Cumulative punctuation

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A recent SMBC:

Mouseover title: "I SWEAR IT ISN'T A TYPO OKAY?,"

The aftercomic:

Then there's the end-of-expression close-parentheses sequence, when you don't have an editor that flashes the matching opens…


  1. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 9:16 am

    Almost as good as putting footnotes at the end of the book or chapter so than one can conveniently flip back and forth to read them.

  2. Max said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 10:43 am

    Is this a reference to or a reinvention of the last page of Timothy Dexter's A Pickle For The Knowing Ones, which read as follows:









    The second edition included the explanatory note "fouder mister printer the Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese"

  3. bks said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    The older I grow, the less important the comma becomes.
    Let the reader catch his own breath.
    — Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart

    Source: Unix fortune (1)

  4. Patrick W said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 11:09 am

    On the other hand, here's sentence I once wrote that, without contrivance, contained five punctuation marks in a row — and this sentence quoting it contains six: "But as for the rest — feh!, I say (can a gentile boy from the wilds of Kentucky say 'feh!'?)."

  5. Patrick W said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 11:12 am

    "Wait a second, you wrote a sentence with SIX punctuation marks in a row?"
    "But what was it?"
    "It was: 'A sentence I once wrote which, without contrivance, contained five punctuation marks in a row, and, now that I am quoting it, contains six: "But as for the rest — feh!, I say (can a gentile boy from the wilds of Kentucky say 'feh!'?).'""

  6. Bloix said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 11:19 am

    A decade-old post (with many comments) on the now more-or-less obsolete practice of omitting commas altogether in British contracts:

  7. Steve Jones said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

    Re the Oxford comma, despite its comic potential, I still Rest My Case with

    I have been inspired by my parents, Donald Trump and Barbara Cartland

  8. Ethan said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 12:37 pm

    Such a strategy immediately escalates to the next battle: whether the accumulated commas go inside or outside the closing double-quote.

  9. KeithB said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    We just got this today from a "High Risk Security Professional". MOW is "member of the workforce".

    "In an effort to track and isolate potential COVID exposures, the MOW who tests positive and have been at work, buildings within limited areas which contain badge swipes, the badge swipes are being activated as a traceability method to keep everyone safe and to inform the MOW of potential exposures. "

    He has commas, but I am not sure why.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 4:38 pm

    Almost as good as putting footnotes at the end of the book or chapter so than one can conveniently flip back and forth to read them.

    Moss Roberts' translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is printed in two large volumes.

    The footnotes for both volumes are printed together at the back of volume II.

    I can't imagine what anyone was thinking. Sure, it's obvious that useful footnotes should be printed on the same page where they're used. But isn't it much more obvious that footnotes should be printed in the same book?

    (Footnotes-at-the-end-of-the-book as a custom appears to confuse citations, which you don't want to read, with footnotes, which you do. Unfortunately, someone bungled this so that instead of a footnotes-vs-citations distinction, there's a Serious-Scholarly-Work-vs-popular-fluff distinction.)

  11. David P said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 4:55 pm

    John Barth's short story Meneleiad (in the collection Lost in the Funhouse) is a story within a story within …. that builds up to a nest of I don't know how many quotation marks, peaking at a "Why" uttered by all the listeners at all the levels. The parallel "Why's" were handled with stacked quotation marks and pointy brackets, moving the punctuation into two dimensions.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 6:05 pm

    In legal papers, footnotes are printed at the bottom of the page, in a space allocated for footnotes. (Not the footer — the main body of the page is divided in two, and footnotes go in the lower part.) Oddly enough, the space is always filled — it is routine for a footnote to overrun the space and continue at the bottom of the next page.

  13. Julian said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 6:48 pm

    I understand that endnotes date from the days of physical printing when it was easier to keep the main text and the notes separate because footnotes complicated laying out the pages. With footnotes, if a proofreading correction threw the in-text reference mark from one page to another, it would completely mess things up. Of course now that your word processor rewraps everything in a second, there is no earthly reason why anyone would not use footnotes.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 7:47 pm

    Of course now that your word processor rewraps everything in a second, there is no earthly reason why anyone would not use footnotes.

