Let Me Ask You One Question Mark
(Let Me Ask You One Question, Mark)

 by J. R. Stokes


In his seasonal look at the delights of his year 2003, Mark Carter praised to high heaven the band The Darkness and declared that this particular band reminded him of why he got into music in the first place back in the mid-70’s. Putting the full weight of his words squarely behind the band, Mark ventured: ‘Their Christmas single ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’ is the best seasonal record since - what? – The Pretenders’ ‘2000 miles’ back in 1983 probably…’. ‘Listen to them’ Mark declares, ‘watch them and for a moment believe it’s 1975 again’.

Now fortunately, the appreciation of popular music is a very broad church and, when it comes to the popular music of 1975, Mark is clearly an Arch Bishop and I am the tassle on a hassock. To me 1975 was not a classic year for popular music: from what I recall it was mainly The Bay City Rollers, The Rubbettes, The Glitter Band (but please don’t mention the Leader of the Gang), Mud, Showaddywaddy and all that crowd. I mean if you listened to Fluff on a Sunday afternoon, you couldn’t really take the charts seriously could you?

On the other hand, if you wanted to take your choice of popular music a little more seriously, and bearing in mind the congregation of this chapel wherein I write, could I just mention that, at the beginning of 1975, Dylan released ‘Blood On The Tracks’ which just overshadowed everything else and created a black hole so vast and deep into which, for me, Glam rock just fell and fell and fell until it disappeared without trace. Having said all that, in 1975 Mark was probably a teenager with eye shadow, four inch heels and a tartan wrist band whereas I wore a vest and was about to start a family: he was from Jupiter and I was from Saturn. Thereafter, at some stage during our respective time traveling, we both found a common denominator in Bob Dylan and we arrived together with a bump on Planet Earth!

So Mark, I have listened to and watched The Darkness and I just don’t get it I’m afraid. To me they are like Clive Dunne meets Bon Jovi – they just cannot be taken seriously and it was with some relief, although matched with great surprise, that they didn’t make the Christmas number one. That relief and surprise was also coloured by a great deal of delight because, having watched the Donnie Darko movie twice in the lead up to Christmas, I was really happy that the spooky and evocative ‘Mad World’, which comes from the movie and which is sung by Gary Jules in Michael Stipe fashion made it to the all important Christmas number one. No gimmicks, no childrens choir, no Baddiel-and-Skinner influenced pop video: just a voice, a guitar and some haunting lyrics. And in the evening we still played party games. And of course it’s a very, very … mad world.

Now I’m not here to talk about Christmas number ones . (although Mark, and this is the question: surely ‘Fairy Tales of New York’ by Shane McGowan and Kirsty McCall surely beats The Pretenders’ ‘2000 Miles’?as a Christmas number one), although, on second thoughts, you can change that because I AM here to talk about Christmas number ones. But not of the musical kind. The book that made it to the number one spot of bestsellers at Christmas, and is indeed still top of the bestsellers as I write, having sold almost half a million copies, is something of a weird one and is also something that found its way into my Christmas stocking. ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ is all about punctuation. PUNCTUATION? Dots, commas and semi-colons? How boring, how fastidious and how fucking insignificant. Wrong, wrong and wrong, because, as the dedication of the book shows, punctuation caused a momentous incident in history:

‘To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution.’

The author of the book, Lynne Truss, is something of Punctuation Revolutionary herself as it appears that she is out to amass an army of like minded individuals in order to rid the world of bad punctuation. The aim is to achieve a state of zero toleration to the manner of punctuating grammar. Still think it’s boring, fastidious and insignificant? Well, you are still wrong, wrong and wrong because I defy anyone to read this book and not want, at the end of it, to join the army. Let me give you a pertinent example of the book’s worth: I started out in this article by mentioning a pop group. In the chapter of her book under the title ‘The Attractable Apostrophe’ Lynn Truss also focuses on the name of a pop group which has strange punctuation mark:

‘In the spring of 2001 the ITV1 show Popstars manufactured a pop phenomenon for our times: a singing group called Hear’Say. The announcement of the Hear’Say name was quite a national occasion, as I recall; people actually went out in very large numbers to buy their records; meanwhile, newspapers, who insist on precision in matters of address, at once learned to place Hear’Say’s apostrophe correctly and attend to the proper spacing. To refer in print to this group as Hearsay (one word) would be wrong, you see. To call it Hear-Say (hyphenated) would show embarrassing ignorance of popular culture. And so it came to pass that Hear’Say’s poor, oddly placed little apostrophe was replicated everywhere and no one gave a moment’s thought to its sufferings. No one saw the pity of its position, hanging there in eternal meaninglessness, silently signalling to those with eyes to see, “I'm a legitimate punctuation mark, get me out of here.” Checking the Hear’Say website a couple of years later, I discover that the only good news in this whole sorry saga was that, well, basically, once Kym had left to marry Jack in January 2002 - after rumours, counter-rumours and official denials - the group thankfully folded within eighteen months of its inception.

