Archive for Punctuation

Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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He comfortable! He quickly dry!

A neighbor of mine, a respectable woman retired from medical practice, set a number of friends of hers a one-question quiz this week. The puzzle was to identify an item she recently purchased, based solely on what was stated on the tag attached to it. The tag said this (I reproduce it carefully, preserving the strange punctuation, line breaks, capitalization, and grammar, but replacing two searchable proper nouns by xxxxxxxx because they might provide clues):

ABOUT xxxxxxxx
He comfortable
He elastic
He quickly dry
He let you unfettered experience and indulgence. Please! Hurry up
No matter where you are. No matter what you do.
Let xxxxxxxx Change your life,
Become your friends, Partner,
Part of life

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Apostrophe in Hangul

Google Street View in Pittsburgh at 5809 Forward Ave. shows a Young's Oriental Grocery.

The corresponding Hangul transliteration of "Young's" gives "Young 'seu 영 '스".

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The NYT catches up…

Or maybe David Crystal does — as reported in Dan Bilefsky, "Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style", NYT 6/9/2016. Better late than never, in any case.

For some background, see

"The new semiotics of punctuation", 11/7/2012
"Aggressive periods and the popularity of linguistics", 11/26/2013
"Generational punctuation differences again", 8/1/2014
"Query: Punctuation in personal digital media", 2/23/2015

And even: Jessica Bennett, "When your punctuation says it all (!)", NYT 2/27/2015

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The many pronunciations of "*"

I've heard people pronounce this symbol as though it were spelled "asteriks" or "asterix" (and some folks even write it the latter way).  It gets really tricky when those who do so try to say it in the plural.  And even those who pronounce "asterisk" the way it is spelled seem to have to make a special effort to render the final "s" of the plural audible when they say it.

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"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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