Friday 6 April 2012

What's this? It could be — Yes! An essay about punctuation-type stuff: part one




Throughout most of the history of written language, people made do without punctuation.
In this context, “people” refers mainly to ancient Egyptian priests, who seem to have kept a tight hold on the whole recording of words trick as a trade secret for several thousand years. The only regular graphic device they used to distinguish one group of symbols from those around it was the cartouche, an elegant oval around the name of the pharaoh. (And lucky for us they did — the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone proved a key clue for matching the hieroglyphic text with the adjacent Greek translation and deciphering the whole language.)
Egyptian hieroglyphic writing used a convoluted system of word, syllable and sound symbols a lot like modern Japanese, only worse. Other people around the Mediterranean adapted and modified the system, finding a system based mostly on word sounds easier to learn, since it requires fewer symbols. You only need a few dozen sound or syllable characters to represent a spoken language, but you need thousands of characters if each word gets its own.
So your Phoenicians (resemblance to “phonetic” a funny coincidence), Hebrews and Etruscans eventually got things down to one letter per sound, more or less. They didn’t punctuate or bother to put a space between words. Vowels — who needs ’em?
Cn y rd ths sntnc? Nt tht hrd, rlly. Asforwordspacing,thinkofallthenewsprintwecouldsavewithoutit.
When the Greeks took over the one symbol per sound, or alphabetic, system, they introduced written vowels. Linguists do not agree about whether that happened through a conscious act of invention or as who should say organically.
A librarian at Alexandria gets credit for introducing punctuation in the sense we understand it, around 200 BCE. His inventions included the question mark, except it looked like a semicolon, and written Greek still goes with that.
The rest of this fascinating story plays out through medieval times into the period after Gutenberg. I will leave that for another time, so we can anticipate the invention of lower case letters and other wonders.
Except for this conundrum that has nagged me for decades: I found a source about punctuation that said the Latin question mark (?) was adapted from neumes, a system of squiggles written over words in liturgical chant books to indicate pitch, before the invention of staff lines. So, the theory goes, scribes copied the rising pitch neume to represent the rising pitch of a spoken question.
That theory has two problems. First, not all spoken questions have rising pitch, across languages or within single languages. Second, I found a history of neumes that said they developed from written punctuation, such as the question mark.
The paleographer who sorts this out wins the Hawk and Handsaw Prize for 2012.
For today, I just want to offer some typographic terminology for general use. People throw around he word “dash” pretty loosely and mostly don’t like saying “hyphen,” and sometimes call a hyphen a dash, bless their hearts. To printers and copy editors, dashes and hyphens have distinct appearances and uses.
Typesetters call dashes “m-dashes” and hyphens “n-dashes” because of their set width, equal to the width of the letter m or n in that font.
The short version of proper use: hyphens within a compound word, dashes to separate thoughts.
The short version of how to make the world a better place: lay off the dashes.
I have noticed a tendency for people to use dashes as a universal punctuation, replacing commas, periods, semicolons and parentheses. Newspapers have contributed to the trend by preferring paired dashes where parentheses have served for a few hundred years.
Where the dash serves correctly to separate thoughts, people seem to want it to add suspense or drama. I can’t agree that the little line has that much mojo, but even if it does, I see it far too much.
This goes under my “one gimmick per day” rule, which I shall expound more on later, along with scare quotes, colons and — heaven help me — capitalization.
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Quality advice to avoid issues


Richard Jewell (1962-2007)

