Category Archive: Reading & Writing

Jul 25

Odd Words: Catafalque

CatafalqueAnd so we stumble into page 42 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! There has not yet been a page that contained so few words that I knew.

The Words I Knew

Rather than go over the words I didn’t know, it is much easier to do the words I did. Really, there were only a couple that I knew. Have I gotten more ignorant since earlier when I started this series?

The first word on the page that I knew — Word 16! — was “castigate.” I’m really fond of that word. It reminds me of just how magical language is. I have no clear memory of ever hearing or reading the word, yet there it is in my brain. I assume that it is thanks to my mother, who had a very good vocabulary. It’s amazing to think about. I’m so lucky to have had that experience. Most people are not. I really think these kind of random influences on your life have a profound effect on who you are.

I also knew “casus belli,” which I think I would have worked out even if I didn’t already know it. Now that one I didn’t get from my mother. In fact, I have a vague memory of coming upon the word in books and working out its meaning.

I also knew “cataclysm” and “catalepsy.” But that was it. Given that I’m not feeling great about myself, this page was not really good for my mental health.


I really wanted to use either of the words “caseate” or “casefy.” They are words describing the process of being turned into a cheese-like substance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any good quotes for it. I was looking forward to integrating a Wallace and Gromit video.

Well, I guess there’s nothing stopping me. I could go with the Cheese! video. But this one is nicer:


Surprisingly, I didn’t know the word “casualism.” I’m usually fairly up on philosophy. But this isn’t a very big one. It is “a philosophical doctrine holding that all events occur by chance.” According to Wikipedia, it was first developed by Epicurus. And it seems it is more a cosmological theory. The idea is that the universe exists by chance and not by the planning of a god or similar.

I was thinking that this belief could be applied more generally to life. What I have noticed in the world is that we are incapable of figuring out the cause of things. That’s not to say that there isn’t a cause, just that we are far too parochial to see the big picture.

Or maybe it is fundamental. My mind naturally rebels against casualism. I naturally believe there must be ways of perceiving and thinking that allow one to make sense of the universe. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe Aristotle was as wrong about logic in Organon as he was chemistry.


This takes us to our word of the day, which isn’t that great (except that it has to do with death): catafalque.

Cat·a·falque  noun  \kat’-əfalk\

1. a raised platform on which the coffin of a dead person is laid.

Date: Mid 17th century.

Origin: from French, from Italian catafalco.

Example: His casket rested Friday on the same wooden catafalque used for the body of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. –Ruane et al, Scalia Lies in Repose on Lincoln’s Catafalque as Public Bids Farewell

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Jul 24

Odd Words: Cartomancy

CartomancyWelcome to page 41 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! This was a difficult page, but I found a great one in the last word of the page: cartomancy.

The Grecian Blues

A good quarter of the page was taken up with cardio– words: words that were based on kardioeidēs, the Greek word for “heart.” There was only one variation that I wasn’t well familiar with: “cardiomegaly.” It is the “pathological enlargement of the heart.”

An enlarged heart has always had a special creepiness factor for me. I don’t know quite why it is. Maybe it is just because the rib cage makes it seem like the heart is trapped. Thus, an enlarged heart might burst, like a pimple. Anyway, I never knew the word for this.

Fleshed Out Latin

The page also contained a number of words that were based on carnaticum, the Latin word for “flesh.” But, being the poor sinner that I am, I knew most of them. The list included some pretty common words: carnage, carnal.

But it also included some words I didn’t know. Some of it was pretty specialized like “carnification.” It means “the conversion into flesh of other tissue.” But there was also “carneous,” which is “resembling or having the color of flesh.” There was another (non-flesh) color word in the mix: “carmine.” It is “a rich crimson color.” It’s not surprising that I didn’t know these words, given that I’m very male in that way — having never had much of a color vocabulary.

Other Words

Outside the heart and flesh words, this page was pretty random. And I’m not even sure I didn’t know them. In particular, there was “carcanet”: “an ornamental jeweled circlet or neckband.” Similarly, “cardamom”: “the aromatic seed of various Asian plants used as a spice or condiment and in medicine.” I can almost convince myself that I actually did know these words.

