English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

The first exclamation point!

Q: You wrote recently about the increasing use of exclamation points. When did this overused punctuation mark first appear and who was responsible for it?

A: The exclamation point or exclamation mark first appeared in Medieval Latin in the 14th century, but its parentage is somewhat uncertain.

It was originally called a puncto exclamativus (exclamation point) or puncto admirativus (admiration point), according to the British paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes.

In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993), Parkes notes that the Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed in 1360 to have invented the exclamation point:

“ego vero videns quod exclamativa vel admirativa clausula aliter soleat quam continuus vel interrogativus sermo enunciari, consuevi tales clausulas in fine notare per punctum planum et coma eidem puncto lateraliter superpositum.”

(“Indeed, seeing that the exclamatory or admirative clausula was otherwise accustomed to be enunciated in the same way as continuing or interrogative discourse, I acquired the habit of pointing the end of such clausulae by means of a clear punctus, and a coma placed to the side above that same punctus.”)

The translation is by Parkes, who found the citation in “Di un Ars Punctandi Erroneamente Attribuita a Francesco Petrarca” (“On a Punctuation Erroneously Attributed to Petrarch”), a 1909 paper by Franceso Novati for the Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere.

The passage cited by Novati is from “De Ratione Punctandi Secundum Magistrum Iacopum Alpoleium de Urbesalia in Forma Epistole ad Soctorem Quendam Salutatum” (“On the Method of Punctuation According to the Teacher James Alpoleius de Urbasalia in the Form of an Epistle to a Certain Teacher Salutatum”).

The first actual example of an exclamation point in Pause and Effect is from De Nobilitate Legum et Medicinae (“On the Nobility of Laws and Medicine”), a 1399 treatise by that “certain teacher” mentioned above, Coluccio Salutati, a Florentine scholar and statesman. The slanting exclamation point can be seen here, just after the word precor near the end of the second line:

This is the relevant passage in clearer Latin, with our English translation. It begins with the last three words of the first line:

“Ego temet et alios medicos obteso et rogo. repondete michi precor!” (“I am afraid and entreat you and other doctors, answer me, I pray!”).

As for the English terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says the “punctuation mark (!) indicating an exclamation” was originally referred to as a “note of exclamation” or “note of admiration.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation uses both: “A note of Exclamation or Admiration, thus noted!” (from The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail’d, 1656, by the Anglican clergyman John Smith).

As far as we can tell, the term “exclamation point” first appeared in the early 18th century in a work by a British grammarian, classicist, and mathematician:

“! Exclamation-point is us’d in admiring, applauding, bewailing, &c.” (English Grammar Reformd Into a Small Compass and Easy Method for the Readier Learning and Better Understanding, 1737, by Solomon Lowe).

The term “exclamation mark” appeared a century later. The earliest example we’ve seen is from A Third Book for Reading and Spelling With Simple Rules and Instructions for Avoiding Common Errors (1837), by the American educator Samuel Worcester:

“How long do you stop at a comma? – at a semicolon? – at a colon? – at a period? – at an interrogation mark? – at an exclamation mark?”

The OED’s first example for “exclamation mark” is from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by the English lexicographer and grammarian Henry W. Fowler:

“Excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.”

In other words, the overuse of exclamation points that you mention in your question and that we discuss in our 2023 post is apparently nothing new.

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A chorus of exclamation points  

Q: I’m seeing a lot of exclamation points in greetings (“Good Morning!” … “Hello!”) and in expressing gratitude (“Thanks!” or “Thanks!!!”). Is there an overuse of exclamation points? I have a feeling it’s generational, the younger you are the more you use them. Sure would love your opinion.

A: We can’t tell you definitively that the increasing use of exclamation points these days can be attributed to young people. Much of what we read now seems to be overexcited, with exclamation points proliferating on almost every front.

Why the overuse of a punctuation mark that’s supposed to be emphatic to begin with?

It may be that a simple “Hello” in a greeting, followed by a comma or a period, no longer feels enthusiastic enough. Or a simple “Thanks” may not seem grateful enough. So the writer punches it up with an exclamation point—or two or three.

The use of a single exclamation point isn’t wrong in these cases, though it can seem overwrought if no real emphasis is needed.

However, using more than one exclamation point at a time—“Thanks!!!”—is going too far. It’s not good English and it’s entirely out of place in formal usage. (Of course, people don’t always use their very best English, especially in casual use with family and friends.)

In her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (4th ed.), Pat has a few things to say on the subject:

“The exclamation point is like the horn on your car—use it only when you have to. A chorus of exclamation points says two things about your writing: First, you’re not confident that what you’re saying is important, so you need bells and whistles to get attention. Second, you don’t know a really startling idea when you see one.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

Did ‘y’all’ originate in England?

Q: An article in the online magazine Atlas Obscura suggests that “y’all” may have originated in 17th-century England, not the American South of the 19th century. Do you think so too?

A: The regional “y’all” of the American South isn’t quite the same as the earlier contraction used in England, which has roots in Anglo-Saxon times.

The older usage is simply a contracted form of “you all” and means “all of you.” That sense of “you all” has been acceptable English for a thousand years, but has seldom been contracted.

The related regional “y’all” or “you-all,” perhaps the most recognized feature of Southern American speech, is more flexible and may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or Scotch-Irish immigrants.

The story begins in Anglo-Saxon days when Old English writers began giving the pronoun “you” a more specific sense by adding “all.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the subject or object pronoun “you” was “defined or made precise by a qualifying word or phrase.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage, the Old English eow (you) is made more inclusive by adding ealle (all). In the following passage, eow ealle refers to all the people addressed:

“Ic for Cristes lufe forlæt eow ealle, and middaneardlice lustas swa swa meox forseah” (“I for Christ’s love abandoned you all, and despised the lusts of the world as dung”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example of “you all” with its modern spelling: “I longe after you all, from the very hart rote [heart rooted] in Iesus Christ.” From a 1549 translation, by Myles Coverdale and others, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament.

The contracted form “y’all” showed up a century later with the same inclusive sense of “you all.”

Here’s an expanded version of the passage that was cited in “The Origins of ‘Y’All’ May Not Be in the American South,” a Jan. 9, 2023, article in Atlas Obscura by David B. Parker, a professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Georgia:

The captiue men of strength I gaue to you,
The weaker sold; and this y’all know is true,
The free-borne women ransom’d, or set free
For pittie sake, the seruile sort had yee.