    I'll have to repeat my observation from earlier: there are very good reasons not to use footnotes. You shouldn't use them when they consist of material that nobody wants to read. Here's a footnote from Selections from the Taiping Guangji (ISBN 9781624666315):

    The girl lowered her head shyly and smiled, saying "With the weather like this, even if you headed home, where would you go?" Before long it was her turn. She continued the game, quoting,

    "Wind and rain dark as night,
    the cock crows without cease."[30]

    [30] Another couplet from a poem in the Classic of Poetry, one that is often interpreted as referring to a woman longing for a husband.

    This is printed as an endnote, but obviously it shouldn't be; that's information you're expected to have as you read the text. If you put off reading the endnotes, you're missing an important part of the story.

    But here's a footnote (per-chapter endnotes) from Daily Life in Ancient China (9781107021174):

    The historian Ban Gu was also a literary talent. He once wrote a fu-rhapsody praising the magnificence of the capital city of Chang'an. Let us look at one passage:

    Shop girls were dressed more lavishly than ladies Ji or Jiang.[1]

    [1] Knechtges (1982: 103-14)

    That looked like it was going to add something to the text. But it didn't. Most of the footnotes are like this, but occasionally you get one like this:

    On the one hand were the rich resources available in the Wei River basin area, on the other hand was the control of the Hangu Pass, the gateway to the eastern part of the country, the middle-lower Yellow River basin, where relatives of the imperial house and the disgruntled remnants of the old regimes still had the potential to cause political instability, which they later did.[5]

    [5] This was the rebellion of seven kings of the imperial Liu family during Emperor Jing's reign, in 154 BCE.

    So I can't win. The footnotes are mostly a huge waste of time, but occasionally valuable.

    The obvious answer is to hide the worthless footnotes, and emphasize the important footnotes. (That said, printing everything at the bottom of the page would at least mean that when you do look up a worthless footnote, it's wasted a millisecond of your time instead of several seconds.)

  15. Carol F Saller said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 9:14 pm

    Michael Watts, that's pretty funny about the footnotes at the end of vol. 2 – however, in some ways maybe it would be more convenient that way. If both volumes were at hand, you could keep vol. 2 open to the notes while reading vol. 1.

  16. F said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 3:28 am

    Carol F Saller: Clearly, then, the footnotes to vol.2 ought to be printed at the end of vol.1.

  17. mae said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 4:10 am

    A whole new area of footnote accessibility, workability, and so on opened with the publication of e-books. If you are lucky, notes pop up with a click. If you are unlucky …

  18. ajay said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 4:23 am

    Patrick W:

    If you'd written a similar sentence in a disparaging review of an anthology of 1950s science fiction, you could have managed eight in a row!

    But as for the rest — feh!, I say (can a gentile boy from the wilds of Kentucky say 'feh!'?) – "'-All You Zombies-'" is the only worthwhile story in this collection.

    Yes, the title of the story (by Robert Heinlein) really is OPEN SINGLE QUOTE EM DASH All You Zombies EM DASH CLOSE SINGLE QUOTE.

  19. CNH said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 7:12 am

    Footnotes, endnotes.

    In many academic works, you are expected to provide references. These may be to various documents and various archives, and unless you are a researcher in the field, they would be utterly meaningless to other readers. You could book them at the bottom of the page, but that's equally distracting, because your eye flicks downwards to read some comment like 'TNA: AVIA 65/1956. PUS to Minister'. If you are a researcher in the field, then you may be interested in following up the reference. Otherwise – no.

    And if you don't put such references, your work will be disdained by the academics.

  20. CNH said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 7:14 am

    "The footnotes for both volumes are printed together at the back of volume II."

    It is said of some German academic works that all the verbs are placed in volume 2.

  21. Rodger C said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 7:19 am

    Is the high risk security official also a racist dog?