The Future of Cartomancy

None of that was too interesting. Today’s word was much more interesting: cartomancy.

Car·to·man·cy  noun  \kar’-təmansē\

1. fortune-telling or divination by the use of playing cards.

Date: Late 19th century.

Origin: from French, cartomancie — where carte means “card.”

Example: To me, these fields of cartomancy and astrology are not definable as science but as pseudo-sciences. –Antares Stanislas, Practical Cartomancy for All

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Jul 23

Odd Words: Capa


We have reached page 40 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. It was odd. There were a lot of words that I didn’t know, but none were all that compelling. I settled on the first word of the page: capa.


You may recall a few days ago, we had two odd words that related to different edible parts of the turtle. Well, today we got another turtle word: “carapace.” It is “the tough upper part of a turtle’s shell.

That’s fine; I can definitely see a need for such a word. But it makes me wonder if the editors of the dictionary didn’t have a special fondness for turtles.

Technical Words

The reason it was hard to find a good word was that this page was filled with technical words — those associated with some kind of specialized endeavor. That’s even true of the chosen word today, “capa.” And it is true of “carapace” too.


One such word, which I assume comes to us from statistics, is “capitation.” It is “a method of assessment or enumeration on the basis of individuals.” It’s kind of odd that the word was a mystery to me, because I’m pretty up on statistics. What’s more “per capita” is something that pretty much everyone knows. But whereas “per capita” is a word for outsiders looking in, “capitation” is a word for those who practice the art.


One area that is always good for arcane words is sailing. And today, we had “caravel,” which is “a small, two or three-masted vessel, used by the Spanish and Portuguese during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Interestingly, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he brought two caravels with him: the Niña and the Pinta. The Santa Maria was a carrack, a larger boat — which the big man himself used.


Another word of this type is “capilarity,” which is “the action by which the surface of a liquid in contact with a solid is raised or lowered, depending on surface tension and the forces of cohesion and adhesion.” Unfortunately, I knew that word. Normally, I wouldn’t. But the work I did for my MS degree was all about permafrost. (It was titled something like “Trace Gas Emissions From Permafrost in the Warmer World,” which was actually kind of a hot topic for a while — and one I still see people writing about.)

The way that water resides in soil is fascinating. Soil is filled with capillaries, where the water resides (assuming it is wet). The capilarity causes a lot of interesting effects in permafrost. It isn’t as simple as heating a bowl of water; you have to take a lot of things into account. I miss working on that kind of stuff!

Do Not Chase the Capa

Although today’s word is technical, I think it is interesting: capa.

Ca·pa  noun  \kā’-pə\

1. the red cloak carried by a bullfighter.

Date: Late 18th century.

Origin: from Latin (via Spanish), cappa.

Example: The capeador calmly trots his horse up to the bull, and, when within a few feet, jeeringly waves his capa before its very nose. –Otis Mygatt, The Real Bull-Fight — An Englishman’s View of Bull-Fighting

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Jul 22

Odd Words: Canopic Jar

Canopic JarToday, we tackle page 39 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. Unlike yesterday, there were few unknown words on this page. Thus I ended up picking something that isn’t even a word: Canopic Jar.

The Bells!

Page 39 contains two “bell” words, and I can’t say whether I knew them or not. There is “campanulate,” which means “shaped like a bell.” And there is “campanology,” which I think you can figure out. These are words I’ve come across before, but it is hard to say whether I would have known them in the middle of an SAT exam.

There were some other music-related words, although ones I knew well. They were all based on the Latin word canticum, which is their word for a song (more or less). So we get words like “canticle” (hymn or chant), “cantilena” (simple melody), and “cantillate” (intone or chant).

That took up a good 20 percent of the page. It’s good to know that a little Latin will still go a long way in English. After yesterday, I was concerned.

Other Words

There were, of course, other words that I didn’t know. I was particularly struck by “campestral,” which means “pertaining to the countryside.” It sounds so familiar, like it is a word I use every day. But it isn’t. It isn’t even in the online Oxford Dictionary. I don’t know if others have the same feeling about it.