From The Faire Æthiopian, William Lisle’s 1631 translation of Αἰθιοπικά (Aethiopica, Ethiopian Story), an ancient Greek romance by Heliodorus of Emesa.

The article originally appeared on Nov. 29, 2022, on The Conversation, a website that publishes the work of academic researchers, and had a less etymologically startling headline: “ ‘Y’all,’ that most Southern of Southernisms, is going mainstream–and it’s about time.”

It’s clear from our expanded excerpt that Lisle contracted “you all” to maintain the iambic pentameter (a line of five metrical feet, each with one unstressed and one stressed syllable). He also contracted the “-ed” ending of “ransomed,” which was formerly pronounced as a separate syllable.

Here’s a conversational example we’ve found in The Goblin, a comedy by Sir John Suckling, first performed in 1638 and published in 1646:

“A race of criples are y’all, Iffue [if you] of Snailes, he could not else have escaped us?”

We’ve seen other early examples of “y’all” used to mean “all of you,” but the contraction was relatively rare in the past.

As for the colloquial Southern usage, the Dictionary of American Regional English describes “you-all” or “y’all” as “a second person pl pron, often including in its scope others known or assumed to be associated with the person or persons addressed.”

For example, a Southerner might say “How are you-all (or y’all)?” in asking a couple, or even a single person, about themselves as well as their family—a wider usage than the earlier “all of you” sense in speaking to a group of people.

(DARE, the OED, and standard dictionaries use the hyphenated “you-all” for the uncontracted Southern regionalism.)

The earliest example of this colloquial “you-all” in DARE is from an 1816 letter written by a New England clergyman on a trip to Virginia:

“Children learn from the slaves some odd phrases; as … will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?” (Letters From the South and West, 1824, by Henry Cogswell Knight).

The first DARE citation for the contracted “y’all” is from a fictional account of life in the rough-and-tumble days of the Republic of Texas. The speaker here is addressing two people: “Ar y’all alive and kickin’ in thar?” (The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, 1856, by Alfred W. Arrington).

And here’s a DARE citation for the singular usage, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education (March 1869):

“The Tennessee lady says … to a friend, as she bids her good-bye … ‘Won’t you all come and see me?’ or, on meeting her, ‘How do you all do?’ meaning only the one addressed.”

DARE notes that “you-all” or “y’all” is also sometimes used attributively, or adjectivally, as in this citation from a letter written during the Civil War:

“I wish this war would end so you all soldiers could get home one more time” (Corpus of American Civil War Letters, 2007, by Michael B. Montgomery and Michael Ellis).

And the regional dictionary says the usage, especially the contraction, is sometimes “used with a preceding qualifier, as all, any, both, some, without of,” as in this example:

“All y’all jes stand back” (from “Ole ’Stracted,” a short story by Thomas Nelson Page, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1886).

Linguists have suggested that the Southern usage may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or immigrants from Scotland or Ireland.

In “Y’ALL in American English: From Black to White, From Phrase to Pronoun,” John M. Lipski suggests the influence of Black English on the usage (in the journal English World-Wide, January 1993).

And in “The Etymology of Y’all,” Michael Montgomery suggests the influence of the Scotch-Irish phrase “ye aw” (in Old English and New, 1992, edited by Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringer).

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English English language Expression Language Pronunciation Punctuation Usage

Speaking of grandparents …

Q: If I say “grandparents” or “grandparents’ ” or “grandparent’s,” it sounds the same but can mean different things. How do I pronounce them so people will know which I mean. Is it wrong to add an extra syllable like “iz”?

A: These words are all pronounced exactly the same: “grandparents” (plural), “grandparent’s” (singular possessive), and “grandparents’ ” (plural possessive). The listener has to judge from the context which form you’re using.

This is true not just of “grandparent” but of any regular noun whose singular form does not end in a sibilant—a hissing, shushing, or buzzing sound, like s, sh, ch, x, or z. (A regular noun forms its plural in the usual way, by adding “s” or “es.”)

In pronouncing the plural and possessive forms, only an “s” sound is added to the singular, not an extra syllable. These are the four forms, how they’re spelled, and how they’re pronounced:

  • “grandparent”—singular: “She’s my only surviving grandparent.”
  • “grandparents”—plural, no added syllable: “I once had four grandparents.”
  • “grandparent’s”—singular possessive, no added syllable: “My one surviving grandparent’s health is good.”
  • “grandparents’ ”—plural possessive, no added syllable: “I have all four grandparents’ family trees.”

The same rule holds even if the noun is a proper name, like “Bob.”

  • “Bob”—singular: “Bob is my oldest friend.”
  • “Bobs”—plural, no added syllable: “I know two other Bobs.”
  • “Bob’s”—singular possessive, no added syllable: “My friend Bob’s middle name is James.”
  • “Bobs’ ”—plural possessive, no added syllable: “All three Bobs’ middle names are different.”

The only nouns that add an extra syllable in their plural and possessive forms are those that end in a sibilant. We’ll illustrate with the proper noun “Jones” and the common noun “church.”

  • singulars: “Nathan Jones is the pastor of our church.”
  • plurals, add a syllable: “The many Joneses in our town attend several different churches.”
  • singular possessives, add a syllable: “Pastor Jones’s car has its own spot in his church’s parking lot.”
  • plural possessives, add a syllable: “All the other Joneses’ cars are lucky to find spots in their churches’ parking lots.”

The syllable that’s added when those plurals and possessives are spoken sounds like ez. The apostrophe at the end of the plural possessives isn’t sounded.

We’ve published several blog posts about forming the plurals and possessives of nouns, including one in 2011 about names like “Chris.”

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English English language Etymology Language Linguistics Punctuation Usage Writing

Who invented the question mark?

Q: It’s Lent Madness time again, which reminds me of a saint contest a few years ago that pitted two deacons against each other: Alcuin of York vs. Ephrem of Edessa. I voted for Alcuin because he was identified as the inventor of the question mark (among more spiritual accomplishments). Are you familiar with him?

A: Alcuin, Charlemagne’s éminence grise, was quite a guy—scholar, poet, teacher, and cleric—but he didn’t invent what we now know as the question mark. More to the point, we’ve seen no evidence that he created its medieval ancestor, the punctus interrogativus, which didn’t look or act much like the modern question mark.

The punctus interrogativus, a squiggle rising diagonally from left to right above a point, appeared in the late eighth century in Carolingian miniscule, the Latin script used when Charlemagne (747-814) ruled much of Europe. Alcuin (735-804) oversaw Charlemagne’s palace school and scriptorium at Aachen in Francia from 782 to 793.

