Category Archives: Language

Happy National Punctuation Day!

semicolonToday, Sept. 24, is National Punctuation Day — admittedly, a created holiday, like National Donut Day, and, like National Donut Day, it’s a holiday that celebrates something worthy of celebration. (Yes, there are seven commas in that sentence. Plus a dash and an apostrophe, and the obligatory period.)

Punctuation is like road signs for writing. It tells us where to stop, where to slow down, when a turn is coming, and when rocks might be falling on us (well, not really). It helps readers get where they are going smoothly and safely.

But punctuation is a fairly recent development; in English it’s been around for a few centuries. Look at old manuscripts and you’ll see writing with no spaces, no punctuation and no capital letters. It’s hard to read. It’s slow. It’s confusing. Once punctuation arrived, though, it wasn’t set in stone: the rules have been changing over time. Read Victorian English literature and you’ll see semicolons sprinkled in places they aren’t seen today. Regardless, the reason for using punctuation is to make writing easier to read and easier to understand.

As M. Alderton Pink put it, “Bad punctuation is, in fact, a form of bad manners.” And, like many matters of etiquette, certain aspects of punctuation are open to debate: Oxford comma or not? Are semicolons elegant or awful? Should we get rid of apostrophes? (Read James Harbeck’s modest proposal “Kill the Apostrophe” and MedEditor’s response.)

Others, however, are not. Commas in the wrong places can confuse, mislead or even cost you a million dollars. Apostrophes in the wrong places make a writer look sloppy or ignorant, or can even affect your love life.

Properly used punctuation helps make writing clearer, and clarity is always good, so for that reason alone it’s worth a holiday.

To celebrate, you can:

Mixed (or mangled) metaphors muddle writing

Metaphors — comparisons of one thing to another in a poetic sense — are not just for poetry: they are an integral part of language. Metaphors help us communicate an idea more clearly by making it more vivid, more relevant or less complicated. We use metaphors every day: whenever we compare sports to war, a corporate merger to a romance, a political campaign to a horse race.

Metaphors are a useful linguistic device, but sometimes they can go off the rails (a train metaphor). Writers sometimes get carried away (a nautical metaphor) and shift gears (an automotive metaphor) in the middle of a metaphor, which can befuddle readers instead of making an idea clearer to them.

A metaphor too far

A recent news story I saw said that my employer, the University of Kansas, “pushed ahead by a few nose lengths” in an annual college ranking. I’ll buy a horse-race comparison here (though this annual ratings scramble seems more aptly compared to a decathlon), but horses can win by a “nose,” or by a “length.” A “nose length” is not a distance used in horse racing, so instead of making the idea clearer, this metaphor confuses the issue. Plus, a ranking doesn’t really need a metaphor to make it more easily understood. “Moved up a few spots” would have been perfectly clear.

In my career as a copy editor, I’ve run across a lot of mixed or mangled metaphors. Some made me scratch my head (figuratively) and others made me laugh out loud (literally). Here are a few:

“When this critical column buckled due to lack of floor supports, it was the first domino in the chain.” Domino effect / links in a chain — pick one.

The rival teams “find themselves with their backs against the wall as if they were stuck in a linen closet.” The backs-against-the-wall part is clear (if a bit cliched), but how the heck does a linen closet enter into things?

“We’re just about ready to start putting the pieces of this puzzle together in a way we can put some real structure on this skeleton.” Is it a puzzle, or a building, or a skeleton?

“A lot of people think they were born on third base and hit a home run.” How this usually goes is “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” which is a sports metaphor applied to a person who comes from a privileged background but is oblivious to the fact he got a head start. How the home run connects here I can’t imagine.

“As you go in the belly of the beast, you will run into this brick wall every single time.” Since when are there brick walls inside beasts?

The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.

Lessons from the Associated Press

Goerge V. Higgins quoteThe Associated Press is “the best creative writing school in the world. They have branches in every major city on the globe. They will teach you something that no creative writing school at Stanford or Iowa or anyplace else will ever teach you: Write it down. Do it fast. Keep it simple. Keep it short.”

— George V. Higgins, author of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and other novels, as told to Chuck Potter in a 1987 interview

Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

literallyVociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a word having two meanings that are opposites of each other.

These words are called “contronyms” (also “auto-antonyms” or “Janus words,” after the two-faced Roman god) and they’re more common in English than you might think. Here are a few examples:

Cleave can mean “to cut apart” or “to cling together.”

Impregnable can mean “able to be impregnated” or “unable to be breached.” (The tricky “im-/in-” prefix leads to confusion over the word “inflammable,” which means not “non-flammable” but instead “highly flammable.”)

Rent and lease can each mean either to allow someone to use something (such as a residence, vehicle or piece of equipment) for money without selling it, or to pay money to use something without buying it.

Sanction can mean “to allow” or “to restrict.”

Strike can mean “to hit,” or, in baseball, “to not hit.”

And, of course, literally can mean both “actually” and “figuratively.” No one can accuse English of making sense.

