Monday, May 13, 2024

Asked and answered

More in comments on "Ask me anything": We'll start with the semicolon.

1. What's an easy way to remember the proper times to use a semicolon versus a period?

2. When are sentences in parentheses in sentences appropriate?

You would use a semicolon to join two independent clauses that are closely related, viz., They ask me questions; I always answer them

But keep in mind that it is a judgment call to use the semicolon instead of writing two sentences. The semicolon is more common in formal writing and might look stiff in yours. Some people though, like the semicolon. Nicholson Baker not only pumps for the semicolon in "The History of Punctuation" (collected in The Size of Thoughts) but also applauds the Victorian custom of combining the semicolon with the em dash. (Admire if you like, but step back.) 

An alternative to the semicolon is the comma, found in the dreaded comma-splice run-on sentence: They ask me questions, I always answer them. You do not want to do this in formal writing, and you must not say that I gave you permission to do so. But if you are writing fiction, particularly dialogue, you will find yourself resorting to this comma, because people in speech string their clauses together loosely rather than composing them, and this construction will sound more natural. 

As to the second question, about parentheses, it is best to think of them as operating like an aside in drama. The parenthetical remark is a nugget of information that is not essential to the main line of thought but is tucked in to add a bit of context. 

But writing a parenthetical clause within a sentence can be dicey, distracting the reader, viz., Nicholson Baker not only pumps for the semicolon in "The History of Punctuation" (The essay is a review of a book on punctuation collected in his The Size of Thoughts) but also applauds the Victorian custom of combining the semicolon with the em dash. See?

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Of course it was about commas

 When I invited readers earlier today to ask me any question they care to about writing, editing, or English usage, this was the first to arrive: "Commas before 'too,' 'as well,' 'either,' etc. at the ends of sentences: yea or nay, and why?"

Commas often precede "as well" and "either" but may not be necessary. I would need to see a context. Periods, not commas, come at the end of sentences (well, sometimes ellipses). Using a comma before "too" is entirely discretionary; it is not necessary but can be used to place a little additional oomph on the word. 

Some commas are required in formal English. Instances include preceding a coordinating conjunction when two independent clauses are joined, setting off appositives, and separating the items in a series.* Know those places. 

But some commas are discretionary, used like the rests in music to mimic the slight pauses in speech. It is perfectly all right to use them thus, but be wary of going overboard. There is a tendency, much remarked upon, to indulge, knowingly or carelessly, in discretionary commas to an extent that the writer, or more properly the writer's voice, comes to resemble that of, one hesitates to point out, Henry James. 

*Regarding the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series: If you are following a stylebook, use it or not as the stylebook dictates; if you are not following a stylebook, use it or not as your taste dictates; if you are arguing in public over whether or not to use it, you are annoying people with trifles. 

Ask me anything

It’s my own fault. 

When The New York Times called to ask for my views on the sale of The Baltimore Sun to David Smith and Armstrong Williams, I was less than enthusiastic.* When Mr. Williams disparaged the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at public events, I pointed to some deficiencies in his argument

So perhaps I should not have been surprised when, looking for some past post, I clicked on the link to You Don’t Say at, I got “Oops! That page can’t be found.”

Now The Sun owns the blog posts I wrote as an employee and published on its website for more than fifteen years.** And if the management chooses to be petty and vindictive, it can do as it pleases with its property, including deleting it. 

But not all is gone; a search on the website, for example, turned up a handful of posts from 2019, and there may be more. Some posts that were picked up by Google News can still be found on search, but that search is also spotty.

Those posts enabled me to say nearly everything I know about writing and editing, and the tens of thousands of page views they got indicated that some readers found them of value. To my knowledge, two or three people actually subscribed to The Sun to be able to read them. 

So now I make this offer: Bring to me any question you have about writing, editing, or English usage, and if I think I can offer a useful answer, I will give one. Never mind that it may be something that I already wrote about. 

I have never been shy about repeating myself. 

*”I think it will mean disaster.”

**The blog you’re currently reading I created in 2009-2010 when I was laid off and have maintained since. 

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Prosy verse

 Fifty years ago I imagined that I might be a poet, but when Syracuse University turned me down for the creative writing program, then called to offer me a fellowship in the academic program in English in the graduate school, I accepted the verdict. 

But the impulse occasionally flickers, especially when a memory is triggered. This I felt impelled to write today, and you may think what you like of it. 


My grandmother kneels at the hearth, 

banking the coals in the fireplace,

while I lie under the quilt she made,

turning from the cold wall toward the glow, 

beloved, safe, and sleepy. 

She is gone, and the farm is sold. 

Nothing physical remains. 

But still at night I lie in bed

on the side that turns toward the glow. 

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Bemoan, bemoan, bemoan

My Facebook feed has been cluttered this week with people posting this remark attributed to the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high schools to teaching Remedial English in college."

Let's unpack some of what is in this. 

First, a century ago, many fewer young people went to college at all, and they usually came from schools with curriculum designed to prepare for a college education.  And, mind you, even then, scholarship was not necessarily pronounced. In the Ivy League colleges, the "gentleman's C" was entirely satisfactory, because valuable connections and networking easily compensated for a mediocre education.  