The evidence we’ve found indicates that Godescalc, a poet, scribe, and illuminator, was the first person to use the punctus interrogativus at the scriptorium, or copying room, in Aachen. Godescalc used it in producing an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Charlemagne in 781, the year before Alcuin arrived in Aachen.

The usage appeared in the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary (781-83), the first known manuscript produced at the scriptorium at Aachen. The manuscript is named after Godescalc because he refers to himself as the author in a poem at the end.

We found several examples of the punctus interrogativus in the first dozen or so pages of the manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Ms. NAL 1203), suggesting that Godescalc began using them in 781—before Alcuin’s arrival. In this example from folio 6v, the punctus interrogativus can be seen on the third line.

Sedsic eum volo manere donec venia[m] quid ad te?

(But so I want him to stay until I come, what is it to you?
Gospel of John, 21:22.)

(We’ll have more to say later about Godescalc’s symbolic use of gold letters on purple parchment.)

We’ve seen reports of possible earlier sightings of the punctus interrogativus in manuscripts from the scriptorium at Corbie Abbey to the southwest of Aachen, but we haven’t found any Corbie examples produced before the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary.

As the paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes explains in Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (1993), the punctus interrogativus “seems to have spread rapidly from the court of Charlemagne to other centres,” reaching Corbie “at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century.”

The punctus interrogativus was originally used in liturgical writing to tell reciters and singers when to raise their voices inquiringly and pause at the end of a question, according to paleographers, specialists in ancient writing.

Parkes says the punctus interrogativus was one of several symbols developed in the second half of the eighth century to fill the “need for adequate punctuation in liturgical texts.” Such texts were designed to be spoken or sung. A lectionary, like Godescalc’s, is a collection of liturgical readings.

The new system of symbols, called positurae, used a punctus versus to signal a pause at the end of a sententia, a punctus elevatus to signal an interior pause in a sententia, and a punctus interrogativus to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause at the end of an interrogatio.

(The punctus versus looked somewhat like a modern semicolon, while the punctus elevatus looked a bit like an upside-down semicolon.)

“In western manuscripts the positurae fulfilled the need for more accurate indication of the nature of the pauses required to elucidate the sense of the text when it was intoned or sung in the liturgy,” Parkes says in Pause and Effect.

The paleographer Albert Derolez has noted that the punctus interrogativus originated “in a neume or sign of musical notation, which indicated that the voice had to rise at the end of the sentence” (The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books, 2003).

And the musical historian Leo Treitler points out in With Voice and Pen (2007) that the upward stroke of the punctus interrogativus corresponds “to the inflection of the voice in questions.”

Although Alcuin wrote about the need for proper punctuation in copying ancient manuscripts, we haven’t found any writing of his that either mentions or uses the punctus interrogativus. He doesn’t use it, for example, in the interrogative passages we’ve read from Quaestiones in Genesim, a series of questions and answers about Genesis.

Alcuin favored a two-fold system of punctuation with distinctiones to mark pauses at the end of sententiis and subdistinctiones to mark interior pauses. In a letter written to Charlemagne in 799, Alcuin complained that scribes hadn’t been using them:

“punctorum vero distinctiones vel subdistinctiones licet ornatum faciant pulcherrimum in sententiis, tamen usus illorum propter rusticitatem paene recessit a scriptoribus” (“points for distinctions and subdistinctions make the most beautiful sentences, but their use has almost disappeared because of the rusticity of scribes”).

In fact, those “rustic” scribes began adding punctuation marks on their own initiative to Alcuin’s two-part system. Godescalc, as we’ve said, was apparently the first person at the Aachen scriptorium to use the punctus interrogativus.

In a poem at the end of the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, he says Charlemagne commissioned the manuscript in the fall of 781.

Septenis cum aperit felix bis fascibus annum
Hoc opus eximium franchorum scribere Carlus
Rex plus egregia hildgarda cum conjuge iussit.

(As he happily opened the 14th year of his reign [Oct. 9, 781], King Charles of the Franks, with his wife Hildegard, commissioned the writing of this exceptional work.)

And in this excerpt from the poem, Godescalc mentions himself as the creator of the illuminated manuscript and suggests that he began working on it six months before Charlemagne commissioned it. Godescalc’s name appears at the end of the second line.

Ultimus hoc famulus studuit complere godescalc
Tempore vernali transcensis alpibus ipse.
Urbem romuleam voluit quo visere consul.

(The humblest servant Godescalc was diligently at work on this opus in the springtime, when the Consul himself [Charlemagne], having crossed the Alps, wished to visit the city of Romulus. [Charlemagne visited Rome in April 781.])

In 2011, a Cambridge manuscript specialist, James F. Coakley, reported finding ancient marks of interrogation in fifth-century biblical manuscripts written in Syriac, a Middle Eastern language. But paleographers believe that the punctus interrogativus, not the Syriac symbol, is the ancestor of our question mark.

The modern question mark, a grammatical device indicating the end of an interrogative sentence, evolved over hundreds of years from the Carolingian punctuation mark, which originated, as we’ve said, as a rhetorical device in liturgical writing to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause.

The earliest example we’ve seen for a punctuation mark that looks and acts like the modern question mark is from a book printed in Latin in the late 15th century by Aldus Manutius, an Italian scholar, educator, and publisher.

This image is from Pietro Bembo’s De Ætna, a Latin account of his ascent of Mount Etna with his father, Bernardo. The work, written as a dialogue between Bembus Pater (B. P.) and Bembus Filius (B. F.), was published in February 1496 by Manutius’s Aldine Press. The question mark ends the last sentence.

[B. F.] Ego uero existimabam pater errauisse me sic etiam nimis diu. B. P. Non est ita: sed, ne nunc tandem erremus; perge de ignibus, ut proposuisti: uerum autem, quid tu haeres?

([B. F.] I thought my father was wrong for too long. B. P. It is not so: but let us not stray from the point; go on [continue telling me] about fire, as you intended, but what is keeping you?)

Getting back to  Godescalc, we’ll end with the opening lines of his poem, which describe the symbolism of the colors he uses in producing the manuscript.

Aurea purpureis pinguntur grammata scedis
Regna poli roseo pate sanguine facta tonantis.
Fulgida stelligeri promunt et gaudia caeli
Eloquiumque dei digno fulgore choruscans.
Splendida perpetuae promittit praemia vitae.

(Gold letters painted on purple pages reveal in rose-red blood the celestial kingdom and the joys of heaven. And the eloquence of God, shining brightly, promises the splendid reward of eternal life.)

