Archive for Punctuation

The legal standing of the serial comma

[This is a guest post by Mark Cohen]

I am wondering if members of this group have had experience with translating the Chinese serial comma or dùnhào 顿号  [、] ("the caesura sign; a slight-pause mark used to set off items in a series; punctuation mark used between parallel words or short phrases; sign of coordination; ideographic comma; the Chinese comma (、) used for separating items in a list")  In 2007, I was involved in a WTO case where I negotiated an English translation for a dunhao that ended up appearing as a footnote in the panel decision regarding a criminal law.  The statutory language was "fùzhì , fāxíng 复制  、  发行" of copyrighted works.  The question at that time was whether China required  "making" or "selling" [in the English text]  of a copyrighted work or whether both acts were required under the criminal law.  See World Trade Organization, China-Measures Affecting the Protection and Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights, Report of the Panel, WT/DS/362/5 (26 Jan. 2009) , at fn. 82 and accompanying text:  “There is neither "and" or "or" between "making" and "selling", only a Chinese repetitive comma (、) or dùnhào 顿号 (lit., "pause" + "mark; symbol"),  which has no precise English equivalent.”  The panel translated the “serial comma” with a slash “/” which basically preserved this ambiguity. 

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Iteration marks and repeaters in ancient Chinese texts

Let us begin this post with a brief introduction to the 16th-century Hokkien (Minnan) drama, Tale of the Lychee Mirror:

The Tale of the Lychee Mirror (traditional Chinese: 荔鏡記; simplified Chinese: 荔镜记; pinyin: Lì jìng jì; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Nāi-kèng-kì, Lē-kèng-kì) is a play written by an unknown author in the Ming dynasty. Tân Saⁿ and Gō͘-niû (traditional Chinese: 陳三五娘; simplified Chinese: 陈三五娘; pinyin: Chén Sān Wǔniáng; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Tân-saⁿ-Gō͘-niû) is a popular Taiwanese opera based on the script.


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Spaceless pinyin

From the importer's label, carefully placed to obscure the safety instructions (the "do"s and "do not"s) of an electronic gas igniter:

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Hornet's / hornets' / hornets / hornet nest

Usage is split on this one.  Merriam-Webster goes for "hornet's nest", OED prefers "hornets' nest", and many other dictionaries and websites choose one of the four options listed in the title of this post.

To my mind, logically it should be "hornets' nest" because it's a home that belongs (genitive) to a colony of hornets (plural).

My high school sports teams were called "hornets", so I have a long acquaintanceship with this fearsome insect.

On the other hand, we also find "farmers market" and "farmers' market", usually the former, occasionally "farmer's market", but I don't think I've ever seen "farmer market".

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Trends in book titles

I've been interested for some time in the way that (written) English sentence lengths have evolved over time — see "Trends", 3/27/2022, or the slides from my 5/20/2022 talk at SHEL12, "Historical trends in English sentence length and syntactic complexity". It's well known that the titles of published books have undergone an analogous process, but I don't think I've written about it. (Nor do I know of any scholarship on the topic — perhaps some commenters will be able to suggest some.)

A couple of days ago, while looking for the origins of an idiom, I stumbled across a contender for the title-length championship in in an interesting work from 1740 (image here):

THE ART of READING: OR, THE ENGLISH TONGUE MADE Familiar and easy to the meanest Capacity. CONTAINING, I. All the common words, ranged into distinct tables and classes; as well in regard to the number of letters in each word, as to the easiness of pronunciation, and the bearing of the accent. With useful notes and remarks upon the various sounds of the letters occasionally inserted in the margin. II. A large number of lessons, regularly suited to each table. III. An explanation of several words; particularly such as are of the same, or nearly alike in sound: designed to correct and prevent some orthographical errors and mistakes. IV. Some observations, rules, and directions, relating to the reading and writing English properly and correctly. The whole done after a new and easy Method. Approved of, and recommended, as the best book for the use of children, and all others, who would speedily attain to the knowledge of the English tongue. By P. SPROSON, S. M.

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Capitals and upper case letters

I am a fan of capital letters.  They let us know when a noun is a proper noun — the name of a person, a place.  But I also have to admit that they are something of a bane at times.  For example, I grew up learning that one should capitalize all terms in a title except for prepositions, words of three letters or less, definite and indefinite articles, and so forth.  For many publications, however, including here at Language Log, it seems to be house style not to capitalize all the terms of a title over three words in length, unless they are proper nouns.

This indefiniteness about whether or not to use capitals in titles gives me lots of headaches.  Because I'm a stickler for bibliographical exactitude, when I'm preparing my list of references and footnotes, it causes me much grief to decide whether to include capitals or not when different sources threat them dissimilarly.

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Commas matter, Oxford and otherwise

Mark Swofford took this photo yesterday in a Taipei supermarket:

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Mandarin tongue twister

Trending on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website:

[So as not to give anything away, all syllables are separated and not divided into words.]

Nǐ de huò lā lā lā bù lā lā bù lā duō? Huò lā lā lā bù lā lā bù lā duō yào kàn nǐ de huò lā dé duō bù duō. Rú guǒ lā dé bù duō jiù lā nǐ de lā bù lā duō, rú guǒ lā dé duō jiù bù lā nǐ de lā bù lā duō.


Google Translate:

"Your cargo pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls, pulls more? If you pull too much, it won’t pull you.

Before turning the page, if you know Mandarin, try to parse and translate the above sentences.

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Uppercase and lowercase letters in Cantonese Romanization

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Are you in the book today?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson, who sent along the two screen shots with which it begins.]

Another splendid example of why punctuation matters and why machine translation is dumb…

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Hashtag of note

From Molly Des Jardin:

In the midst of our stressful times, I'm writing to share a distraction that is somehow still relevant. Given the kind of things you have noted on Language Log historically, I wondered if you observed this hashtag:


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Breath Ass Method

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Portentous periods

Further developments in the indexicality (intexticality?) of punctuation:

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