It is a mistake to equate the students of that era with the great surge after the Second World War of students seeking college educations for the first time in their families, a much wider range of students coming from public schools generally rather than selective academies. So this "gone from teaching" oversimplification ignores complex social and educational developments of the past seventy years. It is less an analysis than a slogan, a sneer at current students that overlooks the possibility that they might be at school to learn something.*

But at bottom the Sobran complaint is the tired conservative trope, repeated generation from generation, that there was a time in the past when people were smarter and more capable, compared to the degenerate present. Cicero complained that people were no longer speaking good Latin. Egbert of Liege bemoaned that "scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before" in the eleventh century. Jonathan Swift wrote in 1712 that people had so corrupted the English language that the Crown should establish an academy to regulate it. It was always better in the past, for those of us who recall it. 

Posting the Sobran sneer does not make one a brave voice crying in the wilderness. It is rather, and merely, a badge of smugness. 

*Perhaps it is worth saying that when I graduated from a public high school in Appalachia in 1969 (having in fact have taken two years of Latin), I was competent to write at the high school level. I had to learn, at college, how to write at the college level. I assumed that that was what it was for. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Not unusual

 It has been the custom of the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to announce their annual revisions at the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, presumably because those are the people who care what is in the AP Stylebook

These updates regularly have something to raise the hair on the back of a stickler's neck. This year it is the entry on unique: "The stylebook is changing its guidance on the word 'unique.' The revised entry now says: 'The word can mean one of a kind, unparalleled, having no equal, etc.; or highly unusual, extraordinary, rare, etc. If used in the sense of one of a kind, don’t use modifiers such as very, rather, etc.' "

One can still hear keening over the abandonment of the unfounded over/more than distinction or the heaving over the side of the "split verb" rule, which held against all evidence than one cannot insert an adverb between an auxiliary and the main verb (and which I take some pride in having campaigned against for years).

The editors of the AP Stylebook are not wild-eyed Jacobins; they endorse changes in usage only after those changes have been in wide use for years. 

Regarding unique: Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler 4 comments on the sense of "particularly remarkable, special, or unusual," remarking, "All modern monolingual dictionaries recognize this meaning, usually with a warning."

American Heritage in 2011 upheld the absolute sense of the word but conceded, "In fact, the nontraditional modification of unique may be found in the work of many reputable writers and has certainly been put to effective use."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) explains, "Words that are in widespread use have a natural tendency to take on extended meanings. In the case of unique, it was natural that a word used to describe something that was unlike anything else should also come to be used more broadly to describe something that was, simply, unusual or rare," the latter use having been common for more than a century.

Bryan Garner clucks that the looser usage is in his Stage 3 of language change: "Widespread, but ..."

Unique we lifted from the French, who had it from the Latin unicus, "one." I suspect that insistence on the absolute meaning rises in part from the etymological fallacy, the belief that the meaning of a word must be restricted to its original sense. You may know people who insist that decimate must refer for the destruction of a tenth rather than substantial damage. I used to teach my students at Loyola that dilemma had to mean two unsatisfactory choices, like Odysseus having to decide between Scylla and Charybdis, because the Greek root di- means "two." I have no way to get back to them now to say that it can simply mean "a difficult situation." 

English is on the move, and has been since we and the French destroyed Anglo-Saxon. And though it will likely lead to by expulsion from the Stickler Sodality, I recommend judgement instead of rigid adherence to rules of dodgy provenance. Figure out what will make sense to the reader. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Not during the reign of Edward Longshanks

A fellow editor writes to ask if I, as a resident of Baltimore, can attest that there has been a Roman Catholic presence in the city since the latter part of the 13th century. 

He refers to an article on a proposal to close several parishes that says the closures would "reflect more than 730 years of the city's Catholic life," and asks, "You know more about Charm City than I do, but was there *really* a Catholic presence in Baltimore circa 1291 A.D.?"

My best guess is that the number 730 refers to the aggregate ages of the affected parishes. The oldest in continuous operation, St. Vincent de Paul, dates from 1841, the same article informs us. 

Had I been engaged to edit the article, hoping to avoid misunderstanding, I would have confirmed my surmise and made it read, "The combined ages of the sites that would be lost reflect more than 730 years of the city's Catholic life." 

But that's just me, a meddlesome editor. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Once a bookworm, always a bookworm

An old friend asked me on Facebook if I could recommend some nonfiction books, so I put together a list of the ones I've liked most in two and a half years of retirement:  

Isabel Wilkinson, Caste; Ron Chernow, Grant; Matthew Gabrielle and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages; Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile; Nikole Hannah-Jones et al., The 1619 Project; Baynard Woods, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness; Jess McHugh, Americanon; Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams; Dahlia Lithwick, Lady Justice; Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America; Kevin Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Myth America; Joel Richard Paul: Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism; Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed; Joel Richard Paul, Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times; Timothy Egan, A Fever in the Heartland; Joseph Ellis, American Dialogue; Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

I was tempted to recommend The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis, but at roughly a thousand pages, 900 text and 100 apparatus, it is something to take on.