Now, there are no laws against imprisoning apostrophes and making them look daft. Cruelty to punctuation is quite unlegislated: you can get away with pulling the legs off semicolons; shrivelling question marks on the garden path under a powerful magnifying glass; you name it. But the naming of Hear’Say in 2001 was nevertheless a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy.’

That is an example of the light hearted way in which the book is written. Light hearted but serious in its endeavours to unite those who cringe at the use of bad punctuation. This is underlined by the author stating her own stance:

‘My own position is simple: in some matters of punctuation there are simple rights and wrongs; in others, one must apply a good ear to good sense. I want the greatest clarity from punctuation, which means, supremely, that I want apostrophes where they should be, and I will not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword sleep in my hand (hang on, didn’t “Jerusalem” begin with an “And”?) until everyone knows the difference between “its” and “it's” and bloody well nobody writes about “dead sons photos” without indicating whether the photos in question show one son or several. There is a rumour that in parts of the Civil Service workers have been pragmatically instructed to omit apostrophes because no one knows how to use them any more - and this is the kind of pragmatism, I say along with Winston Churchill, “up with which we shall not put”. How dare anyone make this decision on behalf of the apostrophe? What gives the Civil Service - or, indeed, Warner Brothers - the right to decide our Tinkerbell should die? How long will it be before a mainstream publisher allows an illiterate title into print? How long before the last few punctuation sticklers are obliged to take refuge together in caves?

So what I propose is action. Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with. Maybe we won’t change the world, but at least we’ll feel better. The important thing is to unleash your Inner Stickler, while at the same time not getting punched on the nose, or arrested for damage to private property. You know the campaign called “Pipe Down”, against the use of piped music? Well, ours will be “Pipe Up”. Be a nuisance. Do something. And if possible use a bright red pen. Send back emails that are badly punctuated; return letters; picket Harrods. Who cares if members of your family abhor your Inner Stickler and devoutly wish you had an Inner Scooby-Doo instead? At least if you adopt a zero tolerance approach, when you next see a banner advertising “CD’s, DVD’s, Video’s, and Book’s”, you won't just stay indoors getting depressed about it. Instead you will engage in some direct action argy-bargy! Because - here's the important thing - you won't be alone.

That’s always been the problem for sticklers, you see. The feeling of isolation. The feeling of nerdish-ness. One solitary obsessive, feebly armed with an apostrophe on a stick, will never have the nerve to demonstrate outside Warner Brothers on the issue of Two Weeks Notice. But if enough people could pull together in a common cause, who knows what we might accomplish? There are many obstacles to overcome here, not least our national characteristics of reserve (it’s impolite to tell someone they’re wrong), apathy (someone else will do it) and outright cowardice (is it worth being duffed up for the sake of a terminally ailing printer’s convention?). But I have faith. I do have faith. And I also have an Inner Stickler that, having been unleashed, is now roaring, salivating and clawing the air in a quite alarming manner.’

After reading the book, and realizing that the purpose of it finding its way into my Christmas stocking was because my own punctuation gets pretty haywire sometimes, I found that my Inner Stickler came out of the closet and I started to take a somewhat unnatural interest in the matter of punctuation. You could say that, for a brief period of time, I became quite obsessed. And when my two obsessions collided head on I had some sleepless nights. So I just have to get it off my chest: I have to look at Bob Dylan and punctuation; or at least (for a start) the punctuation in the titles to the songs Bob Dylan.

Once it was always the case that the best place to start if you wanted to search for Dylan’s songs and lyrics was, quite naturally, in the book entitled ‘Lyrics’. The latest copy of ‘Lyrics’ however is now almost 20 years out of date so an even better place to start these days is on the wonderful website:  where you will find an up-to-date listing of lyrics from the albums ‘Bob Dylan’ (1962) right through to ‘Live 1975’ (2002).

So, I started at the very beginning and immediately my Inner Stickler became enraged. There is in fact an apostrophe in the title of the very first song on the very first Bob Dylan album (‘You’re No Good’) but the lyrics of that song are not on the website because they were not written by Dylan. Fair enough. So the very first song from which the lyrics are shown is ‘Talking New York’ and this is exactly how the very first verse of that very first song appears on

Ramblin’ outa the wild West,
Leavin’ the towns I love the best.
Thought I’d seen some ups and down,
“Til I come into New York town.
People goin’ down to the ground,
Buildings goin’ up to the sky.