I dedicate this week’s column to the late Richard Jewel, a regular cop who earned months of public abuse for staying alert, doing his job and saving lives during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Some would say he performed quality work when faced with a potential situation.
I would not.
While I am not above wasting ink on ideas of dubious value, I draw the line at wasting ink on words that convey nothing at all.
Alas, because of the way people use “quality” and “situation,” I end up using a lot of ink drawing that line.
In the case of “quality,” blame for the misuse — as for so much deterioration of American diction — likely rests with advertisers. A thorough search of the archives might even pinpoint what ad for which product started it.
I imagine a Lucky Strike-puffing copywriter on Madison Avenue deleting one little word on his way to a four-hour martini lunch on Tuesday, so the handbills printed Wednesday proclaimed “For a quality washday soap, buy Sudzo!” instead of “For a high quality washday soap, buy Dynokleen!” (Did I miss my calling, or what?)
Was that writer just trying to save a tiny bit of ad space, or was he consciously and sneakily avoiding any commitment as to whether the “quality” in question was high or low, letting the targeted consumers fill in that crucial bit based solely on the number and size of the following exclamation points, or on the beatific look of satisfaction worn by a June Cleaver doppelganger?
Likewise “situation,” although in this case I blame the military-trained butchers of English. We are well served if they can render our enemies half as impotent as they make their prose.
A high-ranking spokeshuman probably intended to avoid alarming the citizenry by leaving out words like “dangerous” and “volatile” when describing an unexpected encounter between heavily armed, hostile forces at a sensitive time and place: “We have a potential situation developing along the Hungarian border.”
Which left us all praying that the Soviets didn’t maneuver us into the losing side of a potential situation gap.
So did Jewell “perform quality work when faced with a potential situation”? Certainly, but so do we all, every day, whether that work is outstanding, average or sub-par, and regardless of whether the outcome proves glorious, tragic or completely inconsequential.
The sentiment intended is, of course, that an alert police officer performed effective work that prevented a problem. The words “effective” and “problem” carry the moral value as part of their fundamental denotation — no inference, supposition or wishy-washing needed.
Several other words get this treatment. “Issue” comes to mind, as in “That family has issues,” where we start forgetting to wink at the neutral word so that it soon has to lug around the negative connotation wherever it goes.
As my fellow high school band trumpeter John Williamson paraphrased in our senior yearbook, “Of all the schools I’ve ever been to, this is certainly one of them.” (Hi, John.)
Now to the rhetorical legacy of Officer Jewell and the Centennial Olympic bombing.
I can’t name the specific culprit who originally saddled us with “person of interest.” I did a little digging, but couldn’t divine whether the phrase came from the media or the police first. They certainly share guilt for its spread in the early stages.
The police latched onto it because it seemed to let them say “suspect” without taking moral or legal responsibility for naming someone a suspect. The media let them get away with it.
Both the media and the police continue playing this spineless game. This week The Associated Press moved a story about a person of interest arriving in Anchorage from Texas, presumably as an honored traveling companion of the federal marshals who surrounded him the whole way.
The moral worthlessness of “person of interest” as a euphemism stands clear. To an extent, case law rejects it as legally worthless, too. Neither police nor news outlets can stave off a libel judgment simpy by arguing they never called someone a suspect.
I will call the inventor of the phrase a poltroon to their face and gladly embrace any consequences — pistols or swords, your call. Meanwhile the rest of us should stop letting it slide.
But maybe time will take care of it. Euphemisms have a way of deteriorating back to the original negative connotation their first users aimed at suppressing.
This effect can use up a whole string of words as one after another sinks into vulgarity. Thus the French, over a few centuries, have worked their way through every likely word for “kiss,” because sooner or later each one ends up meaning a far more intimate interaction.
See, I can euphemize, too.
I conclude with this sociolinguistic conundrum: Does the increasing acceptance of blasphemies such as “hell” and “damn” in polite speech during the last half century represent an opposite tendency for those words to lose a semantic taint, or does it just means the society throwing them around no longer abjures Satan and all his works?
Now there’s a damn quality issue.
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

This error has gotten soooo common!


Another post from the kodiakdailymirror.com Herman's Hawks and Handsaws collection

