humor, language

Writing Well – Part 6

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What is the Point of Punctuation?

Here are links to previous posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.

Speech seems to get along w/o punctuation.  (Not quite, as will be seen shortly.)  As a classic Victor Borge routine illustrates, it would be ludicrous to add noises to speech that correspond directly to punctuation marks in writing (especially if the noises sound like farts).

On the other hand, speech has air quotes and other gestures.  It has pauses and variations in pitch and loudness.  Careful punctuation (including capitalization and font weight as well as little marks like [?] and [,]) conveys similar information in a different code.  But not all punctuation is careful.

Suppose a biologist writes a book with some new contributions to evolutionary theory.  The acknowledgements express gratitude to

my mentors, Darwin and Wallace

While this is ambiguous, knowing what else is in the acknowledgements (and whether the author studied in England when Darwin and Wallace were active) could hide the ambiguity by making one of the following interpretations much more plausible than the other:

  1. my mentors (Darwin and Wallace)
  2. my mentors, Darwin, and Wallace

The serial comma (AKA “Oxford comma”; AKA “Harvard comma”) before [ and] in #2 disambiguates the comma before [ Darwin].  Use it.  Want to add a little more info about your mentors?  Don’t use a comma at all.  The closing parenthesis in #1 makes it clear where the added info ends.  Let the reader get mental exercise by grappling with the book’s ideas rather than its syntax.

The serial comma is not really needed when [red, white, and blue] describes the US flag’s colors.  It does no harm, and there are better uses for the energy expended in deciding whether it is needed.

The ambiguity of the biologist’s acknowledgement appears in a language joke cited by Lynch; the imaginary author expresses gratitude to

my parents, God and Ayn Rand

and we laugh at the nuttiness of the #1 interpretation.  The correctness of the #2 interpretation is so obvious that it is all too easy to dismiss careful punctuation as mere fussiness.  It ain’t.

Lynch has little to say about punctuation beyond mildly endorsing the serial comma where needed and hinting that punctuation does not matter much.  He remarks that Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss is amusing and informative.  He notes that the pretentious subtitle is “wrong” by some standards (because it has no hyphen between [Zero] and [Tolerance]) that are merely parochial conventions of publishers.  I agree with what Lynch says about Truss’s book, but there is more to be said.

Unlike many prescriptivists (and that unfortunate subtitle), Truss really cares about readability and is usually good-humored, as in

Sticklers unite, your have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with.

She is also mellow about “matters of style and preference that are definitely not set in stone” (such as whether I should refer to her book as [Truss’ book] or [Truss’s book]).  The next example also says a little more about her book.

Example 6.1: Rogue Commas and Periods

The rogue comma in Truss’s title comes from a joke on the back cover, not an actual instance of somebody saying something loony because they sprinkle punctuation marks as mindlessly as inept cooks sprinkle chili pepper flakes.  A much more concise version of the joke is posted in Eric Wong’s blog as a to-do list with a line that reads

Throw baby, shower

(People who throw babies on hot humid days can work up a sweat, so showering soon afterwards would be a good idea.)  A strength of Truss’s book is that it is not limited to jokes; it has some real examples of such mindlessness and its ill effects.  Consider a newspaper quote that appears on page 98 (hardcover):

The society decided not to prosecute the owners of the Windsor Safari Park, where animals, have allegedly been fed live to snakes and lions, on legal advice.

Did the lawyer advise the society (not to prosecute) or the park (to feed live animals to snakes and lions)?  The rogue comma makes the quote even more obscure than it would otherwise be.  A readable formulation of what I presume was intended would be

On legal advice, the society decided not to prosecute the owners of the Windsor Safari Park, where animals have allegedly been fed live to snakes and lions.

Mindless sprinkling is not new.  Consider an 1867 church near where I live.  The church has a plaque with its date.  Fair enough.  From a distance, it appears that there is something like a swallows’ nest adhering to the plaque.  Let’s zoom in.  Hmmm.  Somebody went to the trouble of carving and painting a pointless period to go after the year.

old-church_368x370old-church-date_386x370

 Example 6.2: Missing Commas

I have a book (with pictures of scenic places in Scotland) that was produced during a severe comma shortage in the UK.  In particular, it has a comma-deprived caption that says

Attractively set by the River Tweed in the heart of the Tweedale Hills Peebles is justifiably proud of its reputation as a haven for sportsmen.

It was clear that [the Tweedale Hills Peebles is] means the same as either [the Tweedale Hills, Peebles is] or [the Tweedale, Hills Peebles is], with the former seeming more likely.  But I could not be sure.  Maybe the Tweedale is a region that includes the river.  Maybe Hills Peebles is a town in the heart of this region.  The book describes a town named [Peebles] elsewhere, so I gather that Peebles is indeed a town in the Tweedale Hills.