Maybe you would like some fiction recommendations. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

In the beginning was a word

Imagine a collection of short detective stories in which no case is solved. 

I was four pages into Anatoly Liberman’s discussion of the origin of the word finger — including multiple Germanic words, along with Goth, Greek, and Latin — when I reached this sentence: “It seems that we are exactly where we were at the beginning, and the impression is correct.”   

Professor Liberman, who has entertained word nerds for years with the blog OUP Etymologist, has now sifted through some eight hundred posts, selecting, revising, and updating to produce Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology (Oxford University Press, 344 pages, $29.99). 

“Origin unknown” is the signal in a dictionary that lexicographers have thrown up their hands and confessed that they cannot tell you where that word came from. Very old words were long in speech before they were ever recorded in a text, as is slang. Words change meanings and pronunciations. They alter when they encounter other languages. They are shape-shifters. 

Curiosity about word origins leads people to “fanciful and clever conjectures,” which must be sorted out. And the internet is littered with folk etymologies. (Yes, we all heard “Fornication Under Command of the King” as teenagers, but no.) Professor Liberman advises: “In semantics, no river is so broad that it cannot be crossed by an ingeniously built bridge. The bridges look safe, but one should think twice before crossing them.”

Certainty is not a ready commodity in etymology, which is why Professor Liberman describes his work in this book as an effort to “throw some light on obscurity.” 

He has an interesting conjecture on honeymoon, which Samuel Johnson defined as “the first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure,” adding a comment that the moon will wane. So we see that the early sense of the word was pejorative, bearing the sense that love will not last. Professor Liberman suggests that over time, users of the word focused on the sweetness of the honey component rather than the transitory moon, eventually arriving at the sense of harmony with which we use it. 

Honeymoon is a reminder that words can undergo amelioration and deterioration, moving from negative to positive, or positive to negative. You have to watch them. 

I took a personal interest in his entry on curmudgeon, which Johnson described as “an avaricious churlish fellow,” and the sense in Britain has remained that a curmudgeon is a miser. But in the mid-twentieth century in the United States, Webster’s Third labeled the “avaricious” sense as archaic, defining the word as “a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.” (It’s a fair cop.) The etymologist Walter W. Skeat traced the origins to the Scottish murgeon, “mock, grumble,” and mudgeon, “grimace.” 

This book is an exploratory expedition through the Englishes, Old, Middle, and Modern, and the other languages that they have— or may have — brushed up against. 


Monday, March 4, 2024

The practice of lexis can lead to tsuris

 Once you hang up the green eyeshade, nobody pays you any longer for finding fault and you have to think up other things to do. Sometimes, on afternoons before the bar opens, you go to the library, pick up a book at random, read a few pages, mutter “I’d’ve caught that,” and put it down. 

I was on my way out when my passage was blocked by a stocky librarian looking as determined as a managing editor denying an expense account filing. 

“Ma’am, I’d like to go out,” I said. 

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, I’m only thirty-five,” she said. “And if I let you out the door you’d be trapped in the middle of the demonstration.” 

“A demonstration? At the library?”

“They’re protesting Merriam-Webster.” 


"Don’t you see all the Make Grammar Great Again caps?”

“Ah, I only saw as I came in the guy with the petition to restore the default masculine.”

“Oh, him, he's been around forever. But Merriam-Webster recently posted on social media that there’s nothing wrong in English with ending a sentence with a preposition, and it’s been all hell ever since.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Demonstrations like that out front.  They petitioned us to remove all the Merriam-Webster dictionaries from the shelves and cancel the online subscription. Some people tried to take the dictionaries out of the building, and we had to tell them reference books are non-circulating. Moms for Literacy got a city councilman to threaten our funding.”

“Can I just take a look at what they’re doing?”

“All right, but you’re not going out.”

It was wild out there, like the rush for the newsroom pizzas on election night. 

Two guys in black robes were crossing back and forth with a Webster’s Second open on a gurney as if it were the Ark of the Covenant. Marchers waved placards proclaiming “UP WITH THIS WE WILL NOT PUT.” One sign said “LEXICOGRAPHY IS PORNOGRAPHY.” To one side, a knot of protesters was chanting “Not over, more than!” An older woman with a bullhorn was shouting, “Kids are goats! Kids are goats!”

I asked the librarian, “They ever violent?”

“Nah,” she said. “They did get hold of a copy of McIntyre’s Bad Advice and burned it on the front steps, but that’s as ugly as it got.” 

“How’d they get onto some obscure copy editor nerd?”

“He’s some kind of pompous ass on social media all the time, and they ferreted him out there.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just wait. I called the police.”

In a little while, for sure, a patrol car pulled up and an officer got out. He went from person to person, holding up a document, and one by one they turned and left, like the staff laid off by a hedge fund.

“What’s that he’s got?” I asked.

“Huddleston and Pullum on stranded prepositions. He tells them if they don’t go home, they have to read it. Works every time.”

I said, “I’m going to buy a lexicographer a drink,” and stepped out the door.