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:
Pant's pressed and folded
Apartment's for sale or lease
Its' finally here!
Rons' Auto Repair
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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?