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Punctuation Usage Writing

An ‘or’ … or more?

Q: I find the use of “or” confusing before the last item in a complicated list. For instance, “when shareholders have different consumption preferences, information, tax bases, or investment horizons.” Readers expect “and,” but have to stop and rethink the passage when they get to “or.” Why not put another “or” earlier in the series to help them?

A: We don’t find that passage confusing, but if we did we wouldn’t add an “or” to the series. An extra “or” would make the writing bumpy and might in fact confuse readers.

If you feel that series or another is hard to read, it would be better to add “or” before each item and delete the commas: “when shareholders have different consumption preferences or information or tax bases or investment horizons.”

If a writer (or speaker) believes that clarity requires repetition of the conjunction before each item in a series, then it should be repeated. The writer’s ear should indicate whether that would be helpful.

But otherwise the repetition isn’t required. Commas can be used instead. The only requirement is that a conjunction (“and” or “or”) be used before the final item.

Finally, as we’ve written many times on the blog, we believe a final comma before the conjunction is helpful.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

From A to &, et cetera

Q: What is the story of “&” and why is it replacing “and”?

A: The “&” character, or ampersand, is seen a lot these days in texting, email, and online writing, but the use of a special character for “and” isn’t a new phenomenon. English writers have been doing this since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage borrowed from the ancient Romans.

In his book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (2013), Keith Houston writes that the Romans had two special characters for representing et, the Latin word for “and.” They used either ⁊, a symbol in a shorthand system known as notae Tironianae, or the ancestor of the ampersand, a symbol combining the e and t of et.

The Tironian system is said to have been developed by Tiro, a slave and secretary of the Roman statesman and scholar Cicero in the first century BC. After being freed, Tiro adopted Cicero’s praenomen and nomen, and called himself Marcus Tullius Tiro.

Houston says the earliest known recorded version of the ampersand was an et ligature, or compound character, scrawled on a wall in Pompeii by an unknown graffiti artist and preserved under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

He cites the research of Jan Tschichold, author of Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen (1953), which was translated from German to English in 1957 as The Ampersand: Its Origin and Development. An illustration that Houston based on Tschichold’s work shows the evolution of the ampersand over the years.

(Image #1 is from Pompeii, while the modern-looking #13 is from the Merovingian Latin of the eighth century.)

In Shady Characters, Houston describes how the ampersand competed with the Tironian ⁊ in the Middle Ages. “From its ignoble beginnings a century after Tiro’s scholarly et, the ampersand assumed its now-familiar shape with remarkable speed even as its rival remained immutable,” he writes.

“Whatever its origins, the scrappy ampersand would go on to usurp the Tironian et in a quite definitive manner,” he says, adding, “Tiro’s et showed the way but the ampersand was the real destination.”

Today, Houston writes, the Tironian character “survives in the wild only in Irish Gaelic, where it serves as an ‘and’ sign on old mailboxes and modern road signs,” while the ampersand “ultimately earned a permanent place in type cases and on keyboards.” (We added the links.)

Although the ampersand was common in medieval Latin manuscripts, including works written in Latin by Anglo-Saxon scholars, it took quite a while for the character to replace the Tironian et in English. In most of the Old English and Middle English manuscripts we’ve examined, the Tironian symbol is the usual short form for the various early versions of “and” (end, ond, ænd, ande, and so on).

A good example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. The anonymous author uses ond for “and” only a few times, but the Tironian symbol appears scores of times. However, modern transcriptions of the Old English in Beowulf often replace the “⁊” with ond or “&.” When the Tironian character does appear, it’s often written as the numeral “7.”

Here are the last few lines of the poem with the Tironian characters (or notes) intact: “cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyning, / manna mildust ⁊ monðwærust / eodum liðost, ⁊ lofgeornost” (“Of all the world’s kings, they said, / he was the kindest and the gentlest of men, / the most gracious to his people and the most worthy of fame”).

Although you can find dozens of ampersands in transcriptions of Old English and Middle English manuscripts, an analysis of the original documents shows that most of the “&” characters were originally Tironian notes.

Dictionaries routinely transcribe the Tironian note as an ampersand in their citations from Old and Middle English. As the Oxford English Dictionary, the most influential and comprehensive etymological dictionary, says in an explanatory note, “In this dictionary the Old and Middle English Tironian note is usually printed as &.”

However, the ampersand does show up at times in early English. For example, it’s included in an Anglo-Saxon alphabet dating from the late 10th or early 11th century. A scribe added the alphabet to an early 9th-century copy of a Latin letter by the scholar, cleric, and poet Alcuin of York (British Library, Harley 208, fol. 87v).

Harley abc

The alphabet is in the upper margin of the image. It includes the 23 letters of the classical Latin alphabet (with a backward “b”) followed by the ampersand, the Tironian et, and four Anglo-Saxon runes: the wynn (ᚹ), the thorn (þ), the aesc (ᚫ), and an odd-looking eth (ð) that resembles a “y.” At the end of the alphabet, the scribe added the first words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (pater noster). The British Library’s digital viewer lets readers examine the image in more detail.

At the end of Harley 208, which includes copies of 91 letters by Alcuin and one by Charlemagne, the scribe wrote a line in Old English, “hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (“Listen, for I have heard many old sagas”), which is reminiscent of line 869 in Beowulf: “eal fela eald gesegena” (“all the many old sagas”). Is the scribe suggesting that the letters are ancient tales?

A similar alphabet appears in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion, or handbook (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on such subjects as astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, and rhetoric. However, the alphabet in the Enchiridion (Ashmole Ms. 328, Bodleian Library, Oxford), differs somewhat from the one above—the æsc rune is replaced by an ae ligature at the end.

We’ve seen several other Old English alphabets arranged in similar order. In most of them, an ampersand follows the letter “z.”  Fred C. Robinson, a Yale philologist and Old English scholar, has said the “earliest of the abecedaria is probably” the one in Harley 208 (“Syntactical Glosses in Latin Manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon Provenance,” published in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, July 1973). An “abecedarium” (plural “abecedaria”) is an alphabet written in order.

We haven’t seen any examples of the ampersand used in Old English other than in alphabets. The earliest examples we’ve found for the ampersand in actual text are in Middle English. Here’s an example from The Knight’s Tale of the Hengwrt Chaucer, circa 1400, one of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales:

The middle line in the image reads: “hir mercy & hir grace” (“her mercy & her grace”). Here’s an expanded version of the passage: “and but i have hir mercy & hir grace, / that i may seen hire atte leeste weye / i nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye” (“And unless I have her mercy & her grace, / So I can at least see her some way, / I am as good as dead; there is no more to say”).