Have a look for yourself. There are speech marks (i.e. double quotation marks) in front of the word ‘Till when surely there should only be one? And the speech marks don’t close anywhere! Now if you are going to say that there are two apostrophes because two letters are missing (‘un’ til), then have a look at the song ‘ ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’ from the album ‘Time Out Of Mind’. On the website the title to the song is just Till I Fell In Love With You (i.e. no apostrophe before the abbreviated word ‘Till) but in the lyrics to the song there is just one apostrophe thus: ‘I was all right ‘til I fell in love with you.’ which, to my mind, is the way it should be.

Rather than give up in frustration straight away I ploughed on with this business of apostrophes in abbreviated words and so I got:

In my Time of Dyin’
Fixin’ To Die
Blowin’ In The Wind
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Talkin’ World War III Blues
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Goin’ To Aacapulco
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Driftin’ Too Far From Shore
T.V. Talkin’ Song
Tryin’ To Get To Heaven

Of course all those apostrophes are to denote abbreviated words and in each case the missing letter is ‘g’. There is in fact only one song where the missing letter is other than ‘g’ and that is Po’ Boy. Am I getting obsessed? Well, after apostrophes I became involved with brackets – and here we go again:

I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)
Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)
One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)
Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)
Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)

After ‘Tight Connection’ from 1985, the brackets disappeared for 16 years. That was a long wait, and then just like London buses, two arrive together - in 2001:

Floater (Too Much To Ask)
High Water (for Charley Patton)

There are a couple (at least) of omissions here: on the website the titles to the songs Where Are You Tonight? (1978) and Do Right To Me Baby (1979) have nothing in brackets but as we all know, there should have been (Journey Through Dark Heat) after the former and (Do Unto Others) after the latter.

It was in 1978 that the first question mark appeared in the title to a song on an official Bob Dylan album in the form of Is Your Love in Vain?. This was however followed closely by questions in the titles to songs on subsequent albums, perhaps noting Dylan’s search for some answers at this period:

When You Gonna Wake Up?
What Can I Do For You?
Are You Ready?

Then after an absence of almost ten years, question marks appeared again in two songs from Oh Mercy (the album title which surely should have contained an exclamation mark!):

What Good Am I?
What Was It You Wanted?

(The Inner Stickler wants to say that the question Has Anybody Seen My Love? in the title to the song Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love) should have a question mark, but doesn’t).

A moment ago I was talking about exclamation marks, well there are just two songs that have one, and they are both from the same album.

Lo and Behold!
Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread

What about the common or garden comma? There are course lots of them but these two come in pairs:

Lay, Lady, Lay
Going, Going, Gone

Then, there is the hyphen, as in:

Pretty Peggy-O
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (two in that one)
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

And only one forward slash: Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

So much then for the songs, what about the album titles? Two of Dylan’s first three albums have some nice punctuation with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963 and The Times They Are A-Changin' in 1964. Thereafter (apart from Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volumes 1, 2 and 3) there was absolutely nothing until, some 37 years after the apostrophe and the hyphen of 1964, the following arrived:


Whaaaaat!? Why? And what’s the reason for? Where did those speech marks come from? Are they just there by accident? Is this the work of a Punctuation Revolutionary with a double apostrophe on a stick? Is this the end of the Dylan album title as we know it? So many questions. So much punctuation. This is how Lynn Truss deals with double quotation marks:

‘Since the 18th Century we have standardized the use of quotation marks – but only up to a point. Readers are obliged to get used to the idea from an early age that “Double or single?” is a question not applicable only to beds, tennis and cream. We see both double and single quotation marks every day, assimilate both, and try not to think about it. Having been trained to use double quotation marks for speech, however, with single quotations for quotations-within-quotations, I grieve to see the rule applied the other way round. There is a difference between saying someone is “out of sorts” (a direct quote) and ‘out of sorts’ (i.e., not feeling very well): when single quotes serve both functions, you lose this distinction.’

Thus, according to she-who-knows, anything within double quotation marks means direct speech. And presumably it is Dylan himself who is doing the speaking here. The words are straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak: the idea being perhaps that when you look at the album cover you hear him saying “Love and Theft” in his own voice. You don’t need to play the album to hear that mid-western drawl: all you have to do is look at the cover. It’s different; it’s inter-active and it’s in your cd rack right now. Wanna hear Bob? This is what he has to say: “love and theft”, man. Eat your heart out Inner Stickler!

Finally, on the subject of punctuation, and just in case any Inner Sticklers out there get their Outer Sticklers to point a finger in my direction. We call ourselves Freewheelin. Why no apostrophe to denote the missing ‘g’? Because ‘Freewheelin’ has now become a word in its own right. It’s not ‘Freewheeling’ any more. So there!