  22. KeithB said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 9:01 am

    Rodger C

    I am not sure where you are going with this, but no, he is someone in charge of securing secret data in this time of confusion and changing routines which invites security accidents.

    He also hit "send" without proofreading. 8^)

  23. David Marjanović said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 2:02 pm

    the end-of-expression close-parentheses sequence

    That's a series of truncated smileys.

    You could book them at the bottom of the page, but that's equally distracting, because your eye flicks downwards to read some comment like 'TNA: AVIA 65/1956. PUS to Minister'.

    That's a lot better than having to read a book while constantly keeping a finger (or at least a bookmark) at the appropriate page near the end of the book or the end of the chapter.

    In biology, we write the references as endnotes, and all other sorts of end- or footnotes are either completely outlawed or strongly discouraged (and always rendered as footnotes when one of them does go through).

  24. Brett said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 3:01 pm

    Some academic journals now distinguish between footnotes and references. For example, The Physical Review journals—the most important journals in in physics, where I usually prefer to publish—have references in square brackets, e.g. "[7]," with the reference list at the end of a paper. However, notes that provide additional relevant information are identified with superscript numerals, and the notes themselves appear as footnotes at the bottom of the text column in which they are referenced.

  25. David Morris said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 4:31 pm

    Recently I edited a document by a government legal officer in which the footnotes were indicated by a number in ordinary text (maybe superscripted, maybe even not), with the footnote being a graphics tool line partly across the page, the footnote in smaller ordinary text, and a page break. As I added text, the lines and paragraphs were pushed down the page, resulting in the line staying where it was, the footnote flowing or moving to the top of the next page, followed by the rest of the page blank. This despite the government legal office I work for providing its officers with fully formatted templates. Unfortunately, my editorial task does not involve fixing people's formatting. Fortunately, there were not many footnotes.

  26. Andrew Usher said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 6:01 pm

    It probably matters decreasingly because few people read journals in print nowadays, and I assume that will continue. When reading online, obviously endnotes are better, and references should not be separated from footnotes, because that requires an additional link to get to a referenced paper. We're still not at the point where one click on a references take one to the cited paper, quite, still less opened to the page that you most likely want. In that connection I can mention that once it was reasonably common to cite a page other than the first of a paper – such are usually broken in digital versions and require more hassle to find.

    But for reading print works, I definitely prefer footnotes. References could go either way: a system I've seen in some books is perhaps most elegant, where a footnote gives an index into the bibliography at the end, in addition to a page number.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  27. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 11:25 pm

    @David: "That's a lot better than having to read a book while constantly keeping a finger (or at least a bookmark) at the appropriate page…"

    A finger? I always used a toe. Isn't that why they're called footnotes?

  28. Stan Carey said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 4:22 am

    Or as Gertrude Stein more pithily put it, in her essay on punctuation, "A comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma."

  29. Stan Carey said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 4:27 am

    As for the "end-of-expression close-parentheses sequence", here is Lewis Thomas's glorious stack in Notes on Punctuation:

    There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 5:33 am

    David Morris — I suggest that you recommend to your "government legal officer" that he write his next (and all future similar documents) using TeX. Footnotes, footnote rules and so on will then all work as if by magic, no matter how much the text is subsequently emended.

  31. Rodger C said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 7:12 am

    KeithB, I was just making one of my feeble jokes, supposing that a High Risk Security Official might be a security official who poses a high risk, perhaps of saying something racist. Cf. the next post after this one.

  32. KeithB said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 9:51 am

    Rodger C:
    Thanks for that, in the off chance that my high risk security official should come across this, I wouldn't want him to be seemingly called racist based on bad grammar!

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 12:53 pm

    I cannot help but think that Lewis Thomas must have been a LISP programmer prior to penning his Notes on Punctuation

  34. David Morris said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 6:04 am

    @Phillip: The things I can suggest to our government legal officers are very carefully specified in procedure guides. That is not one of them.

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