Middle English writers also used the ampersand in the term “&c,” short for “et cetera.” In a 1418 will, for example, “&c” was used to avoid repeating a name: “quirtayns [curtains] of worsted … in warde of Anneys Elyngton, and … a gowne of grene frese, in ward, &c” (from The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, edited by Frederick James Furnivall, 1882).

Although literary writers didn’t ordinarily use a symbol for “and” in early Modern English, the ampersand showed up every once in a while. For example, the character slipped into this passage from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Edmund Spenser’s first major poem: “The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare, / With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted.”

And in the 1603 First Quarto of Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet telling Horatio, “O the King doth wake to night, & takes his rouse [a full cup of wine, beer, etc.].” But “and” replaces the ampersand, and the “O” disappears, in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1623).

As for today, we see nothing wrong with using an ampersand in casual writing (we often use “Pat & Stewart” to sign our emails), but we’d recommend “and” for formal writing and noteworthy informal writing.

Nevertheless, formal use of the ampersand is common today in company names, such as AT&T, Marks & Spencer, and Ben & Jerry’s. And some authors, notably H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), have used them regularly in formal writing.

Finally, we should mention that the term “ampersand” is relatively new. Although the “&” character dates back to classical times, the noun “ampersand” didn’t show up in writing until the 18th century.

The earliest OED example for “ampersand” with its modern spelling is from a travel book written in the late 18th century. Here’s an expanded version:

“At length, having tried all the historians from great A, to ampersand, he perceives there is no escaping from the puzzle, but by selecting his own facts, forming his own conclusions, and putting a little trust in his own reason and judgment” (from Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia, 1795, by S. J. Pratt).

The expression “from A to ampersand” (meaning from the beginning to the end, or in every particular) is an old way of saying “from A to Z.” It was especially popular in the 19th century.

As we’ve noted, the ampersand followed the letter “z” in some old abecedaria, a practice going back to Anglo-Saxon days. And when children were taught that alphabet in the late Middle Ages, they would recite the letters from “A” to “&.”

In Promptorium Parvolorum (“Storehouse for Children”), a Middle English-to-Latin dictionary written around 1440, English letters that are words by themselves, including the ampersand, are treated specially in reciting the alphabet, according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (1991), edited by Frederick C. Mish.

As Mish explains, when a single letter formed a word or syllable—like “I” (the personal pronoun) or the first “i” in “iris”—it was recited as “I per se, I.”  In other words, “I by itself, I.”

“The per se spellings were used especially for the letters that were themselves words,” Mish writes. “Because the alphabet was augmented by the sign &, which followed z, there were four of these: A per se, A; I per se, I; O per se, O, and & per se, and.”

Since he “&” character was spoken as “and,” children reciting the alphabet would refer to it as “and per se, and.” That expression, Mish says, became “in slightly altered and contracted form, the standard name for the character &.” In other words, “ampersand” originated as a corruption of “and per se, and.”

The two earliest citations for “ampersand” in the OED spell it “ampuse and” (1777) and “appersiand” (1785). Various other spellings continued to appear in the 1800s—“ampus-and” (1859), “Amperzand” (1869)—before the modern version became established.

We’ll end with “The Ampersand Sonnet,” the calligrapher A. J. Fairbank’s take on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66. In this version of the sonnet, each “and” in Shakespeare’s original is replaced by a different style of ampersand:

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How to say ‘satiety’

Q: We grew up pronouncing “satiety” as SAY-she-uh-tee, which is very close to the French it comes from. The influence of Spanish is forcing the pronunciation to suh-TIE-uh-tee. I like the way we learned it as children.

A: We haven’t seen any evidence that Spanish is responsible for the usual modern pronunciation of “satiety” (suh-TIE-uh-tee) or that French inspired the less common pronunciation (SAY-she-uh-tee). In fact, the Spanish version of the word (saciedad) doesn’t have a “t” sound, and the French version (satiété) doesn’t have an “sh” sound.

English has had quite a few different spellings and pronunciations of “satiety” (the state of being filled with food, drink, etc.) since it adopted the word from Latin and Middle French in the 16th century. In fact, the Latin and Middle French versions of the term were also spelled and pronounced in different ways.

In classical Latin, the term was satietas (sufficiency, abundance), but in post-classical Latin it was sacietas as well as satietas, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Middle French, it was satieté and sacieté. And in Anglo-Norman, which greatly influenced Middle English, it was sacieté and sazietet. The “c” in these terms was pronounced like “s” before the vowel “i.”

When “satiety” showed up in the early modern English writing in the 1500s, the second syllable could begin with either a “t” or a “c.” Here are some of the 16th-century spellings cited in the OED: “saciete,” “sacietee,” “sacietye,” “satietie,” and “satiety.” Before spelling was formalized in modern English, words tended to be spelled as they were pronounced.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, “satiety” was usually pronounced suh-SIGH-uh-tee in the late 18th century, according to the lexicographer John Walker, who nevertheless thought it should be pronounced suh-TIE-uh-tee.

In A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), Walker says “the second syllable has been grossly mistaken by the generality of speakers” and pronounced like “the first of si-lence, as if written sa-si-e-ty.” So ”satiety” sounded at the time much like “society.”

The pronunciation of “satiety,” according to Walker, was “almost universally confounded with an apparently similar, but really different, assemblage of accent, vowels, and consonants” in “satiate” (pronounced SAY-she-ate) and similar words.

In other words, Walker believed that the pronunciation of “satiate” was influencing that of “satiety.” And as we say in a 2010 post, we suspect that this influence inspired the SAY-she-uh-tee pronunciation of “satiety.”

In modern English, the OED notes, the letter “t” has an “sh” sound “in the combinations -tion, -tious, -tial, -tia, -tian, -tience, -tient, after a vowel or any consonant except s.”  (The words “nation,” “militia,” and “patience” are good examples.) But “t” is not usually pronounced “sh” in the combination “-tie” (as in “satiety”).

Eight of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult offer only one pronunciation for “satiety,” either suh-TIE-i-tee or suh-TIE-uh-tee. The remaining two, Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged, add SAY-she-uh-tee as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often.”

Our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (a predecessor of the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged), includes only one pronunciation, suh-TIE-eh-tee, which suggests that SAY-she-uh-tee showed up in the last six decades.

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The singularity of Mother’s Day

[Note: In recognition of Mother’s Day, we’re republishing a post that originally appeared on May 10, 2013.]

