Posts Tagged ‘punctuation’
“I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now'”*…
What’s a novel without its words? Just punctuation. But when you take those lines of commas, periods, exclamation points, and quotes, then arrange them in a big spiral, you can still tell something of the character of the original work: the endlessly curious and expository quality of Ishmael’s narrative in Moby Dick, for example, or the titular wonder of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Between the Words by Chicago-based designer Nicholas Rougeux is a series of posters that takes the text of classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, The Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, The Time Machine, and more, then strips them of all their words until they are mere swirling vortices of punctuation. The project was inspired by Stefanie Posavec’s Writing without Words data visualizations, which colorfully chart the structure—but not the actual prose—of many classic novels…
* Ursula K. Le Guin
As we eat shoots and leaves, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Barbara Wertheim Tuchman; she was born on this date in 1912. A historian, Tuchman wrote two books (The Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China) that won Pulitzer Prizes, and several others that could/probably should have: e.g., The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.)
The earliest writing existed at a time when the spoken word was king; texts were created without spaces or punctuation marks. It infuriated Greek playwright (and librarian) Aristophanes, who began what the Keith Houston calls the “punctuational big bang.”
Aristophanes created a system where people could add dots to lines of text to signify pauses. A dot in the middle (·) signified the shortest pause, called the comma. For an intermediate pause, known as the colon, the dot was at the bottom (.), and the period was the longest pause, represented with a dot at the top of the line. Aristophanes’s system evolved over the years—the colon got an extra dot, the period dropped to the bottom of the line, and the comma got a curve and dropped to the bottom of the line—but it’s remarkable how much has stuck around…
And it’s remarkable why (spoiler alert, it has to do with the printing press, and the standardization that it brought… though new tech in general and emoticons in particular are shaking things up again).
From the ellipsis to the exclamation point, “The origins of punctuation marks.”
* Mary Norris,
As we come to a full stop, we might send dark, but elegantly-punctuated birthday greetings to Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, or as he’s better known to English readers, Joesph Conrad; he was born on this date in 1857. An early modernist who spoke and wrote in three languages (his native Polish, French, and English), he imported a non-English diction and tragic sense to his work, which included Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, 17 other novels, and dozens of short stories. A success in his own time, Conrad’s influence grew; he’s been cited as a formative influence on writers including D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, William Golding, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, J. G. Ballard, John le Carré, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Hunter S. Thompson, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie… and of course, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.
“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken”*…
The Oxford comma, so-called because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it, is the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list. If your preferred style is to omit the second comma in “red, white, and blue,” you are aligned with the anti-Oxford comma faction.The pro-Oxford comma faction is more vocal and numerous in the US, while in the UK, anti-Oxford comma reigns. (Oxford University is an outsider, style-wise, in its own land.) In the US, book and magazine publishers are generally pro, while newspapers are anti, but both styles can be found in both media.
The two main rationales for choosing one style over the other are clarity and economy. Each side has invoked both rationales in its favor. Here are some quotes that have served as shots exchanged in the Oxford comma wars…
Pro: “…use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the commonsense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at negligible cost.”
Wilson Follett, in his 1966 Modern American Usage, advocates for the comma on the grounds that it can’t really hurt.
Con: “All those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be.”
This complaint was addressed to Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker, by James Thurber, who preferred “the red white and blue” to “the red, white, and blue.” Ross, a notorious defender of the serial comma, was impressed by Thurber’s argument and responded, “write a piece about it, and I’ll punctuate the flag any way you want it—in that one piece.”
Pro: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”
A probably apocryphal book dedication, this example has been a favorite of pro-Oxford comma language blogs for a while. Without the comma before “and,” you get a rather intriguing set of parents.
Con: “The English are rather more careful than we are, and commonly put a comma after the next-to-last member of a series, but otherwise are not too precise to offend a red-blooded American.”
H.L. Mencken, who did not use the serial comma himself, implies, in this quote tucked into a supplement to The American Language, that there is something prissy, pedantic, and altogether un-American about the extra comma…
More fuel for the fire in Arika Okrent’s “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars.”
* Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
As we choose sides, we might spare a thought for a regular user of the clarifying comma, Edmund Burke; he died on this date in 1797. Born in Dublin, he was an author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. He’s probably best remembered for his advocacy of the American and his opposition to the French revolutions. While Burke was held up as a beacon by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century, the 20th century generally viewed him as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.
In “Consistency in Politics” Winston Churchill wrote:
On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.
And indeed, historian Piers Brendon credits Burke’ paternalistic insistence the colonial domination was a trust, with laying the moral foundations for the British Empire: Burke wrote that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”– it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom” …a noble aim that was in the event an ideological bacillus, as Brendon observed, that would prove fatal.
“You can never plan the future by the past.”
-Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791)
“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all”.
– Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
On August 10 the website of the Athens [Georgia] Banner-Herald ran the headline “Man asked to clean up after dog pulls gun.”
Via World Wide Words, where editor Michael Quinion also quotes from an article in The Independent on 12 August about the Australian general election: “On the campaign trail and addressing a Liberal Party event in the city of Melbourne [opposition leader Tony] Abbott said: ‘No one — however smart, however well-educated, however experienced — is the suppository of all wisdom’.”
Indeed. (And lest one think there’s little at stake, this.)
[image above, via Nora Wilkinson]
As we disagree with Vampire Weekend, we might send addled birthday greetings to an empress of ellipses and exclamation points, Jacqueline Susann; she was born on this date in 1921. Having been disappointed by her luck as an actress and a model, Ms. Susann turned to the typewriter. Her first novel, Every Night, Josephine (featuring her poodle), was a best-seller. Her second, Valley of the Dolls was the best-seller: it topped the chart for 22 weeks, and by the time of Susann’s death in 1974, had sold over 17 million copies, making it the best-selling novel of all time. Its current cumulative sales of 30 million puts it in a dead heat with Gone With the Wind, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and To Kill a Mockingbird).
source: Flickr/Tom Magliery.
I’ve noticed that I use semicolons a lot. That punctuational rut is partly a consequence of the years I spent in grad school reading the Victorian Sages (Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris), who were capable of raging on in pages-long, semicolon-studded sentences about the evils of the Industrial Revolution. But there’s more to it than that. The semicolon is my psychological metaphor, my mascot. It’s the punctuation mark that qualifies, hesitates, and ties together ideas and parts of a life that shot off in different directions. I come from a world where most people still don’t read or hear what I have to say about books because they are oblivious to or downright suspicious of NPR, The New York Times, and all the other educated, upper-middle-class outlets where popular conversations about literature and culture take place; I now spend most of my time in a world where most people know who Stanley Fish is but have only the haziest notion of (and are even less interest in) what a shop steward does.
– Author, professor, and NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan
[To T. E. Lawrence, on Seven Pillars of Wisdom:] You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.
– George Bernard Shaw
More lexicographical love at “Writers’ Favorite Punctuation Marks.”
Feeling syntactically savvy? Take the Obscure Punctuation Quiz…
* “I’m tired of wasting letters when punctuation will do, period.” – Steve Martin
As we pledge ourselves to punctiliousness, we might spare a thought for Sarah Winnemucca; she died on this date in 1891 (as attested here, though some other sources give October 17). The daughter of Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute people, and originally known by her Paiute name, Thocmetony (Shell Flower), Sarah was educated in the homes of U.S. Army officers who befriended her family. She became a prominent Native American activist and educator, and was the first Native American woman to secure a copyright and to publish in the English language (an autobiographical book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, that tells of her people’s experiences during their first forty years of contact with white explorers and settlers– and that employs the full range of punctuation marks).
“They still believe in God, the family, angels, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other obsolete stuff”*…
“Just because you’re excited about something doesn’t mean you have to end the sentence”
The Interrobang, the Asterism, and a dozen other curious connectors at BuzzFeed’s “14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed.”
* Isaac Bashevis Singer
As we resist coming to a full stop, we might send silent birthday wishes to Adolph (later Arthur) “Harpo” Marx; he was born on this date in 1888. Harpo’s signature style, he recalls in his autobiography, was born after reading a review of one of the earliest performances he did with his brothers; it read, in part: “Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke.” Thereafter, of course, it was all whistles and horns…
And mallets: Harpo was inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979.
The Oxford Comma– AKA, the final serial comma– has come in for some harsh criticism. Indeed recently, the storied punctuation mark suffered the ugliest of indignities: the “Writing and Style Guide” in Oxford University’s own “Branding Handbook” (the internal guide to usage meant to be consistent across all University publications) instructed: “As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’.”
The Prose Police did carve out an exception: “when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used…”
Good thing too. Language Log demonstrates with examples both hypothetical:
Your correspondent operates, as readers may have noticed, on the compositional principal “better safe than sorry”…
As we disagree with Vampire Weekend, we might recall another example of linguistic mutability: it was on this date in 1966 that Jimmy Hendrix changed his name to Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix had a good bit of Experience, if readers will forgive the pun, with name changes… He born was Johnny Allen Hendrix, but his father changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix (in honor of the father’s dead brother). Hendrix performed as a sideman as “Maurice James”; he led his pre-fame band, The Blue Flames, as “Jimmy James”; and when confronted with confusion of having two Randys in the group– Guitarist Randy Wolf and bassist Randy Palmer, he dubbed the latter “Randy Texas.” The former, anointed by Hendrix as “Randy California,” later joined his step-father Ed Cassidy to form Spirit.