There are more obviously glamorous events at the Ilkley Literature Festival than a 74 year old man alone on the stage of the Kings Hall, talking about punctuation. Actors, TV presenters, comedians and politicians abound, but on the first Sunday afternoon of the festival, there’s no performance I would rather see, and judging by a healthy crowd, a significant proportion of festival-goers agree with me.
Clad in a grey suit, with a lavish white beard, Crystal is here to talk about his book, Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation. If I wanted to stereotype, perhaps I might characterise Ilkley residents as being the sort likely to write to newspapers lamenting aberrant apostrophes – and perhaps here to gain ammunition for future assaults. However, the festival always brings out the intellectual curious side of the town. Moreover, Crystal is not that kind of linguistics expert.
Early on in the show he re-states the pragmatic approach that those familiar with his books will know. Steering a course between the laissez-faire approach that accepts all usage as correct, and the conservative fetishisation of arbitrary linguistic rules, he acknowledges that language does, and must, change, but that it must remain intelligible.
Making a Point tells the story of the development of punctuation rules from Anglo-Saxon, in which not only did punctuation not exist, but words were not even separated from each other. As hard as this sounds to understand, he points out that we rarely have difficulty in discerning the sense of a URL.
As literacy increased, rules were introduced to guide readers, and perhaps also speakers, but therein perhaps lies a source of confusion, as the requirements of the two were often different. Differences of opinion continue, even among the highest authorities, with Oxford University Press advocating a comma before the final “and” of a list, and Cambridge University Press rejecting it. The audience, too was split 50/50. Presumably, even in Ilkley, not quite all had attended one or the other establishment!
Crystal illustrates the tenacity with which people can hold to their own version of punctuation with a Mark Twain quote. On being told that a proof-reader was ‘improving’ his punctuation, he claimed to have “telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray”. On the same subject, he quotes him as saying, “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proof-readers.”
However, the audience is slightly thrown off-balance with Crystal also referencing Harry Styles of One Direction. He brandishes a newspaper clipping, telling how Styles received a card from a fan reading, “Hi Harry! Your so nice”. Before he was willing to be photographed with it, he apparently insisted on changing the first word to “You’re”.
Those apostrophes are constantly referred to as a source of trouble. He gently upbraids Lynne Truss, who recommends a Kalashnikov to deal with plurals such as “potato’s”. Crystal suggest a quiet word instead. He also tells the story of the American group TEAL (Typo Eradication Action League), whose tendency to take direct action to add or remove apostrophes as appropriate landed them in court after the defacement of historical signage at the Grand Canyon.
Effortlessly engaging and wearing his profound learning with a lightness of touch, Crystal treats Ilkley to a show that leaves the audience thoroughly entertained, if not much wiser about hard and fast rules of punctuation.
By Mike Farren