In the language of Western tonal music, a V chord at the end of a phrase makes your brain expect a I chord. This V-I sequence, called an “authentic cadence,” creates the most satisfyingly final-sounding ending possible. Consider the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a sequence of G and C chords (the V and I in the key of C) alternating eight times, just to make sure everybody really gets the point.
Other types of cadences play with the strong sense of expectation. The “deceptive cadence” creates a sense of surprise by following the V chord with a VI instead of the expected I.
The “half cadence” just cuts off at the V, ending the phrase with the unshakable feeling that something more must follow.
But where Beethoven could use that feeling to carry us into the next musical idea, people speaking and writing English have taken to misusing a little word, leaving listeners and readers hanging.
The culprit is “so,” when used as a substitute for “very,” as in this example:
“The teen vampire was so dreamy.”
This adverbial “so” needs another clause to make a complete sentence:
“The teen vampire was so dreamy that the girls swooned.”
or
“I swooned because the teen vampire was so dreamy.”
One might argue that the incomplete version belongs in the category of exclamations, like “Wow!” and “What a fluffy kitty!” These sentences share with imperatives an exemption from usual subject/predicate requirements. That whole area would make for some interesting syntax papers.
Meanwhile, I associate the incorrect usage with a style more immature than illiterate, but it has spread beyond the junior high schools.
The same internal grammar sense that gives me the “unfinished” feeling about those “so” sentences leaves me unhappy with an AP-sanctioned usage. It goes like this: The omnipotent stylebook tells us to use upper-case “Gov.” or “Sen.” before a name, as in “Gov. Sean Parnell.” But that leads to the less perspicuous usage “former Gov. Sarah Palin” or “ex-state Sen. Ben Stevens,” supported by a dedicated entry on the word “former.”
That bugs me because it applies the AP style by grouping the wrong elements. The rule should apply only to titles like “governor” or “senator” — not, I argue, to quasi-titles like “former governor.”
In formal syntax terms, “former Gov. Sarah Palin” treats “Gov. Sarah Palin” as if it is a constituent, excluding the “former.” However, any reasonable structural analysis would treat “former governor” as a constituent separate from the following name.
How say the readers? Should I defy AP and start using “former governor Sarah Palin”?
And why should my sense of what sounds wrong — as opposed to anybody else’s — have any relevance in deciding the issue? Frankly, the best reason is that I grew up in a middle-class family in Toledo, Ohio, and therefore use the most generic possible American English. It looks like this blog will keep coming back to the question of prescriptive authority for language.
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Did elsewho among the studentry sneeze?



Serious publications naturally adopt a conservative stance toward language choices, or diction. At the same time, language inexorably evolves, so that the Latin of Caesar’s time turns into the French, Italian, Spanish and so on of 1,000 years later.
I am fascinated by the ways change comes to different languages — and how communities consciously try to control the change. People who read Modern Greek can understand a 2,500-year-old text pretty well. The Icelandic of today differs little from the Old Norse of 1000 AD that changed to become Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. For English the break-off point comes a little before Shakespeare.
And I will come back to the Académie Française in a later blog.
It happens bit by bit. The Associated Press recently decreed that the venerable “e-mail” must now appear as “email,” and cell phones are now “cellphones.” Both demonstrate the common progress of compound nouns: first two words, then hyphenated, then one word.
I don’t particularly like “email,” but I won’t fight AP on this one.
Americans have brought several logical improvements to the language, including “plow” for “plough” and “today” for “to-day.” Phonologically, “centre” versus “center” is a toss-up.
Some reforms didn’t make it. I think it was the old Chicago Herald that tried to give us “thru” instead of “through” in a crusade to save three characters worth of ink.
Professor Strunk (pictured above) suggested one of my favorite failures. He wanted “studentry” to replace the awkward “student body,” by analogy to “faculty” and “peasantry.”
Eminently sensible, and stylistically strong, to boot.
Even more sensible would be to drop the biologically silly term “crab fishery” in favor of “crabbery.”
I don’t really think I’ll win this one, either, so here is another of my ideas for reform:
The word “elsewhere” is so tidy and useful, why not also “elsewho,” "elsewhen” and "elsewhat”? Much neater than “somebody else,” etc.
And of course, when I am king, “snaze” will become the official past tense of “sneeze.”
The complementary category consists of words and phrases that clearly do not deserve to survive. Some people call them “buzzwords,” but I say that’s one of them. This week two that have long outlived their time came over my desk. Please immediately and permanently retire “no-brainer” and “man up.” Other candidates?
Ceterum censeo “utilize” esse delendam.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Joe Miller picks pathetic path

Despite his honorable Army service, Joe Miller has decided to embody the least admirable character in the naval tradition.

Miller’s post-election crusade marks him as a true “sea lawyer” — the type of sailor who uses a captious, pedantic insistence on the letter of the law to serve only himself.