There are a couple of words that relate to the eye. There is “campimeter,” which is “an apparatus for testing the field of vision of the human eye.” Much more interesting is “canthus,” meaning “either of the angles formed by the junction of the upper and lower eyelids.” I always find it interesting when there are words for things I’ve never really thought of as existing. At the same time, I can well imagine that “canthus” is a very useful word in anatomy.

One word I knew, of course, was “cannabis.” But it’s worth highlighting because I get flack from people for using it rather than “marijuana” or “weed” or whatever. The reason I do that is because I want to be precise and objective. In particular, “marijuana” was a word coined to associate cannabis use with Mexicans. I don’t want to be party to such racist distortions.

It seems we can’t go a whole page without some kind of military word. Today it was “cannonade”: “continuous, heavy artillery fire.” That one makes sense, though. The “cannon” construct has always struck me as artificial.

You’ll End up in a Canopic Jar

Enough of that! Today we have: Canopic jar.

Can·no·pic jar  noun  \kanō’-pik\

1. a vase used by the ancient Egyptians to hold the entrails of a deceased person.

Date: Late 19th century.

Origin: from the Latin name of Canopus, a town in ancient Egypt.

Example: Initially discovered in the Valley of the Queens, all that remains of the mummy is a well-preserved head, a few pieces of bandage, and the Canopic jars that contain his organs. –Josh Davis, Face And Brain Of 3,800-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy Recreated, IFL Science!

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Jul 21

Odd Words: Calumet

CalumetToday we are at page 38 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. Interestingly, I knew a surprisingly few of these words — and some are quite useful! But I’ve chosen to use a specialty word, mostly because I could find quotes and images for it: calumet.

Whole Lot of Ignorance

I knew so few of the words on this page, that it’s hard to know how to make any kind of coherent narrative out of them. There aren’t many shared roots in the words. But I guess I’ll make due.

I’m always interested to see the arcane words of specialists. On this page, we had “caltrop.” It is a word of warfare. The military is always good for odd words. “Caltrop” is “a small spiked iron device used to obstruct the passage of cavalry.” They look kind of like the tokens you pick up in the game Jacks. I feel somehow that these things don’t deserve their own word.

Similarly, “camouflet” is “a bomb, mine, etc, exploded underground, which makes a cavity but does not break the surface.” Now that is a very specialized word! But I can well see that in mining it is one that would be of use. But it still makes me think of Shaw’s idea that every profession was a conspiracy against the laity.

Moving on to religion, we have “callotte.” It is the word for the skull caps worn by Roman Catholic clerics. In this case, of course, the word is hard to justify. It’s not like there would be any confusion if we referred to a cleric’s callotte as a “skull cap,” right?

Other Words

I probably should have chosen “cambion.” It is “the offspring of an incubus and a succubus.” But if you are like me, you don’t believe in demons. So we have two words for mythical creates — and then a third for their spawn. Of course, we need to remember that people have taken these demons to be very real in the past.

In fact, if you listen to Pat Robertson, you will hear a lot of explicit references to demons. This is also true for most of the people on my mother’s side of the family. Just imagine if they ever got to create a society without restriction. It would be a return to the Inquisition. We really haven’t progressed very much.

“Camelopard” is another word for a giraffe. It is a combination of “camel” and “leopard.” This is because it is shaped like a camel and spotted like a leopard. This is one of the silliest words I’ve ever seen.

I’ll end this section with a useful word, which I’m surprised I didn’t know, “calumniate.” It is “to malign; accuse falsely; spread malicious reports about.” I can’t image that I haven’t run into this word dozens of times. Yet I can’t remember it!

Put That in Your Calumet!

But today, our word is: calumet.

Cal·u·met  noun  \kal’-yəmet\

1. an ornamented ceremonial pipe used by North American Indians.

Date: Late 17th century.

Origin: from Latin (via French), calamellus, which means “little reed.”

Example: Incorrectly known as “smoking the peace pipe,” the use of the calumet formed an important part of the ceremonies surrounding many forms of negotiations.Family Life in Native America by James M Volo and Dorothy Denneen Volo

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Jul 20

Odd Words: Callet

CalletI’m trying to get Frankly Curious moving again. To help in that, I thought I would get back to my reading through The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. When I last wrote about it, I did the word “caducity.” That brings us to page 37 and the word “callet.”