(Daily Writing Tips offers a much longer list if you want to see more contronyms.)

You still need a person

Machine translation isn’t there yet.

A recent post on the Economist’s language blog about a sign on a New York shop window discussed the inadequacy of relying solely on a computer or bilingual dictionary for translation. All the shop owner — admirably — wanted to do was welcome tourists in their own language (some of them, anyway, and I still don’t get the purpose of having a greeting in Latin, but it does bring to mind the classic Monty Python Latin grammar scene in “Life of Brian”). But instead of saying “Welcome!” the greeting, many of the words were “welcome” the noun, as in reception, which would have made little sense to visiting Norwegians, Russians and others.

The Economist post points out that one should at least check the part of speech when using a dictionary or computer translator. One word should be clear enough, but what about a whole sentence? That seems to inevitably result in gibberish, as is commonly spotted in signs around the world. And while bad signs or directions can be funny, they can also be confusing, misleading or offensive.

I’m all about clarity and accuracy, but I also realize that sometimes you need to say something in a language you don’t know. The only good way to do this is to get a speaker of both languages to help you. Barring that, if you must use a computer translator, check the translation by running it back into English to see what was lost.

Let’s try it with Austen: Continue reading You still need a person

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to TakeBringClouduse “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly.

“Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and “go,” because both pairs are distinguished by viewpoint.

“Come” and “bring” are both used when movement is “toward”:

Harry is coming at 8 tonight. He is bringing Hermione and Ron to meet us.
(The speaker is, or will be, where Harry is arriving.)

“Go” and “take” are both used when movement is “away” or elsewhere:

Harry is going to Hogsmeade. He is taking Hermione and Ron.
(The speaker is not, or will not be, where Harry is arriving.)

Continue reading Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Why does English … ? Just because

As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed.

As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions — about why English is the way it is. And, unfortunately, the simple answer to many of those questions is “Because.” (In fact, many of the questions have complicated answers based on when words entered English, where they came from and when their forms were standardized, but those answers don’t fit neatly in a sentence or two, so I’m left with a choice between 10 minutes of explaining or “Because.”)

Continue reading Why does English … ? Just because

Who gets to decide how language is used?

Few people use "forsooth" anymore.
Few people use “forsooth” anymore. It’s marked “Obs.” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently during a discussion about standard English, usage manuals and stylebooks, I was asked, “Who gets to decide?” My answer was, “We all do.” As users of the language, we are the ones who ultimately determine the direction of our language: the fate of words old and new, changes in meanings, and addition or subtraction of grammatical constructions.

Of course, it’s not as simple as a few people saying, “Now X will mean B instead of A.” Change rarely happens from the top down; it’s an organic process that takes time. In the past, given enough time, one language would gradually split into new ones that were no longer mutually intelligible. It’ll be interesting for linguists of the future to study the effects of standardized usage, high literacy rates and mass media on language change.

As it is now, words that most people no longer use eventually get labeled “archaic” or “obsolete” and fade from the language. New words appear to describe new concepts or technologies (or newly discovered old things, like “Nasutoceratops”). Continue reading Who gets to decide how language is used?

The Grammar Pep Squad

Yay, grammar!
(Julie Elliott-Abshire/stock.xchng)

I hear people all the time refer to the “Grammar Police,” or, even worse, “Grammar Nazis.” (As an aside, can we all please quit referring to anyone other than Nazis as “Nazis” — real Nazis were far more heinous than any politician, pedant or petty bureaucrat.) And while I’ve made a living as an editor and a teacher of editing, I don’t like to think of myself as the “Grammar Patrol” but rather the “Grammar Pep Squad.” After all, grammar is a grand and necessary thing, and it deserves a little cheerleading.

Grammar structures our language and lets us use it to communicate all manner of information (as linguist Noam Chomsky put it, a finite set of rules for infinite combinations). The rules of grammar help us convey messages clearly and accurately, and let us express meaning through small nuances and great distinctions. Grammar is not always elegant, but we need it. Without grammar, our sentences would fall apart and we’d have a hard time communicating. And communication is the point of language, after all.

Supporting clear, professional language and helping people understand how to get there calls for celebration, not scorn.

So, give me a “G” … give me an “R” …

Welcome to Madam Grammar!

I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me.

Come on in!
(Crystal Leigh Shearin/stock.xchng)

My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language, words and editing, and teaching all of those, in journalism particularly; to point out egregious errors in the hopes that they will help others avoid such mistakes (or give some folks a laugh for the day); and to explore different and changing usages in English.

As an editor, I know that “standard” language is important in professional writing, and that certain rules need to be followed for a writer to be taken seriously. As a teacher, I know that students need to have a good command of the rules to understand how language works and how to write clearly, then to know when they can successfully break or ignore these rules. But as a linguist, I know that “rules” are a moving target — only dead languages never change. It’s not impossible to reconcile these three aspects, and I strive to be a “reasonable prescriptivist.”