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Archive for the 'Punctuation' Category

Intonation and Meaning

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

I took phonetics with the late Kenneth Pike at the University of Michigan. Prior to Chomsky, he was the leading linguist in the US because he had the only complete theory of linguistics, which he called “tagmemics”.

I recall in the first session on intonation, he attempted to convince us of the importance of intonation by proving that, when intonation and semantics conflict, we always go with intonation. His example was, “I love you,” which he said with normal intonation to a freshman woman on the front row. Having seen the correct impression on her red face, he then said, “I? Love you?” which we all interpreted with just the opposite meaning. I was convinced.

Dots or No Dots?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

D.D.D. Schulek-Miller raised a question today of which, I would think, many readers of this blog are unaware. Doug wrote:

“I grew up thinking, gosh only knows from where, probably a good grammar teacher in elementary school, that the abbreviation for Saint does not take a period after it. I suppose this helps us differentiate between street and Saint, but there is probably more to it.”

“Has that changed or am I utterly at sea on this without a grammatical St Christopher medal for help?”

They don’t place periods after abbreviations that contain the last letter of the word in the UK (and elsewhere): St Christopher, Dr Dolittle, Mr Smythe-Jones, Mrs O’Grady. In the States, we do: St. Christopher, Dr. Dolittle, Mr. Smythe-Jones, Mrs. O’Grady.

Speakers of English all over the world do place periods after abbreviations that do not end on the last letter of the word, e.g., abbr., n., v., adj., adv.

Doug, of course, is from the UK.

Periods, Commas and Quotations

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Bob Meinig raised a question yesterday that comes up now and then. It concerns the placement of quotation marks vis-a-vis periods and commas in our Good Words and on the website.

At yourDictionary.com I decided to use the US style of placing commas and periods inside quotations marks no matter what. This bothered me because the US system leads to confusion. The US punctuation style would look like this: …the meaning of the word is “to dance.” This is illogical because the period is not part of the meaning of the word which the quotation marks set off. When I give entire sentences, where the period is a part of the sentence, the period goes inside the quotation marks: “The dog began to dance.”

This is the style of punctuation used throughout the non-US English-speaking world and also the style of most scientific journals in the US, certainly those intended for a world-wide audience. Since I am an unrepentant scholar widely published in such journals, this style comes most naturally to me and—it’s logical!

So, when I started up alphaDictionary.com, where I often argue a point of grammar on the basis of consistency, I decided to go with the logical style. I honestly expected to change my mind and do a simple search and replace to change back to the US style. I knew that many visitors, particularly those who consider the entire planet the US, would think me ignorant of the rules of punctuation.

But I never did. I don’t know why. It would be a problematic job going through the entire website now to make a correction. I did decide to use the US style in my new book, “The 100 Funniest Words in English”, just to avoid the hassle this side the Atlantic and Pacific. Hmmm. I guess someone could take that as inconsistent, couldn’t they?

The Most Important Period in History

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Much is written about important words and phrases that have shaped the course of human history. So far as I know, the issue of important punctuation marks has been largely ignored.

To me, the most important punctuation mark lies at the end of the Sixth Commandment in the Old Testament: “Thou shalt not kill.” This Commandment seems a very sweeping one: Thou shalt not kill—period. What was God (or Moses) thinking about? Any human will tell you that it should have read: “Thou shalt not kill except in case of war” or at least “Thou shalt not kill except in self defense.” Thou shalt not kill—period? Certainly, killing must be OK if you are or represent a state rather than an individual. Was God careless? Stupid? Or is this all a misunderstanding resulting from a bad translation?

Libraries have been written on the implication of this period and what appears before it, especially the various and potential senses of the Hebrew word for “kill”. Below are a few well-written articles available on the Web that provide researched starting points for anyone wishing to pursue the issue. My point—for those who may have doubts—is simply how profoundly important punctuation may be.


Siegel, Elizer “Thou Shalt not Murder”. Jewish Free Press October 19, 2000, p. 8.
http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/001102_ThouShaltNotMurder.html .

Ellor, James E. “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying,
http://www.deathreference.com/Sy-Vi/Thou-Shalt-Not-Kill.html. Undated.

Deem, Richard “Thou Shalt Not Kill: Does God Violate His Own Commandment?”
GodandScience.org. Last modified November 29, 2007.

Happy Punctuation Day!

Monday, September 24th, 2007

I am back from my foray into France, the land where everyone loves pain and a drink of water makes you say, “Oh!” It is a land where champs are flat and ordinary though everyone’s beau is good-looking. Hands are the main thing there. In France all pets are stinkers though the cats are rather chatty. You have to rue the streets even though everyone lives in chateaus for a personne is noone at all.