Is It Hot in Here?!

Roughly half of page 37 is dedicated to “cal—” words: those that come from the Latin calor, which means “heat.” It’s where we get words like “calorie.” But the dictionary doesn’t waste any space on words found on cereal boxes. One word I don’t recall seeing before is “calefacient.” It means: “a medicinal substance producing a feeling of warmth.” On the other side of the page was “calorimeter.” I think you already know what that word means.

When looking at these words in this context, it’s easy to see them in an SAT sort of way. If you were forced to, you could grab hold of “cal—” and figure it was something having to do with heat. And in context, it is always going to be clear. “The doctor used a calorimeter to measure my temperature after they gave me a calefacient.” Kind of boring, really.

Other Words

There were some other interesting words, both known and unknown. One known, but interesting, word, was “caldera.” You can’t have studied much earth science at all and have missed it. It is “a large crater formed by the collapse of the center of the cone of a volcano.”

Two words were completely new to me. And they related to turtles! The first is “calipash,” which is “an edible greenish-colored gelatinous substance lying beneath the upper shell of a turtle.” The second is “calipee,” which is “an edible, yellowish colored gelatinous substance attached to the lower shell of a turtle. Geez, biologists and cooks!

Another interesting word is “callipygian.” It means: “having well-formed buttocks.” Greek-based words tend to upset my sense of what is right in language. This one comes from the Greek word kallipūgos, which is a word that describes a famous statue of Venus, the goddess of love and all that. It is combined with pūgē, which means “buttocks.” So “Venus-like buttocks.” I won’t forget that one!

Onto Callet!

But okay, onto our word for today: callet:

Cal·let  noun  \kal’-it; kā’-lit\ (British dialect)

1. a prostitute.

2. a shrwish, sharp-tongued woman.

Date: Late Middle English (early 17th century).

Origin: I don’t know. It is a regional word, however. It’s hard to keep track of them.

Example: I don’t really have one. The word is obscure. And it is also a common name. And it is more popular in French than in English. But how about something like, “That callet will never be tamed.” That has a good Shakespearean feel to it.

There is something offensive about the word: that it more or less equates a sharp-tongued woman with a prostitute. But what do you expect from such an old word?

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Jun 15

OCD Editor: Dealing With Weird Quotation Marks

OCD Editor: Dealing With Weird Quotation Marks

As an editor of online materials, I find myself with a curious problem: how to deal with single and double quotation marks. Because I suffer from a mild form of OCD, I like these always to be represented by the typewriter keys ' and ". Then I let WordPress, or whatever other content management system I’m using, convert these characters into the typographic symbols with left and right sides.

For example:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”


‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’

But as an editor, I get text in many forms. Rarely are single and double quotes delivered as ' and ". Instead, they are entered as ‘/’ and “/”, as well as ‘/’ and “/”.

If those last two sets are confusing you, they are just how HTML actual stores these right and left quotation marks. All you need to know is that writers actually do submit text with these symbols in the text and they are perfectly correct.

The problem is that I don’t like them. I like my text to be straight ASCII7, and so I like my straight ' and " keys. If I had to choose from the other sets, I would take ‘ over ‘.

The other day, I was talking to a fellow editor who was complaining about this. She didn’t mind ‘ so much, but ‘ drove her crazy. It’s understandable; they really do make the raw HTML harder to read.

Since I was no longer alone in my complaints, it occurred to me that I should write a program to fix this problem. At first, I thought I would write it in PHP, given that I really like its string (short for “text string” or more generally a collection of characters) library. But then I thought it would be downright trivial to do with JavaScript.

One great thing with JavaScript is that you don’t even need a server. You can just run the program locally on your machine. And a few minutes later, I had the following program:

Remove Annoying Quotation Marks

This program removes annoying special quotation marks and replaces them with normal ASCII7 characters. The characters are:

  • ”
  • “
  • ’
  • ‘

Text Box

Source Code

I often pine for the days when you had to really get inside a machine. But I have to admit that it’s pretty cool to be able to write a program that solves an annoying problem like this with almost no thought or time.

Here is the entire program. All you would have to do is put it in a file with an html extension and then run it in a browser on your computer.

