Archive for Punctuation

Jane Austen: missing the points

I have a piece on "Fresh Air" today on the Was-Jane-Austen-Edited-and-Why-Would-It-Matter-Anyway kerfuffle that Geoff Pullum discussed in a post a couple of weeks ago. After looking over the Austen manuscripts online, I concluded that the whole business was meretricious nonsense. What's most interesting is the extraordinary attention given the claims. It testifies to Austen's Gagaesque (Gagantuan?) celebrity (whose history is recounted in the recent, very readable Jane's Fame by Claire Harman — see below). But it also says something about the common wisdom about punctuation that sends items like Eats Shoots and Leaves to the top of the bestseller list.

In fact the two points are connected.

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Austen's alleged failings in style and grammar: we need examples

There has been a flurry of recent news stories suggesting that Jane Austen's famous style was not all her own but owed a lot to her editor.

I'm not at all sure that there is anything substantial in these stories. So far, the radio pieces I've heard and the newspaper write-ups I've seen have been extremely light on actual examples.

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Sarcasm punctuation mark sure to succeed:-!

Via John Gruber at Daring Fireball, I've learned that a company called Sarcasm, Inc., is marketing a "Sarcasm punctuation mark" called SarcMark, which people are supposed to use to "emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence or message". John Gruber's pitch-perfect assessment:

What a great idea. I'm sure it'll be a huge hit.

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Quotation marks, non-necessity of

One is in favor of diversity in the blogosphere, of course. And yet somehow, when one learns that there now exists a blog entirely devoted to pictures of signs in which quotation marks are used incorrectly (used as if they were some sort of special font face like italics), one is somehow tempted to think that we are in danger of running out of words like esoteric and arcane. Still, check it out. Some of the pictures are quite astonishing. Keep in mind that in many cases people paid good money to have these signs made. They may even have paid a dime or two extra per quotation mark. Or "quotation mark", as they would put it. All one can tell you about one's own reaction is that one found some of them jaw-dropping. One's jaw actually dropped.

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War strikes lockouts

A publication agreement that was just presented to me for signature takes minimization of typographical clutter to a new extreme:

No rights shall revert if it is not possible to reprint or reissue the Work for reasons connected with any war strikes lockouts or circumstances beyond the Publisher's reasonable control.

The underlined part, clearly intended as a 4-member nominal coordination, is not a grammatical phrase at all.

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I may have imagined it, but this is what I thought I saw yesterday morning at about 6:15, written as graffiti on a wall in Washington, DC (unless the Metro train was still zipping through Silver Spring at the time):


The reason I think I might have misread it is that it seems so unlikely that a graffiti artist would be inspired to paint an apparent plea for more punctuation.

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When commas are crucial to comprehension

When I write a clause that begins with a clause-containing adjunct, I generally put a comma after the adjunct. The comma in that first sentence illustrates my practice. Some writers studiously avoid such a comma (sometimes my style is known as "heavy" punctuation and the other style as "light"). I also like the so-called "Oxford comma": I write Oregon and Washington, but I don't write California, Oregon and Washington. I use an extra comma and write California, Oregon, and Washington.

I couldn't wish for a better illustration of why I like my own policies than the following sentence, which I saw in The Economist last week (April 4, p. 11). It goes the other way on both of my policies, and it's disastrously misunderstandable in my opinion:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

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After the apostrophe goes, what next?

As Arnold Zwicky has reported (here) the movement to get rid of possessive apostrophes has reached a crescendo among place-name language planners like the Birmingham city council, who have stopped using them on street signs. Feeding the fire a bit, Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words, also cited by Arnold (here), then reported how other language planners, including the US Board on Geographic Names and the Committee for Geographic Names in Australia, are also making the world safe from possessive apostrophes.

These actions leave many wondering whether this forebodes an impending egalitarian march against not only the possessive apostrophe, but also against other possessive indicators and perhaps even against the human frailty of unbridled possessiveness.

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High Five((')s) for Science

Ten days ago I was returning to the US from Europe, and the first and main leg of the trip was a flight from Amsterdam to Houston. After passing through customs and immigration in Houston, I was stripping off shoes, belt, wallet, fillings, etc. to walk through the security scanners and re-enter the gate areas for my connecting flight. The scanners were being worked by a few twenty-somethings, and one of them was enthusiastically telling the others, "You know, today's Darwin's 200th birthday! High five for science!"

He was given a slightly bemused high-five by one of his coworkers, and then he turned to another with the same celebratory request, but sadly the other coworker, conforming more to my mental Texan stereotype, wouldn't meet his eyes and wouldn't high five him.

"I'll give you a high five for science!" I called out happily. "That's what I'm talkin' about!" he said, and so after exchanging a high five for science with a perfect, if slightly goofy, stranger, I trotted off to my next five hours of travel feeling all warm and fuzzy. I didn't have the heart to tell him he was off on the birthday by ten days; hopefully he's exchanging high-fives today as well. Maybe he's exchanging high-fives for emancipation today instead.

To give this post some mildly linguistic content, I refer you back to its header, which I assert would be a perfectly grammatical headline in any of its permutations: with or without the -s, and with or without the apostrophe…

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More on apostrophes in names

Michael Quinion's latest World Wide Words newsletter (#625, 2/7/09) has an informative follow-up on the Birmingham apostrophe flap (discussed on Language Log here), which I'm reproducing below.

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Fact-checking commas

The opening of John McPhee's article on fact-checking in the current New Yorker (Checkpoints, Feb 9 & 16, 2009) suggests that checking the facts means checking each word for its factuality. Quoting a legendary fact-checker there, he writes:

Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker's imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick.

This is revealed later on to be a metaphor and/or a record-keeping device; I think all involved know that literally checking at the word-level would be mostly pretty vacuous, and would miss a lot of assertions. My favorite non-word-level anecdote in the article:

Penn's daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to "buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod and Real with strong good Lines …"

The problem was not with the rod or the real but with William Penn's offspring. Should there be commas around Margaret or no commas around Margaret? The presence of absence of commas would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one. The commas—there or missing there—were not just commas; they were facts, neither more nor less factual than the kegs of Bud or the colors of Santa's suit.

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Apostrophe catastrophe

Outrage reigns in Britain over the decision by the Birmingham city council to stop using apostrophes on its street signs; the AP story, by Meera Selva, is here.

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I've been musing recently about minutiae of English punctuation: apostrophes, periods, commas, and all the rest of it. There is considerable variation in usage on many points, and astonishingly passionate opinion about some of these points, even when they are mind-numbingly inconsequential.

Case in point: the use of periods in abbreviations composed of initial letters: I.B.M. or IBM? U.C.L.A. or UCLA? F.B.I. or FBI? Style guides vary, from those that are fond of periods (because the periods clearly mark the words as abbreviations and indicate where material has been suppressed) to those that are shy of them (because the result looks cleaner and takes up less space). Something can be said in favor of each scheme, and there is no issue of substance here. But some people have strong preferences.

The Wikipedia entry on abbreviation surveys a variety of schemes, noting that

The New York Times is unique in having a consistent style by always abbreviating with periods: P.C. [personal computer], I.B.M., P.R. [public relations]. This is in contrast with the trend of British publications to completely make do without periods for convenience.

Now a few words about the NYT's practices, and about the value of consistency.

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