Archive for Punctuation

"Often more [difficulty] than in this chosen pair"

We've often complained about the ignorant aftermath of E.B. White's ignorant 1959 incitement to which-hunting, which launched the idea that restrictive (or integrated, or defining) relative clauses in English should always and only be introduced by that, while non-restrictive (or supplementary, or non-defining) relative clauses should be introduced by which. (See "Reddit blewit" 12/24/2012 for details and additional links. Note that for simplicity, I'm considering only relative clauses with inanimate/nonhuman heads, though the fundamental point remains the same when we add who to the mix.)

My point today is that the whole distinction is a false one.

More exactly: The traditional restrictive/non-restrictive dichotomy merges distinct morphological, syntactic, semantic, prosodic, rhetorical, and psychological questions; the correlation among these different dimensions is loose at best; several of the relevant distinctions are gradient rather than categorical; and some of the distinctions are sometimes a matter of pragmatic vagueness rather than grammatical ambiguity.

If I'm right, then modern linguists have been committing White's sin in a less extreme form, trying to impose an over-simplified rationalist taxonomy on a more complex linguistic reality.

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A Dartmouth grad's contribution to the development of Hangul

The current issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine includes an article by Karl Schutz and Jun Bum Sun that made me sit bolt upright:

"The Chosŏn One:  The influence of Homer Hulbert, class of 1884, lives on in a country far from his home" (Jul-Aug, 2015).

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A proliferation of hyphens

In comments to "Suffer the consequences " (4/19/15), Jongseong Park and Bob Ramsey bemoaned what they considered to be the overuse of hyphens in the transliteration of Hangeul.  In a later comment, I explained that the hyphens between virtually all syllables in the transliterations were due to the Hangeul converter we've been using, which automatically inserts them.  In the future, we'll try to remove most of the hyphens.

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Query: Punctuation in personal digital media

From Jessica Bennett:

Friends! I'm doing a piece for the NYT about the ways punctuation has changed — and taken new weight — in the texting era. For example:

  • I've started putting a space before an exclamation point in text messages, ie, "Can't wait !" Didn't immediately realize this but upon further reflection decided this is because a straight exclamation point sounds too intense, and I like to have a little space for pause.
  • The other day somebody replied to a text about dinner plans with "what time" (no "?") and I was like, UH YEAH FUCK YOU TOO.
  • Nobody uses commas anymore, right? A comma after "Hi" or "Hi Jess" is basically, as one friend put it, "geriatric."

What are your texting and/or email punctuation quirks?

What can you learn about a person from their e-punctuation style?

Stories? Theories? Linguistic knowledge?


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Error-laden phishing attempts

Phishers trawling for email account names are generally smart enough to pull all sorts of programming tricks, forging headers and obtaining lists of spammable addresses and setting up arrangements to capture login names and passwords obediently typed in by the gullible; but then they give themselves away with errors of grammar and punctuation that are just too gross to be perpetrated by the authorized guys at the communications and technology services unit.

I received a phishing spam today that had no To-line at all (none of that "undisclosed recipients" stuff, and no mention of my email address in it anywhere). It looked sort of convincing in its announcement that webmail account holders would have to take certain steps to ensure the preservation of their address books after being "upgraded to a new enhanced Outlook interface". (My own university has, tragically, been induced to do an upgrade of this kind to its employee email services.) But the linguistic errors in the message begin with the 13th character in the From line (that second comma is wrong). I reproduce below the raw text of what I received, stripping out only the locally generated receipt and spam-checking headers (and by the way, this message—spam though it is—succeeded in getting a spam score of 0).

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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:


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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