    <title>Remove Annoying Quotation Marks</title>
function Clean() {
  var t1, t2;
  t1 = document.getElementById("text1").value;
  t2 = t1.replace(/”/g,"\"");
  t1 = t2.replace(/“/g,"\"");
  t2 = t1.replace(/“/g,"\"");
  t1 = t2.replace(/”/g,"\"");
  t2 = t1.replace(/‘/g,"'");
  t1 = t2.replace(/’/g,"'");
  t2 = t1.replace(/‘/g,"'");
  t1 = t2.replace(/’/g,"'");
  document.getElementById("text1").value = t1;
    <h1>Remove Annoying Quotation Marks</h1>
    <p>This program removes annoying special quotation
    marks and replaces them with normal ASCII7 characters.
    The characters are:</p>
    <h2>Text Box</h2>
    <div style="text-align: center;
    margin-left: auto;
    margin-right: auto;"><textarea rows="5"
    cols="50" id="text1"></textarea></div>
    <p style="text-align: center;"><input
    onClick="Clean();" type="button"
    value="Clean" /></p>

You can download the program if you wish:



I realize this is pretty arcane. It combines a number of things people don’t care about: computer programming, editing, and my neuroses. But I still think it’s interesting.

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Jun 06

The Raven Is Wrong About the Word Vegetarian

The Raven / Comedy of Terrors - The Raven Is Wrong About the Word Vegetarian1963 was a big year for Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff as a team. Of particular interest is that all three of them starred in two of my favorite horror comedies: The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven. Both were also written by one of the greatest horror writers of his generation, Richard Matheson. Recently, I’ve been watching The Raven a lot. And doing that tends to cause one to start noticing really minor things.

There is a very funny moment in The Raven. Peter Lorre shows up in the form of a raven and wants Price to turn him back into his normal form. But Price doesn’t do that old fashioned kind of magic. He’s able to do magic with hand gestures not the kind of stuff the three witches did in Macbeth.

The Vegetarian Joke

Lorre asks if Price has various things like dried bat’s blood. Then he says, “How about some chain links from a gallow’s burg? Jellied spiders, rabbit’s blood, dead man’s hair?” And Price responds, “No, we don’t keep those things in this house. We’re vegetarians.” It’s a wonderful 1963 reference. The comedy comes from the fact that the film does not take place in 1963.

We know that Price’s father died roughly 20 years earlier. And later we see his coffin, which reads, “Roderick Craven: 1423 – 1486.” So we know that the film takes place around 1506. Maybe it’s a little later — 1509, but certainly not as late as 1516.

The Etymology of Vegitarian

The whole thing got me thinking because I know that the very idea of vegetarianism is quite new. Being a vegetarian is an indication that your food supply is quite stable. Certainly different species of animal have preferences for different foods. But humans are the only ones who get to pick and choose.

Until quite recently, we were the same as other animals: we were lucky to get food to eat at all. So we didn’t make philosophical decisions like vegetarians do that we won’t each animals. In fact, that’s why even most animals that we think of as carnivores and vegetarians are actually omnivores, unless they simply don’t have the ability to digest vegetables or animals. If you’re hungry enough, you’ll manage to eat anything.

So I went to the dictionary to find out when “vegetarians” made it into our language. After all, the term does not have to only apply to to humans. We know that cows, for example, are vegetarians. I believe all snakes are carnivores — at least the ones where I live.

Vegetarian Is a Young Word

But it turns out that “vegetarian” is quite a recent word. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the word is 1839 — just a little bit more than a century before “vegan.” So The Raven is off by at least 323 years!

I’m not blaming the film. Stupid indeed is the person who trying to learn word etymology from old horror films. That’s especially true when the film at hand is using the word for a joke. The idea of a 16th century sorcerer being a vegetarian is pretty funny.

Two Good Vincent Price and Peter Lorre Films

But since we are on the subject, you really should watch the film. It’s a lot of fun. I always like films where Vincent Price plays a good guy. And this is yet another film where poor old Price is cuckolded by an evil woman.

On the other hand, check out The Comedy of Terrors if you want to see a film where he is just horrible to his wife and Peter Lorre is the sweetest man in the world. And you can get both films together on a single DVD.

