Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants

Friday, January 14th, 2011

I wonder, are “security breeches” similar to chastity belts?

I may want security breeches myself if I’m asked to go through a backscatter X-ray next time I’m traveling by plane…

This Headline Contains No Puns

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Here is the beginning of the New York Times stylebook’s entry for “puns.”

puns have a place in the newspaper, but as a trace element rather than a staple. A pun should be a surprise encounter, evoking a sly smile rather than a groan and flattering the intelligence of a reader who gets the joke. Plays on personal names never qualify; no one will be flattered to read, say, that a pitcher named Butcher carved up the opposing team.

It goes on from there, too longwindedly for my taste, but the basic advice seems sound for a newspaper (or hell, even for a blog) that aspires to a dignified tone (who could begrudge the Post or Daily News their front-page puns?). I don’t know if the Los Angeles Times has any similar guideline, but an article in Friday’s LA Times, about Czech women who choose not to add the feminine “ova” to their last names, bore the following headline and subhead:

Being a Czech mate can cause women pain and suffix

Their society and the very language have an ‘ova-reaction’ to eliminating last names’ feminine endings

I count three puns in 25 words (a 12 percent pun rate!), and none of them particularly flatter me. “Pain and suffix” is especially clumsy. The article itself is unobjectionable—even interesting!—and blessedly pun-free until the final few paragraphs. Is this what happens when you halve your editorial staff in less than a decade?

Shepherd, Shepard, Sheperd

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

shepcanyIt’s impressive, in a way, that Google Maps manages to spell this Oakland locale three different ways in about one square inch of map. Of course, some ‘Shephard Canyon’ partisans might argue that all three are incorrect. (Yahoo Maps follows general convention, and official City of Oakland terminology, by going with ‘Shepherd Canyon’ for all three.)

Hearing Punctuation

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

A blogger at Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai, has a complaint:

Too often I encounter the following kind of sentence: “I’m wondering if people could improve their grammar?”

One of my pet peeves is when people put question marks at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder if”. I’m always left wondering if the person is wondering about whether they’re wondering. (Of course, chances are they are not, but why the question mark then?) This is an incredibly common mistake for reasons not clear to me.

I wonder if this is really a mistake? (Go ahead and groan—you have my permission.) I suspect that the answer to that question depends on a fundamental disagreement about the function of punctuation. For a lot of people, including me, punctuation’s main purpose is to tell the reader how the text would sound if it were heard out loud. Spoken language is primary, and the point of punctuation in writing is to give readers help figuring out how the sentence would sound if it were spoken instead of written.

So for people like me, the way to test whether or not a written sentence is punctuated properly is to imagine it spoken out loud, and to try to discern whether the punctuation in the written sentence matches the rhythms and tones and pitch changes of the spoken sentence. Did I pause long enough between those two words to add a period, or would a semicolon or some other punctuation mark better match the length of the pause? Did the pitch rise enough at the end of the sentence to deserve a question mark, or should I use a period instead? Should the text gallop along with few commas in order to mimic the frenzied speech of an anxious mood, or should it move at a more leisurely pace, with punctuation to match?

For some other people, this talk of “hearing” punctuation may sound like mumbo jumbo. When I worked at a newspaper, the paper’s arbiter of official style once sent around a memo pointing out a punctuation “error” in an article. I hadn’t written the article, but I also didn’t think it was an error, so I sent him a friendly email explaining that the punctuation in the article seemed fine to me, based on the way I “heard” the sentence. Even though I was at the bottom of the newsroom totem pole and he was near the top, he was very nice about my gentle challenge to his authority, but in a different memo on an unrelated matter shortly thereafter, he made a teasing reference to “those poor benighted souls who ‘hear’ punctuation.” (I have a suspicion that he is actually one of us, although he wouldn’t admit it publicly.)

My sense is that people are divided into two groups: those who see punctuation as merely an imperfect representation of spoken language, intended to provide a written translation of the sounds of speech, and those who see it as a separate system of rules and symbols which, even if it is originally derived from spoken language, must now follow its own internal logic.

So back to the complaint from the Crooked Timber blogger: Is it wrong to use a question mark at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder”? I would say no. For better or worse (that’s a question for another day), Americans seem to be increasingly using interrogatory rises in pitch at the end of sentences when they speak, in order to turn what is structured as a declarative sentence into a question. I have no doubt that people who write sentences such as “I wonder if this is grammatical?” are accurately transcribing the way they would have spoken the sentence if they were talking to their friends. And the use of the question mark seems especially defensible in the case of sentences whose main verb is “wonder,” since wondering is an inherently questioning thing to do.

Hargittai notes in the comments to her post that she encounters this “grammatically incorrect” (her term) use of question marks in “emails and status updates and tweets and blog comments, etc.” In other words, she encounters it in informal writing, where people are less likely to worry about following grammatical “rules” that were drilled into them in school, and more likely to use punctuation that accurately represents the way they hear sentences in their heads.

This punctuation question may be just one little side skirmish in the ongoing war between “descriptive” linguists and “prescriptive” scolds and pedants (oops, sorry—make that “grammarians”). I intentionally didn’t look to see what’s been written about punctuation elsewhere, because I didn’t want to get deep into the weeds on this, but that comment about “poor benighted souls who ‘hear’ punctuation” has stuck with me for a decade now. I would bet that the vast majority of people do use punctuation that they “hear” in their heads when they are writing informal emails, blog posts, facebook status updates, tweets, IM’s, text messages, etc. It is only small minority of poor benighted grammar watchdogs who recoil at the thought of indicating that a sentence is a question by changing the punctuation at the end.

Not Much is Really Sacred

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

From Steven Pinker’s op-ed in Thursday’s NY Times:

Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have “internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided,” adding, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech.”

In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the “ain’t” from Bob Dylan’s line “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb.

So Roberts’s mangling of the oath might not have been a “flub” after all: he might have been, consciously or unconsciously, trying to “correct” the words in the constitution.

I knew we couldn’t trust that guy — two documents that you really shouldn’t mess with lightly are the United States Constitution and the collected lyrics of Bob Dylan.