Academic punctuation

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Today's PhD Comics:


  1. Steve Roth said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

    Wouldn't the Oxford folks use "among" instead of "between"?

    [(myl) Not if "a worse school" is appositive…]

  2. Regina Lusca said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 11:40 pm

    They may well have their delusions at Oxford, but I do trust they haven't yet adopted the americanism of 'school' in the sense of 'university'.

  3. John Coleman said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 1:32 am


  4. Mara K said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 1:44 am

    The University of Pittsburgh Repeated Exclamation Point:
    "Sweet Caroline–LET'S GO PITT!!"

  5. rosie said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 2:48 am

    Wouldn't the Oxford folks use "between … and" instead of "between … or"?

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 3:01 am

    What the Oxford folks wouldn't do is use school to refer to Oxford and Cambridge. Jorge Cham's comics are universal enough that I've often wondered where he's based, but this usage clearly betrays him as North American. In the UK, schools are schools and universities are universities.

  7. Philip said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 5:04 am

    If "a worse school" is appositive, then it wouldn't be an Oxford comma, though, right? Just two subclause markers.

  8. James said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    Yes, in the US schools are also schools and universities are also universities. Only somehow, it works out differently!
    (I noticed the same thing.)

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    Another detail that shows Jorge Cham as North American is his use of "tuition" meaning tuition fees.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 10:26 am

    Steve Roth: People have said in alt.usage.english that the between-among distinction is mostly American. Fowler doesn't mention it and The Economist's style guide says, "This distinction is unnecessary," but the Guardian and Observer style guide says to use among in these situations.

    Eric P. Smith: Maybe Jorge Cham used the American meaning of tuition because he was talking about American state universities (but I'll bet you're right).

  11. Rodger C said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 10:26 am

    In origin, Jorge Cham is Sino-Panamanian (an important element of the commercial class).

  12. Sili said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 2:14 pm


    The ambiguity is the point.

  13. maidhc said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    How about the London School of Economics?

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

    @maidhc: True enough – there are a number of proper names with School that refer to British university-level institutions (e.g. School of Oriental and African Studies), and it is also currently very trendy in the UK to combine functioning university departments into larger (and frequently less functional) units called "Schools". But the fact remains that British English doesn't use school to mean 'university' in any number of contexts where American English does.

  15. Lawrence Paros said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

    Lovers of language and comics owe it to themselves to check out and become regular readers at It's a pretty unique approach to the subject. It's a new site and feedback is welcomed and treasured.

  16. Andrew M said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    'State university' is also not normally used in Britain; either (almost) all universities or none are state universities, depending just how one defines the term, so it serves little purpose.

  17. Ray Girvan said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

    Were it not related to punctuation, there ought to be some joke here relating to the 'Harvard terminal preposition' – "at, asshole".

  18. Lazar said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    The Harvard example reminds me of a line from 30 Rock: "You know, I went to college in Boston. Well, not in Boston, but nearby. No, not Tufts…"

  19. Mark F. said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    "State universities" can't be used to refer to British universities in the sense that the word is used in the US, because "state" in that term isn't short for state-supported, which would be an accurate description of most UK universities (right?). Instead, it refers to the fact that they are administered by individual US states. The military academies are not considered to be state universities, for instance.

  20. David Arthur said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

    But Britain does have state schools, which are not universities — and are different from both private schools and public schools. :)

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    Yes, British universities are typically state supported, and to a large extent state regulated. On the other hand they are corporations in their own right; their property is not state property, or their employees state employees. (But then, that is true of some 'state schools' as well: I think the basic reason we don't say 'state universities' is that there's no obvious contrast class – though nowadays the University of Buckingham confuses the issue.)

    (That was me, earlier, by the way; apologies for signing in with wrong version of my name.)

  22. J Silk said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    If this were not LL, I would not bring this up, but a propos Lawrence Paros's "It's a pretty unique approach to the subject." Really?!

  23. AB said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 7:42 pm

    Most British higher ed institutions I can think of with "school" in the name, like the LSE and SOAS, were not originally independent universities but "schools" of the University of London.
    Regardless, a Brit would always understand a question such as "what school did you go to?" to mean the under-18 sort of school.

    @Mark, David
    Isn't the point that in the UK we use "state" where Americans would use "government" or "public" – state schools, state subsidies, big state vs small state (rather than big government vs small government) etc..

  24. Lazar said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

    @AB: Yeah, that may well be the result of unitarism vs. federalism – there's only one level of governance to which "state" could refer to in the UK. Relatedly, there's the British usage of "government" to mean (roughly) what we would call an "administration" – Britain has a new government every few years, whereas the US has always just had the one.

  25. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    @Lazar: Britain has a new government every few years

    As has been said, it's down to terminology. If you believe the cynical Yes Minister worldview, Britain has a permanent government, in the form of the Civil Service (i.e. administration), and the elected nominal government is a not-very-powerful token layer on top of that.

  26. GH said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 10:28 am

    I'm not sure that this interpretation is correct, but at first I took the "State University" entry to also be alluding to another trend in American university naming: a distinction between "University of [State]" and "[State] State University," with the former usually more prestigious (and not necessarily a state university), and hence perhaps better funded.

  27. Dr. C said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    The statement was that the student was choosing between Cambridge and Oxford. The commas around "a worse school" indicate a modifier for Cambridge and, as such, they do not constitute an example of the Oxford comma.

    If you are correct in your reading that there are three schools, Cambridge, an inferior school, and Oxford, then the example should have used "among" instead of "between."

  28. BZ said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    I don't think it's really a US/UK linguistic difference as much as a political one. US English speakers have no problem talking about "the state" as roughly synonymous with a country when said country is not divided into states. In fact, certain expressions, like "state-run" are used that way almost exclusively. A couple years ago, when there was a debate about privatizing NJN (the New Jersey Network), governor Christie said something about how inappropriate it was to have "state-run TV networks" which struck me as very odd because such expressions don't get used much to talk about things run by a US state.

  29. KevinM said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    @Ray Girvan:
    Given today's subject, I suppose the "Yes Minister" is in charge of official approvals?

  30. Rodger C said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 8:39 pm

    @GH: In my experience, "X State University" usually started out as a teachers' college, an agricultural college, or a college for people of color.

  31. GH said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 4:27 am

    Sounds plausible. My guess was that many of these institutions were established as universities during the post-war expansion of higher education, and that this was the default style of naming at the time. (The explanations are of course compatible.)

    @Dr. C: It's a joke, playing on the conventional arguments and examples that supposedly show less ambiguity with the Oxford comma (as well as on the traditional Oxford-Cambridge rivalry). The ambiguity of whether "a worse school" describes Cambridge or is a third item is the whole point, and relies on using "between."

    The idea that "between" can't be used for comparisons between more than two things appears to be a prescriptivist fantasy anyway.

  32. George said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 6:20 am


    Reading through the comments on the 2012 LL post that you linked to, and in particular those on the parcel/package distinction (where a number of commenters suggested that 'parcel' in the US would be used almost exclusively for the sort of cutesy, old-fashioned thing that involves brown paper and string), I was surprised that nobody else appeared to have had their head-space invaded by Julie Andrews' voice (or, if they did, nobody mentioned it).

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