People who know Scottish place names could resolve the ambiguity quickly and easily, perhaps w/o even noticing that there is an ambiguity.  But I noticed and was a little annoyed.  I would have been greatly annoyed if I had really cared about resolving the ambiguity correctly.

A hilarious example of missing commas on a magazine cover is well-known, but the commas on the real cover were photoshopped away in a hoax/joke/prank that went viral.  Comparisons of the real and fake covers can be found here and here; the real cover does not say that Rachel Ray cooks her family and her dog.

I would like to update this post with a funny but real example of missing commas.  Maybe not so funny as the fake magazine cover, but funnier than [Hills Peebles] as the name of a town. Any suggestions?

grammar, humor, language, photography, politics

Writing Well – Part 3

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Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????

Here are links to previous posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.

One trouble with categories is that so many of the interesting and important people and things in the real world do not fit neatly into them.  Tho wary of categories, I feel a need to introduce another one, alongside the descriptivism and prescriptivism (reviewed below) that are commonly used to categorize writings/writers that deal with the English language.

To oversimplify somewhat:

  • A descriptivist says how people actually use the language.
  • A prescriptivist says how people should use the language, according to various rules.

The captions on the following images for these attitudes link to notes and credits at the end of this post.

One of the strengths of Lynch’s book is that most of the time it is so fair to both.  Lynch is mostly in the descriptivist camp, but he sees merit in some prescriptivist ideas and explores the absurdities of trying to be 100% one or the other.

Perhaps some of the more thoughtful people on both sides are implicitly in another category, which I will call [readabilism] until somebody suggests a name I like better that is not already in use.

Still being simplistic to get started, here is what I mean by [readabilism].

  • A readabilist says how people should use the language, so as to communicate clearly.

Communicating clearly is not the same as abiding by rules.  Do U want to be clear?  Some of the prescriptivists’ rules are helpful, as is attention to the descriptivists’ findings.  Some of the prescriptivists’ rules are harmful, as is being lazy in ways that descriptivists find to be common.  As with geometry, there is no royal road to clarity.  Various examples will be in later posts.  A quick preliminary example appears later in this post.

I am a proud readabilist.  I try to write clearly.  I fail and try again.  Sometimes I succeed.  I try to recommend ways to write clearly.  I fail and try again.  I will recommend a prescriptivist’s rule that seems helpful and disrecommend one that seems harmful.  If something seems helpful in one context and harmful in another, I will try to sort things out rather than claim that one size fits all.

Any suggestions of alternative names for readabilism?  I was disappointed when Google told me that [lucidism] is already in use as the name of a religion, as is [claritism].  [Communicationism] is a pejorative term for the kind of reductionism that attributes conflicts to failures of communication.  I had better grab [readabilism] while I can.

Example 3.1: Split Infinitives


On page 19, Lynch scorches the extreme prescriptivists who make sweeping bogus claims about enhancing clarity for long lists of rules, including inanities like the rule against splitting an infinitive.  This rule was made up by prigs with too much free time who were enamored of Latin, a language with no blank space inside an infinitive where anything might be inserted.

Prescriptivists who claim devotion to clarity while peddling such drivel remind me of pseudoconservatives in US politics, who claim devotion to fiscal responsibility while peddling tax cuts for the same tiny fraction of the population that has been siphoning away wealth from everybody else for decades (while the national debt increases).

Tho the rhetoric of extreme prescriptivists may sound readabilist, the conduct is definitely not readabilist.  Fretting about where else to put an adverb that wants to follow [to] may not be directly harmful, but it siphons away time and energy from serious work on clarity.

Image Notes and Credits


An antenna from the array in a radio telescope is emblematic of the spirit of descriptivism.  Let’s see what is out there (and maybe try to explain it).

The clothes and facial expression of the man making the thumb-down gesture suggest that he is an arrogant jerk. This caricature of prescriptivism is appropriate at this admittedly simplistic stage in the discussion (and at any stage for some extreme prescriptivists).  Nuance will come later.

Back in 2013, I photographed a daylily flower in my yard because I wanted to show it to a flower lover in a nursing home.  I did not want to be at all arty.  I just wanted her to see the flower clearly and completely, w/o puzzling about what I had photographed or about the technologies that let me show her a long-gone flower on my laptop computer.  I wanted the wizardry to be transparent and therefore invisible to the casual eye.

The clear view (thru the photo to see the daylily) is emblematic of the spirit of readabilism.  While it is OK if the reader pauses briefly a few times to admire how well an idea has been conveyed, the reader should never need a shovel to unearth ideas buried by obscure writing.