Archive for Punctuation

For want of an apostrophe…

Via Lisa McLendon, aka Madam Grammar, comes this unfortunately (un)punctuated headline currently on Drudge Report:

Hackers threaten to show teenagers intimate photos

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Commas (and parsing) are important

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Reading the Quran

The following photograph appears in this BBC article: "Why is Sanskrit so controversial?"

It is accompanied by this caption: "Muslims in India choose to learn Arabic".

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Happy. Fourth.

In anticipation of the 4th of July weekend, I was compelled to read this very interesting (July 1 draft) manuscript: "Punctuating Happiness", by UPS Foundation Professor Danielle S. Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. A political theorist friend's Facebook post led me both to the article and to this front-page NYT piece on it: "If Only Thomas Jefferson Could Settle the Issue: A Period is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence", by Jennifer Schuessler (July 2 online, July 3 print).

Professor Allen makes a thorough and compelling case for her claim that the second sentence of the actual Declaration of Independence parchment has a comma after the well-known phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — and not a period, as the most frequently reproduced version of the document, an engraving made by printer William J. Stone in 1823, would lead one to believe. The matter can't be resolved via visual inspection; the parchment is extremely faded, and Allen presents some evidence — suggestive but not conclusive, in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there — that it may have already been sufficiently faded at the time of Stone's engraving. Allen thus "advocate[s] for the use of hyper-spectral imaging to re-visit the question of what is on the parchment".

For everyone's reference, here is the relevant "second sentence" of the Declaration of Independence, as transcribed on pp. 2-3 of Allen's manuscript, with the "errant period" highlighted in green.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

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Too much Victor Mair

I've been reading way too much Victor Mair. In the restaurant of my hotel in London I just saw an English girl wearing a T-shirt on which it said this:


H O
P E

And I immediately thought, who is Ho Pe?

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Stupid FBI threat scam email

I recently heard of another friend-of-a-friend case in which people were taken in by one of the false email help-I'm-stranded scams, and actually sent money overseas in what they thought was a rescue for a relative who had been mugged in Spain. People really do respond to these scam emails, and they lose money, bigtime. Today I received the first Nigerian spam I have seen in which I am (purportedly) threatened by the FBI and Patriot Act government if I don't get in touch and hand over personal details that will permit the FBI to release my $3,500,000.

I wish there was more that people with basic common sense could do to spread the word about scamming detection to those who are somewhat lacking in it. The best I have been able to do is to write occasional Language Log posts pointing out the almost unbelievable degree of grammatical and orthographic incompetence in most scam emails. Sure, everyone makes the odd spelling mistake (childrens' for children's and the like), but it is simply astonishing that literate people do not notice the implausibility of customs officials or bank officers or police employees being as inarticulate as the typical scam email.

The one I just received is almost beyond belief (though see my afterthought at the end of this post). The worst thing I can think of to do to the senders is to publish the message here on Language Log, to warn the unwary, and perhaps permit those who are interested to track the culprit down. I reproduce the full content of the message source below, with nothing expurgated except for the x-ing out of my email address and local server names. I mark in red font the major errors in grammar and punctuation, plus a few nonlinguistic suspicious features.

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The cyberpragmatics of bounding asterisks

On Daring Fireball, John Gruber noticed something interesting about David Pogue's New York Times review of the Surface Pro: what he calls "the use of bounding asterisks for emphasis around the coughs." Pogue wrote:

For decades, Microsoft has subsisted on the milk of its two cash cows: Windows and Office. The company’s occasional ventures into hardware generally haven’t ended well: (*cough*) Zune, Kin Phone, Spot Watch (*cough*).

And the asterisks weren't just in the online version of the Times article. Here it is in print (via Aaron Pressman):

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François Mitterrand crash blossom

Under the heading "the benefits of paired em dashes, part 57", Mark Swofford sent in the following screen shot from yesterday's New York Times:

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Is this a great photo or what!

That was the start of my heading-comment on a photo of my son Dave. Ensuing back-and-forth on Facebook between me and Andy Rogers (with a relevant interpolation from my son Morriss):

Andy Rogers: Shouldn't it be "or what?"?
Barbara H Partee: I punctuated it as I would pronounce it! Maybe if it was somebody else I might right "or what?".
Andy Rogers: Seems syntactically like a question.
Barbara H Partee: That's true. Well, but how would you punctuate an annoyed "Will you stop that!" It's also a question, but it's pronounced as an imperative. Maybe "Will you stop that?!" Maybe that's what some of those double punctuation marks are for — I've never seen them discussed (but haven't really looked — it's not a category I normally think about.) So maybe we could agree on "or what?!" ?
Barbara H Partee But I have to confess that when I made the original post, a question mark never even entered my head.
Morriss Partee: Would you stop arguing about punctuation or what?!?!??!??!???!!!!?!???!!!??!??!
Morriss Partee: ;)
Andy Rogers: So what IS the relationship among syntactic form, whatever is going on in your ! examples, and punctuation?
Barbara H Partee: ‎(Sorry, Morriss, but wasn't it always like this at the dinner table? Should make you nostalgic!) Andy, I don't know, but somebody must. Maybe I should put a little query-post on Language Log and see what turns up.

So comments are open because I really don’t know! In this domain I’m just a naïve native writer of English, with ordinary education about prescriptive grammar, but they never taught us about what might be called “colloquial punctuation” (maybe it has a name, I don’t know that either.) I wonder if comic strip writers study colloquial punctuation somewhere, or if they just pick it up by paying attention to what other comic strip writers have done. If it’s been studied at all, I’m sure Facebook must be one good corpus-source.

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Don't get your kilt in a bundle

I can't say I share Mark and Geoff's agitation about the Jeremiad about the disappearance of the apostrophe in the Daily Mail. True, the tone of these things is enormously tiresome, with the outrage camped up just enough so the writer can deter the charge of taking himself too seriously. (It's like karaoke singers who clown and mug as they sing songs by the Carpenters that they really cherish.) But these complaints actually leave one with a very reassuring sense of complacency about the state of English. If the greatest linguistic threats we're facing are things like the confusion of prone and supine and a deteriorating grasp on the lie/lay distinction, then we'll probably muddle through. It's like hearing someone warn of grave domestic security threats and then learning that he's mostly concerned about Canadian sturgeon-poaching on the US side of Lake Huron.

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Visual aid for the final serial comma

If you ever have trouble remembering a minimal contrast for the final serial comma, a.k.a. the Oxford comma, here's a little visual help:
Oxford CommaStrippers, JFK, and Stalin
(via Jeff Bishop)

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Can you have a comma before because?

I got a message from a former teacher who said her friend had sent her my article about Strunk and White and it had stimulated her to ask me the following question:

For 31 years, this is the rule I taught to all of my elementary school students: do not put a comma before "because." Since I noticed that you did so at least twice in your article, I am wondering if I taught the students incorrectly (I hope not) or rather if Scots follow another rule (I hope so). I'd really like to know.

Oh, dear. The problem was not how to answer the question; the problem was how to do so kindly and gently. I did not do well enough

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Annals of comma placement

John Muccigrosso writes:

What with all the foofaraw over Austen's editing, I thought you might enjoy this screen shot of the YouTube version of Disney's 1943 "Victory through Airpower".

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