Category Archives: Punctuation

‘Strophes: straight or curly, smart or dumb?


Ah, the apostrophe.

It’s unquestionably the most misused punctuation mark in the English language — so much so that its errant form has its own nickname: “the greengrocer’s apostrophe” (and that’s from widespread abuse on signage by guilty tradesmen). Orange’s and lemon’s: says who?

But it does have a bit of a bad rap, this aerial word-comma: it’s really not as complicated as the world seems to think it is. Except perhaps when it comes to its typography, not to its role in spelling. Continue reading

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Sep 26)

TGIF. In language and usage news this fortnight: a school that teaches in Manx Gaelic; an emergency poet; costly slips of the tongue; zombie nouns; an ominous auto-correct error; punctuation problems in a pre-K campaign; and can Benedict Cumberbatch not say penguinContinue reading

TGIF : That Gerund Is Funky (Aug 29)


TGIF. In language and usage news this fortnight: grammar rules that can sometimes be broken; a socialite’s guide to elegant expletives; a mispronunciation leads to the renaming of a TV show (if only briefly); the fading art of diagramming sentences; and a childhood spelling error of adult proportions.

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“You shudder at a split infinitive, know when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ and would never confuse ‘less’ with ‘fewer’ – but are these rules always right, elegant or sensible?” In The Guardian, linguist Steven Pinker identifies 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes). Continue reading

In the news … (Aug 22)


MoS2 Template Master

TGIF. In language, grammar and usage news this week: does how we write tell others how smart we are? Do punctuation and grammar matter when we’re flirting digitally? Does the language of a restaurant’s menu tell us how expensive the restaurant is? Plus some spelling challenges presented to U.S. foreign policy reporters; movie titles that make us cringe; and the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks …


How you write can affect how smart others perceive you to be. According to a piece in the Atlantic, “Typing … in the Comic Sans font … could ruin the whole thing: a Princeton researcher found that a hard-to-read font made an author seem dumber, while a clean, simple typeface (Times New Roman, in the study) made him or her seem more intelligent. The same researcher also looked at how using big words (a classic strategy for impressing others) affects perceived intelligence. Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.”

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“The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.” So Roy Peter Clark maintains on Poynter.

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The Huffington Post has identified 18 movies whose titles make every grammar geek cringe. It’s mostly a case of missing hyphens (“40 Year-Old Virgin” has a slightly pedophiliac quality to it) and apostrophes (“Two Weeks Notice” cries out for one); but when it comes to Zach Braff’s new movie, he’s

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“Funky or very informal spelling” is the biggest turnoff for both men and women when it comes to digital flirting, according to the results of a digital flirting rules survey done by Omlet, a chat app. …For women, the second biggest turnoff was the lack of punctuation and grammar.” Delaware’s News Journal has the story.

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The Hill has published an article on the spelling challenges of U.S. foreign policy. Is it ISIS or ISIL?

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Does the language of a restaurant’s menu indicate how expensive it is? Dan Jurafsky has found that it does, as reported in the Atlantic. “Fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf)…. Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like deliciousflaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words.” Does that mean I get a bargain when “steak frites” is on the menu?

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TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (July 25)


An appropriate name for this type of doctor ... (seen on Manhattan’s Upper West Side)

TGIF. Language and usage in the news this week: a missing comma in a tweet; how to pronounce a footballer’s name; Zach Braff’s bad grammar; and a different typ(o) of freedom …

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AP sent the Twittersphere into a frenzy when it left an important comma out of one its tweets:


Yes, we do need commas. Even when we’re tweeting …

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Zach Braff used bad grammar on purpose in the title of his new movie, Wish I Was Here. Continue reading

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (May 30)

hotbreakfastWhy punctuation matters (Somewhere in America, Memorial Day, May 26)

TGIF: Language in the news and on the web this week includes a spelling bee tie, a poetic birthday celebration in Siberia; some words that mean the opposite of themselves; some foreign words that are untranslatable; voting words into the dictionary; a very fashionable pronunciation guide; and a war against euphemism and cliche.