Q: Which is correct, Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day? I have a customer who wants to use the name as an imprint on promotional gifts for the holiday. I think of Mother’s Day as singular possessive, my mother, but in this case is it correct?

A: We also think it’s Mother’s Day, and so do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult—five American and five British.

More to the point, Anna Jarvis, the woman primarily responsible for the modern holiday honoring mothers, thought so as well, according to a dissertation by the historian Katharine Antolini.

In “Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother’s Day,” Antolini says Jarvis wanted the singular possessive to emphasize that the day was to honor one’s own mother, not mothers in general.

As for common usage, “Mother’s Day” is the overwhelming favorite, according to our searches of online databases, though you’ll find many examples of the plural-possessive “Mothers’ Day” and the apostrophe-free “Mothers Day.”

Although the modern holiday originated in the US in the early 20th century, people have been celebrating mothers in one way or another since ancient times.

The specific term “Mother’s Day,” however, didn’t show up in print until the 19th century. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the June 3, 1874, issue of the New York Times:

“ ‘Mother’s Day,’ which was inaugurated in this City on the 2d of June, 1872, by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, was celebrated last night at Plimpton Hall by a mother’s [sic] peace meeting.” (We’ve gone to the Times archive to expand on the citation.)

The OED points out that Howe saw Mother’s Day not as a day to honor mothers (the modern sense) but as a “day on which mothers met to advocate peace, as by the dissolution of a standing army, etc.”

Howe, an abolitionist and social activist, is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (The music is from the song “John Brown’s Body.”)

Like Howe, Anna Jarvis’s mother—Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis—was an activist who organized women for various social causes.

After the death of her mother on May 9, 1905, Anna Jarvis organized several “Mother’s Day” services and began a campaign, with the help of the Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker, to make Mother’s Day a national holiday.

The first two services—on May 12, 1907, and May 10, 1908—were held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Jarvis’s mother had taught Sunday school.

The national campaign got off to a bumpy start. On May 9, 1908, Senator Elmer Burkett, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a resolution to recognize the following day as Mother’s Day.

But as an article in the May 10, 1908, issue of the New York Times reports, the resolution inspired “a number of witty sallies” in the Senate and was referred to the Judiciary Committee where “it will be permitted to sleep peacefully.”

Interestingly, Burkett’s resolution used the plural possessive, according to an OED citation from the Congressional Record for May 9, 1908: “Resolved, That Sunday, May 10, 1908, be recognized as Mothers’ Day.”

Jarvis pressed ahead with her Mother’s Day campaign, writing letters and sending pamphlets to public officials. Two years after the Burkett resolution was put to rest, she had her first victory.

In 1910, William Glasscock, the Governor of West Virginia, proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and soon the holiday spread to other states.

In 1912, Jarvis trademarked the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May,” and established the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the holiday around the world.

On May 8, 1914, the US Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day.

The American holiday inspired Mother’s Day observances around the world, but the date of the celebration varied from country to country.

In Britain, for example, where the holiday is also called Mothering Sunday (a name with roots in a religious ceremony dating back to the 16th century), it’s celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

A final note: Anna Jarvis, who was childless, began campaigning in the 1920s against the commercialization of Mother’s Day. She denounced confectioners, florists, and other commercial interests that she accused of gouging the public.

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When walk-ins walk in

Q: I am writing a standard operating procedure for my company (hotels) that describes, among other things, how employees should deal with “walk ins”— guests who “walk in” without a reservation. Are terms like “check in,” “check out,” and “walk in” hyphenated?

A: When compounds like those are used as verbs, they’re generally two separate, unhyphenated words. But as adjectives and nouns, they’re either hyphenated or a single word.

Here’s our advice on how to write those terms, based on preferences given in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. (Some dictionaries may follow the preferred spellings with lesser-used variants.)

Verbs (no hyphens):  “We’ll check in Friday and check out Monday, assuming they’ll let us walk in.”

Adjectives (hyphenated or one word): “The check-in clerk says checkout time is at noon, and they accept walk-in customers.”

Nouns (hyphenated or one word): “Our check-in was easy and so was the checkout, even though we were walk-ins.”

The verbs involved here are phrasal verbs, which are usually defined as a verb plus an adverb. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) gives “settle down,” “act up,” and “phase out” as examples. “A phrasal verb is not hyphenated,” the manual says, “even though its equivalent noun or adjective might be.”

The book illustrates this variability with the phrasal verbs “flare up” and “burn out.” Their equivalent adjectives and nouns are “flare-up” (hyphenated) and “burnout” (unhyphenated).

But as we wrote in 2009, the conventions of hyphenation change over time, and the tendency is for hyphens to disappear from familiar compounds. In 2019, we described the evolution of the verb “check out” as well as the noun and adjective “checkout.”

Many other compounds follow the “check out”/“checkout” pattern—the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are one. These include “break down,” “hold up,” “crack down,” “hand out,” “build up,” “back up,” “lay off,” “send off,” “send up” (to mock), and usually “close out.”

Many other compounds, for now at any rate, still follow the “check in”/“check-in” pattern—that is, the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are hyphenated. Some examples are “drop in,” “drive in,” “cave in,” “drop off,” “carry on,” “die off,” and usually “clean up.”

If you come across a compound that we haven’t mentioned, how can you tell whether the adjective and noun forms are hyphenated or one word? The easiest way is to check out the compound in an up-to-date dictionary.

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An etymological valentine

(Note: In observance of Valentine’s Day, we’re repeating a post that originally appeared on Feb. 23, 2012.)

Q: I wished a colleague happy Valentine’s Day earlier in the month and was told there is no apostrophe plus “s” in the name of the holiday. There is, isn’t there?

A: Yes, there is an apostrophe + “s” in “Valentine’s Day.” The longer form of the name for the holiday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”

And in case you’re wondering, the word “Valentine’s” in the name of the holiday is a possessive proper noun, while the word “valentines” (for the cards we get on Feb. 14) is a plural common noun.

“Valentine’s Day” has the possessive apostrophe because it’s a saint’s day. In Latin, Valentinus was the name of two early Italian saints commemorated on Feb. 14.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the phrase “Valentine’s Day” was first recorded in about 1381 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English poem The Parlement of Foules:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (In Chaucer’s time, possessive apostrophes were not used.)

Chaucer’s lines would be translated this way in modern English: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate.” (The title means a parliament or assembly of fowls—that is, birds.)