There’s something very special about comedy-horror as a genre. The truth is that horror is a very silly genre of film. So it combines well with comedy — as long as you aren’t looking for grammar lessons!

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Mar 23

The Ellipsis and Clarity

EllipsisThe ellipsis is probably the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language. It is made up of three periods. And it means… Let me see now… Well, mostly it means that something is missing. But is it something concrete or just implied. When it’s used in dialog, it generally indicates that someone trails off, not finishing their sentence. It is implied that there is more to say but the speaker doesn’t say it because they are distracted or confused or…

In nonfiction writing, it is normally used when quoting material. Take, for example, the classic line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This is usually misquoted, because no one cares about Horatio, whose only real claim to fame is being the only principle character in the play who doesn’t die in it. So if you wanted to quote accurately but get rid of Horatio, you could write, “There are more things in heaven and Earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And this has been the way that I have used it my entire life.

Unclear Ellipsis

There’s just one problem: it isn’t clear. People add ellipses to their writing all the time. So if you didn’t know the original quote, you wouldn’t know if that was what Shakespeare actually wrote, as thought Hamlet were pausing because he thought he saw his father’s ghost. A better solution then, would be, “There are more things in heaven and Earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Then there is no question that the ellipsis is used to indicate that the quote is missing text.

Now this is a pretty banal and obvious point. I normally wouldn’t take the time to write about it. But until just a few days ago, I always connected the ellipsis to the preceding word. Obviously I didn’t when the preceding text ended with a question or exclamation or quotation mark. This added inconsistency to my lack of clarity.

Bad Reasons for Bad Punctuation

The reason I did this was the same reason behind so many bad punctuation practices (eg, the lack of the serial comma): I liked the way it looked. And that’s so embarrassing!

As much as possible, I like to quote full sections of text, and not have to cut little pieces out of it. It looks bad, but it’s also harder to read. This is why I usually cut out starting conjunctions without using square brackets to capitalize the new first word.

Suppose I had a sentence like this, “But images look great.” If I wanted to get rid of the first word, I would quote it as, “Images look great” and not, “[I]mages look great.”

I believe I got this from Fowler. There’s no loss of clarity, I’m not changing the meaning of what the original writer is saying, it is easier to read, and it looks better. And I always used that justification for attaching the ellipsis to the preceding word. But it came to me suddenly that this practice did reduce clarity. And worse still: it did it in a way in which the reader wouldn’t even know.

So from now, the ellipsis will always have a space in front of it.


There are, of course, front ellipses: indicating that we are picking up the text already in progress. I never use them. They’re awful. It is even better to add text inside square brackets, although neither is usually necessary.

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Mar 17

Serial Comma Goes to Court

CommaI am proud that my opinions change over time. Often this is because I get more information, but it is just as often because I start thinking about something differently. In fact, I’ll soon write an article about my changed thinking regarding the ellipsis. But there are issues on which I am rigid. And regular readers will know that one of those is the serial comma.

The serial comma is the comma that comes right before the “and” (and “or”) in a list. For example, “This, this, and this.” Many people don’t use the serial comma. So, “This, this and this.” The Associated Press Stylebook goes along with this. But it adds, “Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”

The very idea of this makes me shake. Why?! Since you have to use the serial comma sometimes, why not use it all the time? The problem is that it is often not clear when you need a serial comma and when you don’t. If you always use it, you won’t have to worry about it.

When Bad Grammar Leads You to Court

A great example of the importance of the serial common can be found in a recent court case in Maine, Kevin OConnor v Oakhurst Dairy. In this case, delivery drivers were suing the dairy for overtime pay. The dairy claimed that the drivers did not qualify for overtime.

The issue all comes down to Maine law which says that the following kinds of work do not qualify for overtime: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”[1]

The question before the court was whether the last item in the list of work was “packing for shipment or distribution” or “distribution.” The style guide for Maine legislation is the same as it is for The Associated Press: no serial comma. And that means, we really don’t know. If the style guide said that the serial comma was always used, we would know that it was the former.

