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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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.

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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.


Dr Johnson’s House in London

June 2, 2017

On a recent trip to London I visited 17 Gough Square, better known as Dr Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson compiled his great Dictionary of 1755 in this tall Georgian building, and I’ve always wanted to visit. As I’m currently writing a column on the subject (ish), the timing was apt.

On my way there I passed a Furnival Street and wondered if it was named after another lexicographer – but that Furnivall has two l’s in his name, so I guess not.

The house is ‘one of a very few of its age to survive in the City of London, and the only one of Johnson’s eighteen London homes to have done so’, Henry Hitchings writes in his terrific book Defining the World (aka Dr Johnson’s Dictionary). Here’s the plaque outside:

Circular plaque on the red-brick wall of 17 Gough Square. The plaque reads:

Upstairs, a stained-glass window of Johnson overlooks the square:

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The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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Bicycles (or other)

January 9, 2017

The photo below shows the western end of the prom in Salthill, a popular walking route near where I live in Galway. It’s local tradition to kick the wall on the right before turning around and retracing one’s steps; alternatively you can walk past the gate for further shore views across the bay to the Burren hills.

Take a look at the sign on the gate:

stan-carey-salthill-prom-galway-gate-sign-bicycles

Emergency Access. Bicycles (or other) attached to this gate will be removed.

What I’m curious about is the meaning of the phrase bicycles (or other). Other what?

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Only just to realise the ambiguity

September 1, 2015

I got an email recently from file-hosting service Dropbox, telling me about the apps they have for different devices. This is the first of two sentences in the main body of the email; see how it sounds to you before reading on:

Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, just to realize you left them on your computer at home?

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Fears crawling, crash blossoming

June 2, 2015

This headline on the front page of today’s Guardian caught my eye for reasons both ecological and syntactic. See what you make of it before reading on:

guardian headline crash blossom - fears crawling, invasive fish

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