Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

August 12, 2019

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

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Grey areas in usage and etymology

July 25, 2019

It’s time for an update on my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column on language.

First up is A quick dive into ‘dived’ vs ‘dove’ – which is right, or does it depend on where you are? I outline the history and the growing acceptability of dove:

Dove is a relative newcomer, probably formed by analogy with drivedrove or strive–strove. The OED’s first citation is from 1855, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: ‘Straight into the river Kwasind Plunged as if he were an otter, Dove as if he were a beaver.’ In later editions Dove became Dived, perhaps under editorial influence.

Is ‘alright’ all right? looks at a common variant spelling but one that usage authorities disagree strongly about:

Alright is not wrong, but many people think it is, so writers are often mindful of where and whether to use it. Editors and publishers will keep ‘fixing’ it until it’s more widely accepted, especially in literary and other elevated contexts. But alright will struggle to gain acceptability until it appears more in those same contexts – a catch-22.

In Where does ‘OK’ come from? I trace the curious etymology of one of the most popular words in the world:

There have been so many suggestions and hypotheses that there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to all the possibilities. And while each origin story has had its supporters, they all lack persuasive evidence – except one, the case for which was laid out in a series of articles in the 1960s by the American etymologist Allen Walker Read. He showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century.

For the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984, I considered the book’s linguistic legacy in Orwell and the English Language:

That legacy includes compound words and phrases that are now seen sometimes in general usage, among them newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, doubleplusgood (‘excellent’), and doubleplusungood (‘terrible’). The familiar phrases Big Brother and Room 101, as well as entering the common vocabulary, have also become the names of popular TV shows. Other terms, such as thought police, were not invented by Orwell but were popularized by his book.

Finally, Simple in the correct sense of the word shows how language use is often far from simple, despite what pedants may claim or wish:

Over the centuries, simple has meant ‘humble and unpretentious’, ‘unsophisticated’, ‘undistinguished in office or rank’, ‘small and insignificant’, ‘bare’, ‘wretched and pitiful’, ‘lacking knowledge or learning’, ‘foolish or stupid’, ‘not complex in structure’, ‘easily done or understood’, and so on. Some of these senses shade into one another, so it’s not always obvious which one is intended.

“Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

May 31, 2019

‘Words for punctuation,’ Lynne Murphy writes in her new book The Prodigal Tongue, ‘offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words.’

Penguin UK book cover of Lynne Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue. Red cover, with black text and white text. The main title is in speech bubbles from two illustrated men squaring up to box one another. One is dressed as a cowboy, the other in a bowler hat and business suit.When North America was being settled, norms of punctuation, including the marks’ names, were very much in flux. So when things stabilized, the names in the US and the UK sometimes differed. Certain marks, such as the comma and question mark, acquired the same name in both regions; others, such as the full stop (period, full point), diverged.

The latter group also includes quotation marks, aka inverted commas. But the facts are more complicated – and therefore more interesting – than is generally supposed. Here’s Murphy:

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86 that slang etymology

May 17, 2019

Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.

First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:

Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.

Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)

Two comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother on a street outside a building, with a tree and a passing stranger also visible. Bechdel: "Where was your apartment?" Mother, pointing: "4-E, up there." #2 shows them walking past an old wooden door. Mother: "This is Chumley's. Dad and I used to come drink here." Bechdel: "It's a bar? How come there's no sign?"

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Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

April 2, 2019

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

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The Usage Panel is dead, long live the Usage Panel!

December 5, 2018

If you write (and you probably do), you’ll inevitably be unsure about English usage sometimes. Can refute mean ‘reject’? How should I use whom? Is expresso wrong? Is snuck? What’s the difference between militate and mitigate? Can they be singular? Can I say drive slow? Very unique? What does beg the question really mean?

The language has so many areas of dispute and confusion that we have to turn to authorities for the answer, and this raises – not begs – the questions of who these authorities are and why we should trust them. Last year, in an A–Z of English usage myths, I wrote:

We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.

There is no official authority in English, despite occasional misguided attempts to create an Academy like in French. Some people, by virtue of their learning and trade, gain a measure of authority; they may be grammarians, linguists, editors, lexicographers, columnists, and so on. But they often disagree. Look up different usage manuals, dictionaries, or articles, and you’ll find plenty of mutual dissent.

For those who want categorical answers to knotty questions of grammar, usage, or style, these discrepancies between experts can be frustrating, and may be dubiously resolved by picking one authority and sticking to it. For the linguistically curious who don’t need a quick answer before a deadline hits, these grey areas can be fascinating, especially when traced through history.

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Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

November 19, 2018

In my language column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been writing about whether presently is ambiguous, as some authorities warn, and about the uses of and differences between till, until, and their abbreviations.

Ambiguity is presently unlikely shows my conclusion in the title, but the detail is worth examining. I’m usually reluctant to warn against using certain words or phrases, and so it is with presently in its primary sense of ‘currently’:

Bill Walsh, in Lapsing into a Comma, recommends avoiding it as a synonym for currently. So does R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap. Harry Shaw, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, calls the usage ‘inaccurate’, while Garner’s Modern English Usage finds it ‘poor’ because it causes ambiguity. . . .

[But] if I tell you that something is happening presently, you’ll naturally infer that it’s happening now. If I tell you it will happen presently, you’ll infer that it will happen in the near future. The verb tense and the broader context tend to establish what is meant.


The difference between till and until is something I’ve been asked about a few times over the years. In TIL about till and until, I sort out these synonyms and related forms, describing how they differ, how they don’t, where you can use them, and which ones to avoid. There’s also a bit of history:

People often assume that till is simply an abbreviation of until, but in fact till is a few centuries older. It shows up in the runic inscription on the ancient Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, where its original sense was the same as ‘to’.

There is an abbreviation of until: ’til. Some critics reject it, because we already have till. They may even call it incorrect. ’Till is still more disparaged, because the apostrophe is superfluous, and although this form was used by George Washington, of all people, I can’t recommend it. Apostrophe-less til is occasionally used, but spelling-wise it falls between the two stools of till and ’til.