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Two boys won this year’s National Scripps Spelling Bee. As CBS News reported, “Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, New York, and Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Texas, shared the title after a riveting final-round duel in which they nearly exhausted the 25 designated championship words. After they spelled a dozen words correctly in a row, they both were named champions.”

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To mark the 215th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Pushkin on June 6, one of Russia’s greatest poets, the Siberian city Novosibirsk is going to offer free rides on its underground to anyone who can recite at least two verses from any of his Pushkin’s poems. The BBC reports on this poetic event.

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Here’s one of the reasons I love mental_floss: today it gives us 25 words that are their own opposites – otherwise known as contronyms. “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Confused? Yeah … That’s what contranyms can do. (And even contranym doesn’t know how to spell itself, let alone decide what it means.)

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Do you think adorkable or duckface should be legitimate, dictionary-worthy words? Well, if you feel strongly enough either way, you can have your say. According to a report in The Economist, Collins Dictionary is going to add a word to its dictionary based on votes collected through Twitter.

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Is your inability to pronounce designers’ names making your life a misery? If so, Harper’s Bazaar has come to the rescue, publishing an A-Z cheat sheet to help you tackle Moschino, Hermes, Miu Miu, Lanvin and more. You never need be embarrassed again when getting your fashion lingo on …

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Bored Panda brings us 30 untranslatable words from other languages – with some attractive illustrations by Anjana Iyer. This picture captures the meaning of the Japanese word bakku-shan, for example, in a way that the English language simply can’t.


Anjana Iyer, from Bored Panda

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Ending on a serious note this week, Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker wrote movingly about the need to speak clearly and directly when conveying hard truths. Commenting after the recent California shooting, Gopnik commended the father of one of the victims for doing just this. “The war against euphemism and cliché matters not because we can guarantee that eliminating them will help us speak nothing but the truth but, rather, because eliminating them from our language is an act of courage that helps us get just a little closer to the truth. Clear speech takes courage.”

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Style guides

stylebook    BuzzFeed style guide

“Style guide editors are insecure people who show their need to be loved by wanting everyone to speak, spell and write just like them. Or so I read somewhere.” So said David Marsh, who edits The Guardian‘s style guide, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. But I think there might be a tiny grain of truth to his claim …

Even though we English-speakers all share the same language, it’s wonderful to see how many organizations lay down their own strict rules and regulations about how it should be used — and to watch how seriously and authoritatively these laws of the proverbial land are protected, defended, and monitored, even in the most unlikely of places. Like Buzzfeed, the social media giant, which published its style guide last month to the world’s great surprise and amusement. I mean, in what other list of words and expressions would you find these entries rubbing up against each other: “bandmates, Bashar al-Assad, batshit” … “Hoodie,  hook-up (n.), hook up (v.), Hosni Mubarak” … “Mixtape, mmm hmm, M.O., Muammar al-Qaddafi”??

In the U.S., most journalists and media professionals follow the AP Stylebook, whereas non-journalist professionals tend to look to The Chicago Manual of Style for their language guidance. Brits often defer to Oxford (University Press and Dictionaries): that’s where they got their so-called Oxford comma. Scholars and academics consult the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, and a classic and popular style guide for the general public is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, known more colloquially by the names of its authors. The world’s important newspapers each have their own set of rules — and they often disagree with each other and with the authoritative style guides on the most basic principles. For example, the New York Times‘s Manual of Style and Usage differs from the AP Stylebook on at least these two points: the “Grey Lady” uses an apostrophe + s after an s for possessives; AP style doesn’t. The former allows the use of the word over when referring to numbers and amounts: AP doesn’t.

Here are some examples, tips, and words of wisdom from some of the world’s great language guides, as well as some links to style guides that you might be surprised to know even existed …

Style guides on Twitter:

The Guardian’s style guide: “expatriate: often misspelt as ex-patriot, ex-pat, or ex-patriate. But this is ex meaning “out of” (cf export), not ex- as in “former”.

AP Stylebook: “AP Style tip: It’s dis, dissing, dissed.”