ApostropheHappy National Punctuation Day all! Apparently we do not celebrate Punctuation Day the way we celebrate Labor Day—by avoiding any hint of it. I am not sure what one does on National Punctuation Day; I am at my usual labors.  You can read more about it here.

Punctuation is, of course, very important to language. The most famous proof is the sentence, “A woman without her man is nothing”, which some English teacher is purported to have written on an unsuspecting blackboard, asking that the class punctuate it correctly. The men all punctuated it thus: “A woman, without her man, is nothing”. The women wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing”.

A more interesting example was given years ago by my phonetics teacher at the University of Michigan, Kenneth Pike. He offered the simple sentence, “I love you,” pointing out that the intonation (and, by extention, the punctuation) can reverse the meaning: “I? Love you?”

So don’t stop at watching your Ps and Qs; watch your punctuation, too.

Yes, we had a wonderful cruise down the Rhône from Beaune (a wonderful discovery) to Arles, then spending 4 days in Aix (where all married women are ex-wives), sallying out from there to Le Baux and other monuments worth seeing. It is good to be back home, too.

On line, On-line, Online

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Today’s Good Word, predator, contains the following line: “. . . adults who try to seduce our children on line.”

Paul Ogden, one of the daily Good Word editors, commented that the spelling online 1.7 billion hits on Google (that’s right—billion) while on line gets a mere 450 million.

My view is that on line is a slightly idiomatic prepositional phrase (PP) while online and on-line are forced adjectives from the PP. In the phrase above, “children on line” (as opposed to “online store”) we need a PP rather than an adjective, which would imply some quality the children have.

To test my sentiment, Paul searched “I am online” and “I am on line” and “I am on-line” and came up with these results: “I am on line” or “I am on-line” gets 38,000 Google hits. “I am online” gets 444,000, indicating the flow of this issue is not following my sentiments.

This issue is part of a broader one on which I wrote while still an academician with time to research it in greater depth. English is a very odd language in that it allows PPs to be converted into adjectives. Over-the-counter drugs, off-the-shoulder dress, around-the-world cruise, on-line activities are all accepted slang conversions of PPs into adjectives. We know that they are adjectives because PPs in English always follow and never precede the noun they modify while adjectives behave in just the opposite manner.

Now, I am not a prescriptive grammarian; grammar should be flexible and change over time. However, it always changes in a consistent, rule-governed manner. Moreover, the very purpose of grammar, the set of rules which governs the way we speak, is to provide consistencies that we can depend on in the interpretation of what we say and hear. In this case, “I am on line now” and “I use an on-line store” would be consistent with all the other PP adjectives out there.

I said that these hyphenated adjectives are slang even though all the examples I cited seem perfectly normal, often used in fairly formal contexts. This is explained by the difference between “grammatical” and “acceptable”. Words like stick-to-it-iveness, one-ups-manship—even talkative with its Germanic stem and Latin suffixes—are all ungrammatical in that they are inconsistent with the rules of English grammar. However, they have been accepted because they are either amusing or useful.

There are lots of idiomatic exclusions and maybe online has become a ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ adjective already. The PP on line is itself slightly idiomatic since it cannot be used with the or a, so maybe nothing is at stake here. However, so long as the point of grammar is consistency in speech, the consistent way to handle on line is without a hyphen when it is clearly functioning as a PP and with a hyphen when it is functioning as an adjective in attributive (prenominal) position. The form with neither a space nor hyphen is probably the result of our adjusting to URLs that generally ignore them.

A Rip-Snortin’ Knock-Down-Drag-Out Million Dollar Comma Fight

Thursday, October 26th, 2006


Objects do not have to be large to be expensive.  Paul Ogden just alerted me to an article in the NY Times on a contractual dispute that centers around a single comma that is worth a million dollars (Canadian).

The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The second comma has the effect of cutting the final condition (“unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party”) off from the definition of the extension period.  If it is not directly related only to the extension period, then it must equally apply to the basic and extension periods.

The issue was brought before Canada’s telecommunication regulators by Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, when Atlantic Canada attempted to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles after the first year in which the contract was in force.  The regulators concluded that the meaning of the sentence is clear and Atlantic Canada need not wait until the extension period to terminate the contract.

I tend to agree but the point is fine enough that someone should make an attempt to discover the intent of the those who negotiated the contract. However, it does make you wonder why companies pay lawyers $350 an hour for a job that a good English teacher would be happy to do for no more than, well, let’s say, $250 an hour.