(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘grammar

“Based on his liberal use of the semicolon, I just assumed this date would go well”*…

Mary Norris (“The Comma Queen“) appreciates Cecelia Watson‘s appreciation of a much-maligned mark, Semicolon

… Watson, a historian and philosopher of science and a teacher of writing and the humanities—in other words, a Renaissance woman—gives us a deceptively playful-looking book that turns out to be a scholarly treatise on a sophisticated device that has contributed eloquence and mystery to Western civilization.

The semicolon itself was a Renaissance invention. It first appeared in 1494, in a book published in Venice by Aldus Manutius. “De Aetna,” Watson explains, was “an essay, written in dialogue form,” about climbing Mt. Etna. Its author, Pietro Bembo, is best known today not for his book but for the typeface, designed by Francesco Griffo, in which the first semicolon was displayed: Bembo. The mark was a hybrid between a comma and a colon, and its purpose was to prolong a pause or create a more distinct separation between parts of a sentence. In her delightful history, Watson brings the Bembo semicolon alive, describing “its comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it.” Designers, she explains, have since given the mark a “relaxed and fuzzy” look (Poliphilus), rendered it “aggressive” (Garamond), and otherwise adapted it for the modern age: “Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party.”

The problem with the semicolon is not how it looks but what it does and how that has changed over time. In the old days, punctuation simply indicated a pause. Comma, colon: semicolon; period. Eventually, grammarians and copy editors came along and made themselves indispensable by punctuating (“pointing”) a writer’s prose “to delineate clauses properly, such that punctuation served syntax.” That is, commas, semicolons, and colons were plugged into a sentence in order to highlight, subordinate, or otherwise conduct its elements, connecting them syntactically. One of the rules is that, unless you are composing a list, a semicolon is supposed to be followed by a complete clause, capable of standing on its own. The semicolon can take the place of a conjunction, like “and” or “but,” but it should not be used in addition to it. This is what got circled in red in my attempts at scholarly criticism in graduate school. Sentence length has something to do with it—a long, complex sentence may benefit from a clarifying semicolon—but if a sentence scans without a semicolon it’s best to leave it alone.

Watson has been keeping an eye out for effective semicolons for years. She calculates that there are four-thousand-odd semicolons in “Moby-Dick,” or “one for every 52 words.” Clumsy as nineteenth-century punctuation may seem to a modern reader, Melville’s semicolons, she writes, act like “sturdy little nails,” holding his wide-ranging narrative together….

Eminently worth reading in full: “Sympathy for the Semicolon,” on @ceceliawatson from @MaryNorrisTNY.

Sort of apposite (and completely entertaining/enlightening): “Naming the Unnamed: On the Many Uses of the Letter X.”

(Image above: source)

* Raven Leilani, Luster

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As we punctuate punctiliously, we might recall that it was on this date in 1990 that CBS aired the final episode of Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom series, Newhart, in which he co-starred with Mary Fran through a 184 episode run that had started in 1982. Newhart had, of course, had a huge hit with his first series, The Bob Newhart Show, in which he co-starred with Suzanne Pleshette.

Newhart‘s ending, its final scene, is often cited as the best finale in sit-com history.

“You should say what you mean”*…

No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

At first this seems to mean “No head injury should be ignored — even if it’s trivial,” but reflection shows that it really means “All head injuries should be ignored — even trivial ones.”

“This difficulty has certain interesting properties,” write psychologists Peter Wason and Shuli Reich. “When the correct interpretation was explained it was often adamantly rejected in our informal studies, as if the informants literally could not see an alternative view.”…

Fun with language: “Grammatical Illusions

* Lewis Carroll

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter…

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII [source, and of the image above]

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As we grapple with grammar, we might send silly birthday greetings to Joseph Grimaldi; he was born on this date in 1778. The most popular English entertainer of his day, Grimaldi was an actor, comedian, and dancer who effectively invented the character of The Clown as today we know it.  He became so dominant on the London comic stage that harlequinade Clowns became known as “Joey”; both that nickname and the trademark whiteface make-up that Grimaldi created were, and still are, used widely by all types of clowns.  His catchphrases “Shall I?” and “Here we are again!” still get laughs in pantomimes.

Grimaldi’s memoir, edited by his fan Charles Dickens (who had, as a child, seen Grimaldi perform), was a best-seller.  The annual memorial service held for him (in February at Holy Trinity Church in the London Borough of Hackney) is attended by hundreds of clown performers from all over the world– who attend in full make-up and costume.

Grimaldi, au naturel
Grimaldi, in character

 source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

” ‘Opsimath’: a person who begins to learn late in life”*…

 

Words

Fun with words: dive into the Twitter thread

* Merriam-Webster Dictionary (entry for March 30)

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As we enlarge our lexicons, we might spare a thought for Noël François de Wailly; he died on this date in 1801.  A grammarian and lexicographer, he published Principes généraux de la langue française (1754) which revolutionized the teaching of grammar in France.  The book was adopted as a textbook by the University of Paris and then more generally used throughout France in an adapted form in primary education.

Wailly grammar

Title page of the 1757 edition

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

“A man’s grammar, like Caesar’s wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity”*…

 

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
― Dorothy Parker

29 more at “31 Jokes Every Grammar Nerd Can’t Help But Love.”

* (an admittedly sexist) Edgar Allan Poe

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As we ruminate on the rules, we might send shocking birthday greetings to a man who broke most of them: the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854. With his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.

All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s

– Paul Valéry

 source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Here’s to alcohol, the rose colored glasses of life”*…

 

“As ‘cocktail,’ so I gather, has become a verb, it ought to be conjugated at least once,” wrote the author of The Great Gatsby in a 1928 letter to Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Who better to first lay out its full conjugation than the man who, as the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center puts it, “gave the Jazz Age its name”? Given that his fame “was for many years based less on his work than his personality—the society playboy, the speakeasy alcoholic whose career had ended in ‘crack-up,’ the brilliant young writer whose early literary success seemed to make his life something of a romantic idyll,” he found himself well placed to offer the language a new “taste of Roaring Twenties excess.”…

More at “F. Scott Fitzgerald Conjugates ‘to Cocktail,'” (where one will also find a larger image of the letter and an audio version).

* F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

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As we descend to declension, we might spare a thought for Albert Hofmann; he died on this date in 2008 (at the age of 102).  As a young chemist at Sandoz in Switzerland, Hofmann was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant when he fabricated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); handling it, he absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943– a day now known as “Bicycle Day”– Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD then rode home on a bike, a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

 source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

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