“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.

Why do we stand on our tiptoes and not our toetips?

October 3, 2018

Compounds are everywhere in English vocabulary, formed by combining two or more independent elements (‘free morphemes’, in linguistic jargon). They can be nouns (living room), verbs (download), adjectives (fun-loving), and other types. They can also be open, closed, or hyphenated, as shown.

The semantic relationship between the parts of a compound varies from one to another. Many are directly compositional; some require additional knowledge. When one element is part of the other, the main one tends to come first and be phonetically stressed: cliff edge, treetop, shoelaces, and so on.

So if we’re talking about the tip or tips of something, that’s the order we expect. Sure enough, there are fingertips, arrow tips, ear tips, horn tips, leaf tips, nerve tips, wingtips, and many more obscure compounds of the same structure. Which leads me to the present puzzle, which I aired first on Twitter:

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Interview with the OED

June 4, 2018

Some weeks ago I made a visual poem from book spines to mark the 90th anniversary of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED editors liked it enough to republish it on their website; they also asked me a few things about language, dictionaries, and book spine poetry.

You can read my short interview on the new OED blog. If dictionaries and word history interest you, I recommend the rest of the blog – click the image below – which looks at the OED‘s reception in 1928, the work of editors past and present, and dialect words from around the world, among other things.

For more book spine poems, aka bookmashes, see the archive.