anything?

Of course, part of the problem was that I was seen as a science fiction writer -- a genre that they despised. Rather the way George Huff obviously despised Barry Manilow because he didn't like his music -- and so missed out on the opportunity to learn something.

If you don't want to hear criticism, don't offer your art to the public marketplace. And if you do offer it, and receive criticism, listen to it and determine what that criticism can tell you about your own work.

Cowell is the kind of critic who can actually help intelligent, analytical, hardworking artists get better at their craft. (So is Randy Jackson, though with less clarity. Paula Abdul is more of a big sister who drives you to auditions and consoles you when you come out of them in tears.)

That's why Cowell's book is worth reading.


Speaking of actors I've directed, I'm happy to tell you that the Summit Players' upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof may be the best musical we've ever put on.

It helps that instead of light comedy, we have a story with important moral issues that the actors can sink their teeth into.

But what makes me happiest is to see actors discover skills they never knew they had, in order to bring off extraordinarily difficult scenes.

Will you see absolute authenticity in our depiction of a 19th century Russian Jewish community? Of course not. This is community theatre, for pete's sake. Not everybody can master a Yiddish accent or grow sidecurls or full beards during three months of rehearsal.

But you will see excellent performances in a tight, well-rehearsed production of one of America's greatest musical plays. Come and see what I mean, this Friday and Saturday (7 and 8 May) at 7 p.m. at the LDS church on Pinetop Rd. (off Westridge, a couple of blocks south of Bryan).

Admission is free.

However, if you have little children, please spend the money to leave them home with babysitters. Kids under age 8 simply won't understand or enjoy the show, and the disturbance they'll make will interfere with everyone else's ability to enjoy it.


What was wrong with that list of mispunctuated signs at the beginning of this column?

"Fresh" Pizza. The writer of this sign thinks that quotation marks ("") are used for emphasis. Wrong. They are used either to indicate a quotation from another source, spoken (rather than written) words, or irony. To write "'Fresh' Pizza" on a sign is to indicate that the claim of freshness is untrue.

Pant's pressed and folded. The writer of this sign thinks that to form a plural one adds, not just the letter s, but an apostrophe as well. The correct sign would be simply: Pants pressed and folded.

Apartment's for sale or lease. Same problem. Apostrophe followed by the letter s usually indicates either the possessive -- something belonging to a single apartment -- or that the word has or is has been abbreviated, as if the sentence were really "Apartment is for sale or lease." (It's possible that that's what the sign maker really intended -- that there is only one apartment on offer.)

Lands' End. This famous catalogue insists on placing the apostrophe in the position that indicates a plural possessive -- the end of more than one land. But in the real world, places named land's end, like the westernmost tip of the peninsula of Cornwall, are always singular. It's the end of only one land.

Its' finally here! This one is a sign of sad desperation. The writer knows that there's supposed to be an apostrophe somewhere, but whenever he writes sentences like "Every car should have it's own garage," people criticize him. Of course he's confused: possessives need apostrophes except the possessive pronouns its, yours, theirs, his, hers, ours. But never having learned this rule, and knowing that he gets slammed for writing it's, he defends himself by moving the apostrophe around meaninglessly. There is no possible meaning for its' in the English language.

Rons' Auto Repair. Unless this business is a partnership between two guys named Ron, the correct form should be the singular: Ron's Auto Repair.

Mens restroom. This is another sign of despair. Since men is already a plural, the only reason to add an s is to make it a possessive, and the possessive requires an s and an apostrophe (except that list of pronouns I just gave you).

"No" payroll check's accepted. This is your final exam. The rules covering the two mistakes in this sign have already been given in the previous examples.

And for those who want to know what Truss gets wrong in her explanation of American punctuation, it's this: She asserts that Americans put all terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks.

Brits put the punctuation that ends the sentence inside the quotation marks only when the identical punctuation ends the quotation, too. What Truss doesn't understand is that Americans follow the identical rule, with only two exceptions: the period and comma. And the only reason we do that is to avoid hideous messes like this: "As she often says, 'First come, first served'".

Or is that: "As she often says, 'First come, first served'."?

To Americans, the question of where to put that period is absurdly unimportant: The sentence, the quotation, and the quotation within the quotation all require a period, so what possible meaning shift will there be if the period is placed before the quotation marks or between the single and double quotes or, as the Brits might have it, after them all?

With a question mark or exclamation point -- or semicolon, colon, or dash -- it can make a difference. So Americans only worry about the distinction when it matters.

And isn't that more than you ever wanted to know about just how fussy former copy editors like me can be?

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