If “distribution” is meant to be the last item, then the drivers do not qualify for overtime pay. The first court ruled that this was the correct reading and so found for the dairy. The case was appealed, and the drivers won. It didn’t all come down to the serial comma. (How could it? It’s a mess with the missing “and”/”or.”) But if the Maine style guide simply required the serial comma, there would have been no question.

The Case on Grammar Grounds

To me, the appellate court is right for purely grammatical reasons. The way that the dairy wanted to read the legislation was clearly motivated by what they wanted it to say. Here is the list as the dairy saw it:

  1. Canning
  2. Processing
  3. Preserving
  4. Freezing
  5. Drying
  6. Marketing
  7. Storing
  8. Packing
  9. Distribution

Items 1 through 8 are all gerunds: verbs ending in “ing” that are used as nouns. And then we have the plain old noun “distribution.” Why not “distributing”? Now I know that people write lists that are all mixed up. I have complained about this before, Illiterate Filmmakers: Last Man Standing Edition. But it is usually the case (as it is in that article) that the list is screwed up randomly. In this case, the list is perfect — except for that one item that happens to make the dairy’s case.

What’s more, “shipment” and “distribution” go together. So the obvious reading of this sentence is the way the drivers read it. You can get into other aspects of it. It just so happens that “packing for distribution” makes sense. And why would it be packing only for shipping that was exempt for overtime? (I doubt seriously if the dairy paid overtime for people packing for delivery.) It bothers me that the lower court found for the dairy. It doesn’t speak well for the objectivity of our legal system.

Just Use the Serial Comma, Dammit!

I suspect that on my deathbed I will be reminding people about this. “Okay, so my will’s in order. Good. Now promise me that you’ll always use the serial comma…” I find it shocking that we still have to talk about this. But even the writer of the article I linked to above seems confused on the matter. She wrote, “Opponents say that it’s redundant, aesthetically displeasing, and potentially more ambiguous.” I have yet to see a sentence in which the serial comma makes a sentence more ambiguous.

What’s more, I personally find the serial comma aesthetically pleasing; its symmetry pleases me. But in the link she provides for “aesthetically displeasing,” there is no discussion of aesthetics; the writer of that article talks exclusively about ambiguity, even quoting Bryan Garner that “its omission may cause ambiguities, whereas its inclusion never will.”

I’ll yield the point on redundancy. But a tiny amount of redundancy is more than offset by occasional ambiguity — some of which lands people in court!

[1] Note that when using semicolons instead of commas, one would never not use the “serial semicolon.” The truth is that the reason people don’t use the serial comma is the same reason that Americans use quotation marks stupidly: because typographers decided it. And typographers care about how things look, not about how clear they are.

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Mar 11

Let’s Get Rid of Onto

Let's Get Rid of OntoThere are a lot of words that bug me. Take, for example, “anyway.” On online Oxford Dictionary has a bit of a problem with this word, providing definitions like “Used to confirm or support a point or idea just mentioned.” The word itself is more of an interjection than anything. You wouldn’t, for example, write, “There isn’t anyway to get this done in time.” “Anyway” does not mean “any way.” That’s all pretty easy to understand in the case of this word. Things get much more difficult with the word “onto.” Oh, how I hate that word!

The word “onto” indicates that two objects meet. “They placed a cup onto a table.” (These is the less common construct, “I’m onto you!” But let us leave that aside.) We use “on to” when “on” is part of a verbal phrase. “After drinking the tea, they moved on to placing the cup onto the kitchen counter.” As you can see, in this form, the “on” really belongs to “moved.” So it would make much more sense to write “movedon to” than “moved onto.” (Obviously, there are cases where this ins’t true, “The cup was moved onto the table.”)

“On to” Is as Good as “Onto”

The problem with all of this is that there is no need for it. It is only fairly recently that “onto” was considered a word. And in England, it is still common for people to use “on to” where we Yankees use “onto.” And since I am always in favor of making writing easier when it comes to these annoying little matters, I see no reason for us not to jettison “onto,” use “on to” all the time, and never again give it a thought. Note that it absolutely doesn’t work the other way around: we can’t always use “onto.”

Back in 1926, Fowler made a great point:

Writers and printers should make up their minds whether there is such a preposition as onto or not; if there is not, they should omit the to

Why Not Get Rid of the “to”?