As a common noun, “valentine” was first used to mean a lover, sweetheart, or special friend. This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in 1477, according to OED citations.

In February of that year, a young woman named Margery Brews wrote two love letters to her husband-to-be, John Paston, calling him “Voluntyn” (Valentine).

As rendered into modern English, one of the letters begins “Right reverend and well-beloved Valentine” and ends “By your Valentine.” (We’re quoting from The Paston Letters, edited by Norman Davis, 1963.)

In the mid-1500s, the OED says, the noun “valentine” was first used to mean “a folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, adds Oxford, that “valentine” came to have its modern meaning: “a written or printed letter or missive, a card of dainty design with verses or other words, esp. of an amorous or sentimental nature, sent on St. Valentine’s day.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Mary Russell Mitford’s book Our Village (1824), a collection of sketches: “A fine sheet of flourishing writing, something between a valentine and a sampler.”

This later example is from Albert R. Smith’s The Adventures of Mr. Ledbury and his Friend Jack Johnson (1844): “He had that morning received … a valentine, in a lady’s hand-writing, and perfectly anonymous.”

What could be more intriguing than that?

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How possessive are you?

Q: I am curious why some of us were taught to use an apostrophe plus “s” to make a possessive of a singular proper noun ending in “s,” “x,” or “z,” while others were taught to use just an apostrophe.

A: Many people don’t realize that the conventions of punctuation are largely matters of style, and they’re much more fluid than the conventions of grammar. As we noted in a 2011 post, the customs of punctuation sometimes shift.

We wrote that an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns for at least three centuries, and that this has been true whether or not the nouns ended in a sibilant like “s,” “x,” or “z.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say:

“The apostrophe before s became regulated as an indication of the singular possessive case towards the end of the 17c., and the apostrophe after s was first recorded as an indication of the plural possessive case towards the end of the 18c.”

Fowler’s says these “basic patterns” apply to proper names ending in “s.” So add an apostrophe plus “s” to a  singular name, Butterfield writes, “whenever you would tend to pronounce the possessive form of the name with an extra iz sound, e.g. Charles’s brother, St James’s Square, Thomas’s niece, Zacharias’s car.”

However, he notes that “gross disturbances of these basic patterns have occurred in written and printed work” since then, and “further disturbances may be expected in the 21c.”

In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon to be taught to drop the possessive “s” and use only an apostrophe after words ending in a sibilant (as in “Charles’ brother”). Although this isn’t a common practice today, it’s still sometimes seen in published writing.

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says some writers and publishers still prefer a system “of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s.” However, the manual says that this system is “not recommended” because it “disregards pronunciation.”

This is what the Chicago Manual advocates: “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. … The general rule stated at [that paragraph] extends to the possessives of proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z.”

The examples given in the Chicago Manual include “Kansas’s legislature,” “Marx’s theories,” “Berlioz’s works,” “Borges’s library,” and “Dickens’s novels.”

To show just how changeable these customs can be, we wrote a post in 2018 on shifts in possessive forms of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s,” like “Moses” and “Euripedes.”

The traditional custom had been to add just an apostrophe, but in current practice the additional “s” is optional, depending on whether or not it’s pronounced: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

As Pat writes in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, “Let your pronunciation choose for you. If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final s (Moses’s). If you don’t pronounce that s (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.”

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Punctuating a series of questions

Q: I saw this sentence in an article about a court ruling on the Affordable Care Act: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?—may be in the cards.” Is it kosher to have two question marks within dashes?

A: Yes, a series of questions in the middle of a sentence, surrounded by dashes or parentheses, is punctuated in just that way. Each question begins with a lowercase letter and ends with a question mark, according to language  guides.

But if the series is at the end, and if the questions are complete clauses, you have a choice.

You can introduce the series with a dash and use lowercase letters: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Or you can introduce the series with a colon and capitalize each question, which is a good idea if the individual questions are longer: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards: To whom does it apply? Can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Questions in a series aren’t always complete clauses; they can be phrases or single words.

Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (4th ed.) cites this sentence: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?” And since the sentence as a whole is a question, you can use commas in the series and a question mark at the end: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer, toothbrush, swimsuit?”

If we rephrased the sentence to put the questions in the middle, it would be punctuated like this: “Tina wondered what she’d have to buy—new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?—if her luggage didn’t turn up.”

The Modern Language Association, which publishes a stylebook that’s widely used by academic and scholarly writers, has this advice on its website: “Use lowercase letters to begin questions incorporated in series in a sentence.”

The MLA gives this example: “Should I punctuate a question contained in a sentence with a comma? with a colon? with a dash?” And again, we could rephrase it and put the questions in the middle: “He wondered what to use—a comma? a colon? a dash?—to punctuate a question in a sentence.”

Such mid-sentence questions can occur in a series or one at a time, and they can be found within sentences that are or are not questions in themselves. For instance, your example is a declarative sentence, not interrogative, though it has questions within it.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls these “medial questions” since they “occur medially, internally within a sentence.” The book adds: “Medial questions and exclamations do not normally begin with a capital letter except in the case of quotation.”

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples with single parenthetical questions enclosed within dashes and parentheses:

“She had finally decided—and who can blame her?—to go her own way.”

“Her son (you remember him, don’t you?) has just been arrested.”

And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) has these examples:

“Without further warning—but what could we have done to dissuade her?—she left the plant, determined to stop the union in its tracks.”

“The man in the gray flannel suit (had we met before?) winked at me.”

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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

[This week Penguin Random House published a new, fourth edition of Patricia T. O’Conner’s bestselling grammar and usage classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing the Preface to the new edition.]

Some books can’t sit still. They get fidgety and restless, mumbling to themselves and elbowing their authors in the ribs. “It’s that time again,” they say. “I need some attention here.”

Books about English grammar and usage are especially prone to this kind of behavior. They’re never content with the status quo. That’s because English is not a stay-put language. It’s always changing—expanding here, shrinking there, trying on new things, casting off old ones. People no longer say things like “Forsooth, methinks that grog hath given me the flux!” No, time doesn’t stand still and neither does language.

So books about English need to change along with the language and those who use it. Welcome to the fourth edition of Woe Is I.

What’s new? Most of the changes are about individual words and how they’re used. New spellings, pronunciations, and meanings develop over time, and while many of these don’t stick around, some become standard English. This is why your mom’s dictionary, no matter how fat and impressive-looking, is not an adequate guide to standard English today. And this is why I periodically take a fresh look at what “better English” is and isn’t.

