What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
Sentence first has changed a bit over the last few months. Its focus remains the English language – grammar, usage, history, and so on – but it has taken recent detours into posts about birds, censorship, jazz, and spiders, among other things. Despite this or because of it, the blog has gained a few regular readers; this in turn has encouraged me to write more frequently. This week it was quiet here because I was very busy with work (editing and voluntary) and assorted activities (online and offline: one of my more absurd online projects concerns my bookmarks, of which I have tagged thousands, and which for mystifying reasons I decided to organise, slightly).
A few weeks ago I had a long informal chat with Fate, lost a bet, and ended up opening a Twitter account. There is a permanent link to it in the sidebar to the right. Rather than explain myself, which might imply that my decision needs justifying, I refer sceptical readers to BLDGBLOG‘s common-sense defence. As a fan of concision I like the restraint imposed by Twitter’s 140-character limit. It makes a nice contrast with my blog posts, some of which are on the hefty side. So far I’ve had a lot of fun interacting with other Twitterers and posting poetry, quotes, information, nature reports, links, and occasional idle chatter about food, books, and Irish weather. Curiously, I seem to be the first person online to use the phrase “less than the yum of its parts” – at least somewhere googlable. Future biographers, take note.
On a more scholarly note, I finally obtained a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (pictured), which I ordered from The Book Depository. No longer must I rely on pocket, concise, and online editions. The Shorter OED is a beautiful book and a magnificent work, though its size makes it unsuitable for picnics (unlike, say, Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Guide to English Usage). Continuing the self-involved tone of this post, I was looking up “stamina” in the OED, for a post about “data”, and I came across an entry for the word “Stancarist”. Since my name is Stan Carey, I blinked and looked again: there it remained. It seems Stancarism derives from an idea championed by a 16C Italian theologian called Francesco Stancari (or Stancaro) (no relation (I think)). Bless the OED and bless its first editor, the remarkable James Murray.
Since this post is less formal than usual, I’ll take the opportunity to thank my readers, be they dedicated or accidental. If you are a regular or occasional reader who has yet to comment but has not ruled out the possibility, feel free to say hello and introduce yourself below, pseudonymously or otherwise. If you would prefer to continue lurking mysteriously, that’s fine too. It’s not as if I can do anything about it. Or if there is some suitable subject any of my readers would like Sentence first to tackle (split infinitives, anyone?), I’ll take all requests under consideration. It’s an open floor. Much as I love Kafka, his popular quote about writing does not pertain to blogging as I understand it. Dialogue is what enlivens this place. Would Kafka have blogged? I suspect not, but if he had, it would have been quite something. Worth a link, at least.
When you’re cycling in a city you should expect the unexpected – especially if you’re sharing the road with a lorry in a hurry. Luckily no one seems to have been seriously hurt in this incident, but it must have been a shocking experience for everyone there. One of the cyclists has uploaded a couple of photos, and the story was picked up by the Guardian and NY Times websites, among others.
[Edit: this image is just an image, not a video or an external link.]
The Guardian reported that the Mayor of London and the UK transport minister “peddled” round a corner. They may have been pedalling, but I don’t think they were peddling anything. The two activities do not go well together: presumably even cyclists who peddle from the saddle would not attempt to do so without stopping.
The newspaper’s own style guide has the following entries for these near-homonyms:
peddler: drug dealer
Peddler can mean more than “drug dealer”: one can peddle goods of all kinds, though the word sometimes carries connotations of dubious or illicit activity. But the guide is deliberately very concise; I am not disputing its entries, I am reproving the website editing. Whether the mistake was the writer’s or an editor’s, it was a careless one – though not as careless (or dangerous) as the lorry driver’s.
On a walk through Salthill yesterday I saw this eye-catching window display:
It’s a charming notice, but its peculiar use of punctuation is what particularly interests me, because I can’t recall ever seeing quotation marks used quite like that before.
Quotation marks have been proliferating indiscriminately in English, like transposons in our DNA. They are greatly misunderstood even compared to other punctuation marks. Public signs and notices boast especially egregious and incongruous examples, as evidenced by a Flickr pool, a blog, and an old website.
Scouring the Flickr pool (for research and fun – they’re easily blended), I noticed a few general patterns and types of errant usage. My apologies in advance for the runaway link-fest, but once I began browsing these galleries it became difficult to stop, and I wanted to convey the extent of the phenomenon and to present some of my favourites.
Beloved by Scrabble fans, em (/εm/) can mean the letter M or a unit of measurement in typography – hence em dash (one of which appeared just there, before hence). Occasionally em appears as an interjection, an onomatopoeic murmur equivalent to erm or um, while in HTML it italicizes text.
Em with a capital E is a popular nickname for Emma, Emily and Emmanuel, while the all-capital EM is a standard abbreviation of electromagnetic and electron microscope, among other things. Em- is a common prefix, found in words such as embark, embed, embody, emboss, embrace, and embroil.
‘Em with a preceding apostrophe is a common informal variant of them, often seen and heard in colloquial expressions such as “Set ’em up Joe”, “Give ’em hell”, “Up an’ at ’em”, “Stick ’em up”, “Ride ’em cowboy”, “Use ’em or lose ’em”, “Texas hold ’em”, “Read ’em and weep”, and “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em”. In spoken English the ’em is usually unstressed (/əm/), and is occasionally absorbed into the associated verb, such as in the video game title “Duke Nukem”.
What is curious about ’em is that contrary to popular belief, the apostrophe does not denote the missing letters “th”. In Middle English ’em was an alternative form of hem (an old pronoun, not the verb, the clothing term or the throat-clearing interjection), which was later displaced by them. So ’em does not derive from them; in fact it precedes it.