The current political tragedy recalls the fall of former state Sen. Ben Stevens, who squandered his chance to inherit the mantle of his father, Alaskan of the Century Ted Stevens.

Thanks to the tea party Zeitgeist and his own energy and charisma, Miller earned a loyal following and a shot at the U.S. Senate. And he lost.

At that point he faced a choice about how to use his hard-won prominence and leadership potential. He could have launched a real political career, going back to the trenches to advance the issues he campaigned on, thus building himself a broader base of support in his own party.

Instead, he looked down from the mountain and decided the most urgent use of his energy, charisma, time and money was in service of personal pique.

Miller says his motivation is preservation of the integrity of Alaska elections. If that is so, why didn’t he denounce the people who tried to disrupt Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign by filing phony candidate papers under names designed to confuse voters choosing the write-in option?

Has Miller become an Alaskan Laurent Gbagbo? The president of Ivory Coast lost a re-election bid in November, but had himself sworn in for another term anyway. The psychology seems similar: Gbagbo claims election fraud, unwilling to acknowledge he could have lost fairly. He has chosen to impugn election monitors without evidence and invite civil war rather than man up to a schellacking.

No politician lists ego and personal ambition as platform planks. Ambitious people naturally use the language of the society and system they work in. On his way up to the Politburo, Vladimir Putin was content to spout the ideals of Communism. As president and prime minister in post-Soviet Russia, he talks as easily about his liberal democratic values while heading a regime as dictatorial as its Soviet and tsarist predecessors.

Yet we cannot fault politicians just for ambition, and it doesn’t necessarily stop them from being good and honest. As Al Gore candidly admitted while running for president, nobody seeks high office without a larger-than-normal share of ambition in their character.

Some exceptional leaders pay a heavy price for putting belief above opportunism. We cannot ask every office seeker to meet the standard of Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi or Vaclav Havel. That level of ideological integrity and heroism is not for most of us, or even most of our leaders. In this era, the willingness to serve in public office at all deserves admiration and a deep reservoir of benefit of the doubt with respect to motive.

Alas, Miller falls short even of Sarah Palin’s standard of service while out of office. Palin at least advocates an agenda based on a form of principles while advancing her own power and wealth.

Of course, sometimes sea lawyers are right, at least as far as the letter of the law goes.

But the law is only one leg of a tripod test. In legal matters we have to answer three questions: What are the facts? What is the law? What is just?

Even if Miller achieves the vindication of exposing flaws in Alaska’s election laws, his challenge fails the test of the other two questions. The evidence says the election results were fair and accurate. And throwing out the results would not serve justice.

Here it is in terms of the old Latin legal saws, “cui bono” (who benefits?) and “cui malo” (who is harmed?): Success of Miller’s election challenge quest could benefit only Miller; it would harm the plurality of voters whose intent nobody seriously questions.

The aspects of American politics most admired around the world are honest elections and the peaceful transition of power.
These are worth defending, but is that what Joe Miller would be doing if he takes his case farther?

Onboard the ship, sea lawyers lose the respect of officers and crew, ending up friendless and ineffectual. Redemption lies in picking up a mop and swabbing the deck.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Reality redivivus, or what kids really want

For the ninth year in a row Merriam-Webster has ignored my nomination letters for word of the year, delivering another slap in the face to me and all the other loyal supporters of “borborygmus,” “sastrugi” and “pangolin.”

The company claims they choose the winner based not on intrinsic merit or accomplishments, but rather on how many times people looked the word up. That makes this year’s winner doubly disturbing. “Austerity” getting the nod means our primary education system must be in even worse shape than the economy.

I will not be so jejeune as to suggest a connection between a nation’s standard of public education and its long-term economic viability, but I bet the U.S. retail sector would collapse if we boycotted vendors who use scare quotes in their ads or spell “barbecue” with a q.

I can, however, suggest a better method for deriving outsized claims about the social and technological Zeitgeist from scanty linguistic data. Do not try this at home. To paraphrase Dan Coffey, I am not a real linguist. I have a master’s degree. In linguistics.

No thanks to which I landed a job as a part-time copy editor for the smallest daily newspaper in the country, and spent much of last week proofing letters to Santa Claus from local children for publication in our annual Holiday Greetings special section.