For example, why not, “They placed a cup on a table.” Is the “to” necessary? No. And there aren’t that many cases where it is. The “to” is kind of a linguistic tic. I doubt if I stopped using it that anyone would notice. But by now, it’s a habit. So I’m just going to get rid of “onto” and leave it at that. I’ll see if I can train myself to get rid of the “to.” One thing’s certain: it will be easier to get rid of the “to” if it isn’t attached to the “on.”

Note that everything I’ve said about “onto” applies to “into.” The problem is that “into” is so much better established that one would end up looking foolish if they wrote, “He slipped it in to his pack.” At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that. And again, we could instead write, “He slipped it in his pack.” I’ll leave this fight to the more courageous among us. My fight ends (at least for now) with “onto.”

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Mar 09

Semicolon: Story of a Subtle Punctuation Mark

SemicolonElizabeth posted a cartoon on my Facebook time line. It is by Loren Fishman, and it features a teacher at a chalkboard with “grammar/punctuation” written, and then the winking smiley emoticon — ;) — below it. The teacher says, “Yes, a winky face is correct… But in ancient times, the semicolon was actually used to separate archaic written devices known as ‘complete sentences.’” It got me thinking about the semicolon.

In standard usage, the semicolon does indeed link complete sentences. This raises the question of why one would use the semicolon at all. When used in this way, one could instead use a period. The point of using a semicolon is to connect the sentences more closely. So the following is perfectly correct, “He had a gun. It was pointed right at me.” But it works better to write, “He had a gun; it was pointed right at me.”

At the same time, this would be wrong: “He had a gun; pointed right at me.” That’s where our good friend the em-dash comes in, “He had a gun — pointed right at me.” What’s wonderful about the em-dash is that it is the Swiss Army Knife of punctuation; you can use it for almost anything. One of my favorites — This should come as no surprise! — is to stick an entire sentence in the middle of a sentence.

The Semicolon Meets the Modern Sentence

The idea of “complete sentences” has become vague in recent years. Is this a complete sentence: “Because he couldn’t help himself”? Strictly speaking, it isn’t; it is a dependent clause. Yet few people would have a problem with it in the right context, “He kissed her. Because he couldn’t help himself.” And if that’s okay, isn’t, “He kissed her; because he couldn’t help himself”?

Oh, it gets murky here! Why not just, “He kissed her, because he couldn’t help himself”? If you want to use the semicolon, why use “because”? This works a whole lot better: “He kissed her; he couldn’t help himself.”

Is the Semicolon Necessary?

I think it is best to stick with the standard definition of a complete sentence when it comes to the semicolon. The reason is that the semicolon implies a conjunction. But exactly what it implies depends upon the context. In the last example, I wouldn’t say that it implies “because”; it implies something more, and “because” gets in the way.

For those who just want to make their lives easier, avoid the semicolon. And if you do want to use it, stick to linking two complete sentences. But for most people, the semicolon is more subtle than necessary. Most people don’t write precisely enough for there to be a distinction between a semicolon and a period.

But Wait! There’s More!

There is another use of the semicolon that people don’t talk much about: as a list separator. In general, it should be avoided. But when you are listing complicated things — especially ones that include “and” in their titles — semicolons are very useful. For example, “There was a Johnny Depp triple-feature that night: Benny & Joon; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Admittedly, the italics of the film titles make using a comma much easier. But you get the idea.

Here’s a great example of a place were a semicolon really helps. Consider the following sentence, “This articles deals with topics such as expanding your introduction, tightening your education, skills, and experience sections, and typesetting and printing.” Now that’s a perfectly good sentence. But it’s also complex and hard to grok in one read-through.

Semicolons for Clarity!

But the sentence can be made much clearer with the semicolon. Consider it now, “This articles deals with topics such as expanding your introduction; tightening your education, skills, and experience sections; and typesetting and printing.” Now it’s clear that we are talking about three items, even if the items themselves are somewhat complex.

So when you find yourself writing a list that might be confusing, remember that your friendly semicolon is there to help out. The standard use of semicolons to connect sentences could be eliminated from the language without much concern. But this less common use of the semicolon really is an important tool for writers. Because it can be used to improve clarity. And clarity is all.

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