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Posts Tagged ‘punctuation

“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit … a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in space”…

 

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Three months ago, I was a normal person. Now all I think about 24-7 is the dinkus. Did you know that dinkuses is an anagram of unkissed? I did. For the uninitiated, the dinkus is a line of three asterisks (* * *) used as a section break in a text. It’s the flatlining of an asterism (⁂), which in literature is a pyramid of three asterisks and in astronomy is a cluster of stars.

The dinkus has none of the asterism’s linguistic association with the cosmos, but that’s why I love it. Due to its proximity to the word dingus, which means, to define one ridiculous word with another, “doodad,” dinkus likely evolved from the Dutch and German ding, meaning “thing.” To the less continental ear, dinkus sounds slightly dirty, and I can confirm that it’s brought serious academics to giggles.

For me, a writer and reader, its crumbiness is its appeal. I need some crumbs to lure me down the page…

Daisy Alioto‘s “Ode to the Dinkus.”

* James Joyce, Ulysses

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As we separate our sections, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that The University of Oxford received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated many notable alumni, including 29 Nobel laureates, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world.  Sixty-nine Nobel Prize winners, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners have studied, worked, or held visiting fellowships at Oxford.

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Written by LW

June 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Space: the final frontier”*…

 

This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surrounds geopolitical discourse—so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desensitizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death.

One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.

The war is alive again of late because a study that came out this month from Skidmore College. The study is, somehow, the first to look specifically at this question. It is titled: “Are Two Spaces Better Than One? The Effect of Spacing Following Periods and Commas During Reading.”…

Find out the truth at “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period.”

* the words opening each episode of Star Trek

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As your correspondent basks in confirmation, we might recall that it was in 1770 that Germany and France moved past 30 years of animosity, celebrating their new alliance with the marriage of Archduchess Marie “let them eat cake” Antionette and Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France (soon enough to become King Louis XVI), in a lavish ceremony at Versailles, in front of more than 5000 guests.

A torrential thunderstorm pre-empted the fireworks planned for that evening; but the celebration continued through May 30th, when fireworks on Place de la Concorde killed 132 people– a grim omen of a reign that would prove tragic.

Marie Antoinette in her wedding dress, which was adorned with white diamonds

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Written by LW

May 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic”*…

 

The tilde is 3,000 years old, but is there any grapheme that’s more ~of the times~? The little traveling worm, originally designed to convey approximation (and used in Spanish and Portuguese to denote certain sounds), expresses so much more: strangeness, emotional and physical distance — but perhaps most importantly, sarcasm…

The twisted mark’s twisted story in its entirety at “The Internet Tilde Perfectly Conveys Something We Don’t Have the Words to Explain.”

– Mary Norris (the New Yorker‘s “Comma Queen”)

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As we move our fingers to the upper left of our keyboards, we might send rib-tickling birthday greetings to Moses Harry Horwitz; he was born on this date in 1897.  Better known by his stage name, “Moe Howard,” he was the de facto leader of The Three Stooges, both on stage and off.

Moe, flanked by Curly and Larry, in The Three Stooge’s classic “Disorder in the Court

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Written by LW

June 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Punctuation, is? fun!”*…

 

The average tweet is not an especially remarkable thing. It can contain letters (and almost always does), marks of punctuation (perhaps more of an acquired taste in this context), and pictures (mostly of cats and/or the photographer themselves). But in amongst these most conventional components of modern written communication are two special symbols around which orbits the whole edifice of Twitter. Neither letters nor marks of punctuation, the @- and #-symbols scattered throughout Twitter’s half billion daily messages are integral to its workings. And yet, they have always been interlopers amongst our written words.

Both ‘@’ and ‘#’ first crept into view during the Renaissance…

Old friend Keith Houston provides “A brief history of the # and the @.”

* Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

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As we hit the shift key, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that Time Magazine acquired The Literary Digest— or its one remaining asset of value, its mailing list.  Founded by Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1890, then published by his company, Funk & Wagnalls, The Literary Digest was an influential general interest publication the grew in influence (its circulation topped 1 million) with it election polling.  Starting in 1920, it conducted straw polls, all accurately predicting the outcomes of presidential elections…  until 1936, when its poll called the race a likely landslide victory for Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas.  In the event, of course, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was re-elected by a landslide– a result accurately predicted by a start-up polling company, George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion.

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“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…

See the charted novels in larger, zoomable form at “Between the Words“; more background at “8 Classic Novels Reduced To Their Punctuation.”

* Ursula K. Le Guin

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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.)

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“Punctuation is a deeply conservative club. It hardly ever admits a new member”*…

 

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.”

(Word usage continues to evolve as well…)

* Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

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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.

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Written by LW

December 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“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

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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)

Burke c. 1767/69, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds

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Written by LW

July 9, 2014 at 1:01 am

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