I don’t know why academia has ignored this source material, which would blow away hemlines and beards for economists and beat Facebook hollow for sociologists. For linguists, the most telling datum in the 2010 Santa letters signals a momentous convulsion in our reality on par with the widespread adoption of “acoustic piano.”

What does a redundantly named musical instrument have to do with sociolinguistics? Allow me to digress (but note I do commit to making an equal number of pushes and pops).

In semantics — the subfield of linguistics concerned with meaning in language — we refer to words as “marked” or “unmarked” for properties not essential to their main definition. To illustrate, I exhibit a riddle from an old joke book always in high demand at the Whiteford Elementary School library in the early 1970s:

A man and his son have a terrible car accident. The man dies, and medics rush his son to the hospital. In the operating room the surgeon sees the patient and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” How can this be?

Even in 1971, this riddle sucked. But apparently when the book was written, the appearance of a woman surgeon sufficed to catch most people with their stereotypes down. In linguistic terms, “surgeon” was marked for gender. The word indicated not only a human who performed medical operations, but a male (white, adult, non-disabled, Protestant, etc.) human, unless you specifically mentioned anything about race, gender, age and so on.

Words get marked and unmarked as society and technology changes. “Surgeon” used to be marked for gender and is now unmarked.

“Piano” started out unmarked for power source. From Beethoven to Tatum, the sound from a piano emerged due to direct mechanical generation. Then the unneutered housepet of sociolinguistics as who should say claimed some territory. With the invention of the electric piano, it occasionally became necessary to specify what you meant by "piano."

The important thing to note here is that “piano” went from unmarked with respect to method of sound production to marked as mechanical. If you meant electric piano, you had to say “electric piano.” Otherwise people assumed you meant the same kind Beethoven played.

At some point during the 1960s, musicians got so used to electric pianos, they stopped saying “electric” and just assumed you meant electric when you said “piano.” At that point the marking changed, and if you wanted to talk about a regular, old-fashioned piano, you had to specify, and that created a lexical gap.

Whoever thought of sticking “acoustic” on the front of “piano” to mean regular and non-electric achieved the kind of immortality I covet.

I thought “Skoldetnai” as a portmanteau of Soldatna and Kenai would prove my ticket into the neologistic big time, but it didn’t catch on with the people of the Peninsula. Then I pinned my hopes on “ambient reality,” which I coined when the rise of “virtual reality” meant we had to get more specific about where your head’s at. Then I found out cybergeeks had already adopted “RL” (for “real life”) to fill that role.

I may still have a chance here, since “RL” has gotten little traction in — savor the poetic justice — RL. Even if “ambient reality” does not ultimately triumph, I already feel somewhat vindicated. To the gatekeepers of cyberspace argot, I only pose this query: If it’s all in my head, where is my head?

Back to the Santa letters. The most striking request our freshest descendants had of the jolly sleigh driver: a “real puppy.” (I almost had to write this column about kids wanting paralytic shellfish poisoning, but the video game reviewer in the newsroom set me straight.)

So here we are. In post-"Avatar" 2010, children grow up with the default use of the word “puppy” referring to a plastic and electronic “pet,” and you have to add more words if you mean the old fashioned kind that pees on the leg of your acoustic piano, gnaws your print newspaper and guards your brick-and-mortar storefront.

In effect, living creatures are no longer marked for reality, itself now a relative concept. We stand on the brink of the final triumph of the cosmic, epistemological, ontological scare quotes. As ambient reality fades away we are all marked adult, white, Protestant men. And women, and African-Americans, and Sikhs, and pangolins …