Chicago Manual of Style: “Tip: Don’t use an en dash in place of the word “to” if the pair is preceded by “from” (from 1906 to 2013 not from 1906–2013)”

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The Economist‘s style guide
1. Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).

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You can see a copy of The Guardian‘s original style guide, published in 1928; a particularly nice touch is its three sections devoted respectively to Cricket, Football and House Servants …

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The UK government’s digital service style guide: it advises writers to be

  • brisk but not terse
  • incisive (friendliness can lead to a lack of precision and unnecessary words) – but remain human (not a faceless machine)
  • serious but not pompous
  • emotionless – adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like spin

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The U.S. Navy‘s style guide:
“aboard vs. on board – These two terms mean nearly the same thing and in some uses are interchangeable. “Aboard” is the preferred usage. Use “on board” as two words, but hyphenate on board when used as an adjective. “Aboard” means on board, on, in or into a ship.
The crew is aboard the ship.
An on-board medical team uses the on-board computer.
BUT NOT: The Sailor is going on board the ship.
Also, a Sailor is stationed “on,” “at,” “is serving with” or “is assigned to” a ship. A Sailor does not serve “in” a ship.
A ship is “based at” or “homeported at” a specific place. A plane is “stationed at” or is “aboard” a ship; is “deployed with” or is “operating from” a ship. Squadrons are “stationed at” air stations. Air wings are “deployed with” ships”

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The  Solicitor General‘s Style Guide:

“Italicize true Latin terms like a fortioriinfra, and supra. Also italicize e.g. and i.e. But no italics for Anglicized (in other words, familiar) Latin terms like certiorari, per se, pro se, and status quo.”

“Pleaded” or “pled”? Pleaded: “Petitioner pleaded guilty.”

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The Associated Press issued a Winter Games style guide for editors at its member news organizations. “Within stories, lowercase the events: e.g., halfpipe, men’s downhill, women’s slalom, men’s figure skating, women’s luge, two-man bobsled, men’s skeleton.”

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The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, published since 1894, is a guide to the style and form of Federal Government printing. There’s no better guide to the use of the em-dash, in my opinion. (See page 204.)

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GLAAD‘s Media Reference Guide – a transgender glossary of terms for journalists.

Transgender An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgendertranssexualcross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

Transsexual (also Transexual) An older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities. While some transsexual people still prefer to use the term to describe themselves, many transgender people prefer the term transgender to transsexual. Unlike transgendertranssexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. It is best to ask which term an indi­vidual prefers.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Style Guide for the name of the church. “While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use.”


TGIF & WWW (Jan 31)


In language news this week: different ways of pronouncing Hyundai, the ‘ax versus ask’ question, whether commas are really necessary, and more. Plus a new Weird Word of the Week …

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According to the BBC, there are at least three different approved ways of saying Hyundai, depending on whether you’re in South Korea, the UK or US. “The original Korean pronunciation is closest to HYUN-day (-hy as in Hugh, -u as in bun, -ay as in day, stressed syllables shown in upper case). Hyundai UK, including its adverts, has a different way of saying it: high-UUN-digh (-igh as in high, -uu as in book, British anglicisation). … Hyundai’s US operation…uses the pronunciation HUN-day (-h as in hot, -u as in bun, -ay as in day, US anglicisation).”

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The ‘ax’ versus ‘ask’ question: linguist John McWhorter, in a Los Angeles Times op ed piece, asks: “Using ‘ax’ for ‘ask’ dates back to at least Chaucer, so why do we consider it illiterate today? … As a black linguist, I have come to expect that, during question sessions after any public talk I give on language, someone will ask: “What’s with ‘ax’?”

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The BBC’s Mind the Gap blog identifies 10 American speech habits that grate on British ears.

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Slate asks: will we use commas in the future? “In some ways commas are like ketchup and mustard. We’re glad those things exist. They surely make our french fries and hamburgers taste better. But we’d all survive without them.” Is this really so?

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WWW: Weird Word of the Week: 

This week’s word is batterfang: verb: To assail with fists and nails; beat and beclaw. Etymology unknown.