Me and acoustic puppy Calypso

Saturday 12 September 2009

The Ruble Stops Here


After three weeks in Russia, I have to admit I still don’t understand the Russians — but then, why should I start with them?
Still, that brief visit, during which I hardly left one little neighborhood of Kaliningrad, permits me to pass judgment. For you see, Kaliningrad is the westernmost piece of Russia, separated from the rest of the nation by the Baltic States. Since Alaska, where I live, is also a non-contiguous, westernmost territory, and I told people in Russia that I am a completely typical American, I feel obliged to assume that anything I concluded about Kaliningrad is valid for the rest of the world’s largest country and its hundreds of ethnicities and regions.
Not that I reached any profound conclusions. The Russians are as contradictory a compilation of virtues and vices as any other people.
Chief among the former I judge their enthusiasm for gardening and their tolerance for cats. Among the more conspicuous of the latter are rampant alcoholism and the utter lack of a free press. At least Putin doesn’t support the alcoholism.
But now a little history, starring the Dom Sovyetov, a Kaliningrad landmark widely known as “the ugliest building on Russian soil.”
The city of Kaliningrad sits on the Baltic Sea, less than 50 miles east of Gdansk, Poland. Like Gdansk, it was once German territory, part of East Prussia. For seven centuries the busy port, famous for the region’s amber mines, was called Konigsberg. And for many of those centuries, a spectacular cathedral and castle complex dominated the central cityscape, a gem of medieval European architecture.
Near the end of World War II, the Royal Air Force bombed Konigsberg, wiping out the central city and destroying the castle. The strategic value of the attack is debatable, but the people who live there now still hold a grudge, even though Konigsberg was an enemy city at the time.
After the war, the Soviet Union annexed the territory, ejected most of the Germans, and renamed it after one of Stalin’s yes-men who never went near the place. While the Soviets turned the rest of the city into a workers’ paradise over the following decades, the castle remained a pile of rubble, with one dramatic wall fragment teetering over the remains like the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin. That is, until 1967, when some party hack decided to make his bones by tearing down this last trace of bourgeois excess.
But what a great spot to demonstrate Soviet progress! After 20 years of design and development, construction began on the massive Dom Sovyetov, intended as a modern home for the national, regional and city administration of Kaliningrad. After another few years, construction stopped on the massive Dom Sovyetov as the even more massive Soviet Union went broke and dissolved into its pre-war constituents, except for Kaliningrad, which stayed Russian.
So for the next 15 years, a giant, unfinished, gray eyesore blighted what should have been prime commercial real estate in the center of a newly capitalist downtown. Then came 2005, and the visit of President Vladimir Putin to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the city. What to do, what to do?
I can’t decide whether the next part harkens more to the Soviet tradition of the Potemkin Village, or further back, to the Gogolian “Inspector-General” tradition of tsarist oxymoron. Or maybe it’s just the latest manifestation of a timeless Russian approach to civic administration.
In any case, officialdom decided to feed more funds into the dingy Dom, but only to the extent of some thousands of gallons of light blue paint and a few acres of glass panes to cover all the window holes.
And so it stands today — massive, empty and unusable, casting its depressing shadow into the trench where a few archaeologists scratch for treasures of the medieval town and castle. Meanwhile, a German consultant concluded the cheapest and safest thing to do now is tear down the whole thing and let future archaeologists enjoy the rubble.
I grew up thinking of Central Europe as a zone full of backwards, impoverished victims of communist oppression, and found my recent visits to Poland and the Czech Republic a little jarring because they are now clearly more modern and prosperous than where I live. So I indulge a perverse schadenfreude from the story of the Dom Sovyetov and can still feel a little superior knowing that at least Russia has held true to dictatorship and public mismanagement. The only remaining question is when Putin will end the charade and declare himself tsar.
In America, nothing remotely like that comedy of goof-ups could ever happen. We would never, for example, disrupt traffic in Boston for eight years and go $20 billion over budget on a project with such shoddy materials that a piece of new tunnel collapses and kills a motorist. In America, a city like Denver would not build a new airport ($3.1 billion over budget) with a state-of-the-art automated luggage system that breaks down the first day and can’t be repaired because the access tunnels were taken out of the design as a cost-cutting move. Equally impossible would be getting most of the way through construction of an 8,000-foot highway bridge over the Saginaw River in Michigan and finding that the two halves miss each other by six feet ($48 million over budget).
So I’m back in the USA, and don’t I know how lucky I am, boy. I intend to enjoy it as long as possible — probably until 2012, when Obama and Romney split the rational human vote and throw the election to Palin on her Real American Party ticket. Then, While Vice President Limbaugh pats down the dirt on the grave of our own free press, I will humbly recall the words of another, somewhat more famous Konigsberg.
“In six months, we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose.”