The book has been updated from cover to cover, but don’t expect a lot of earthshaking changes in grammar, the foundation of our language. We don’t ditch the fundamentals of grammar and start over every day, or even every generation. The things that make English seem so changeable have more to do with vocabulary and how it’s used than with the underlying grammar.

However, there are occasional shifts in what’s considered grammatically correct, and those are reflected here too. One example is the use of they, them, and their for an unknown somebody-or-other, as in “Somebody forgot their umbrella”—once shunned but now acceptable. Another has to do with which versus that. Then there’s the use of “taller than me” in simple comparisons, instead of the ramrod-stiff “taller than I.” (See Chapters 1, 3, and 11.)

Despite the renovations, the philosophy of Woe Is I remains unchanged. English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. It’s practical, too. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any “rule” of grammar that seems unnatural, or doesn’t make sense, or creates problems instead of solving them, probably isn’t a legitimate rule at all. (Check out Chapter 11.)

And, as the book’s whimsical title hints, it’s possible to be too “correct”— that is, so hung up about correctness that we go too far. While “Woe is I” may appear technically correct (and even that’s a matter of opinion), the lament “Woe is me” has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use “I” instead of “me” here. As you can see, English is nothing if not reasonable.

(To buy Woe Is I, visit your local bookstore or

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Pronunciation Punctuation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

The raison d’être of raison d’être

Q: My dictionary defines “raison d’être” as “reason for being,” but I frequently see it used as a substitute for “reason.” Is this ever correct?

A: We don’t know of any standard dictionary or usage manual that considers “raison d’être” a synonym for “reason.”

But as you’ve noticed some people do treat it that way, a usage that Henry W. Fowler criticized as far back as 1926 in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. To show “how not to use” the expression, he cites an example in which it means merely a reason: “the raison d’être is obvious.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, one of the nine standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, typically defines “raison d’être” as the “most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence,” and gives this example: “seeking to shock is the catwalk’s raison d’être.”

Some writers italicize “raison d’être,” but we (along with The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.) see no reason to use italics for a term in standard English dictionaries. However, all the dictionaries we’ve seen spell it with a circumflex.

As for the pronunciation, listen to the pronouncer on the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed “raison d’être” from French in the mid-19th century. The expression ultimately comes from the Latin ratiō (reason) and esse (to be).

The earliest citation in the OED is from a March 18, 1864, letter by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Modes of speech which have a real raison d’être.” The latest example is from the October 1995 issue of the British soccer magazine FourFourTwo: “Players, managers and supporters—the people for whom football is their raison d’etre.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s usage manual, notes that since “raison d’être” means a reason for being, not just a reason, “it does not make a great deal of sense to modify it with words such as main, primary, etc.,” as in this example: “The main raison d’être for the ‘new police’ was crime prevention by regular patrol.”

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In Jesus’ name or Jesus’s name?

Q: I’m preparing handouts for my sister’s prayer group, but I’m unsure of whether to write “In Jesus’ Precious Name” or “In Jesus’s Precious Name.” I know you’re supposed to add an apostrophe plus “s” to make a name possessive. But isn’t that also how to make a contraction?

A: The form written with an apostrophe plus “s” (that is, “Jesus’s”) can represent either a contraction (short for “Jesus is” or “Jesus has”) or the possessive form of the name.

But in the expression you’re writing, it would clearly be the possessive. There’s no way a member of your sister’s prayer group would think otherwise.

The rule here is the same as it would be for any name—the apostrophe plus “s” at the end can signify either a contraction or a possessive.

For example, “James’s” can be a contraction of “James is” or “James has” (as in “James’s coming” or “James’s grown a beard”), or it can be the possessive form of the name (as in “She is James’s niece”).

But when the name is “Jesus,” there’s a twist with the possessive form. This is because there are two ways to form the possessive of an ancient classical or biblical name that ends in “s.”

The result is that your prayer could correctly be written with either “Jesus’ precious name” or “Jesus’s precious name.”

Why is this? The traditional custom has been to drop the final “s” when writing the possessives of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s.”

However, this old tradition is no longer universally followed. Today the final “s” is optional: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

How do you decide? Let your pronunciation choose for you.

If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final “s” (“Moses’s”). If you don’t pronounce that last “s” (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.

So our advice is that if you pronounce the possessive form of “Jesus” as JEE-zus, add the apostrophe alone; but if you pronounce it as JEE-zus-uz, then add ‘s.

This advice agrees with the recommendations of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), the guide widely used by both commercial and academic publishers.

And if you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2013 about how Jesus got his name.

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The cultured life of kefir

Q: I have heard the word “kefir” pronounced a number of ways. I would prefer to use a pronunciation that gives honor to its etymological origin. My research shows Caucasian languages as the possible source for the name. Any data on this topic that you would like to pass along?

A: “Kefir” is the English name for the fermented, yogurt-like drink made from cow’s milk, and its usual pronunciation in standard English dictionaries is keh-FEER.

Although etymologists say the term originated in the Caucasus, English speakers wouldn’t understand if you used a Caucasian pronunciation for the drink.

For example, the Georgian word for the drink, კეფირი, is kʼepiri in Latin script, while the Mingrelian word, ქიფური, is kipuri, according to the multilingual dictionary Glosbe.

In fact, English adopted the word from Russian, where the term for the drink, кефир, sounds much like the standard English pronunciation of “kefir.” The Russian term may ultimately come from a Turkic language spoken in the Caucasus.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the Russian term is derived “probably ultimately from Old Turkic köpür, (milk) froth, foam, from köpürmäk, to froth, foam.

Getting back to your question, we’d recommend using the standard English pronunciation, keh-FEER. If you were to walk into a grocery and ask for köpür, kʼepiri, or kipuri, the clerk wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, defines “kefir” as an “effervescent liquor resembling koumiss, prepared from milk which has been fermented.” Koumiss is a drink made from fermented mare’s milk.

The earliest example of the term in the OED is from the July 3, 1884, issue of Nature: “Kephir has only been generally known even in Russia for about two years.”

The next citation is from the Nov. 3, 1894, issue of the Lancet: “Koumiss and kefyr are examples of sour fermented milk containing an excess of carbonic acid gas.” (After checking the original, we corrected an OED typo—“are examples,” not “and examples.”)

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With malice toward none

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re republishing a post that originally appeared on May 13, 2011.]

Q: On a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial in DC, I noticed that there were no commas in the Second Inaugural Address carved into the wall. There are dashes and periods, but no other punctuation. Did writers of the time not use commas?

A: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has plenty of punctuation—commas, semicolons, periods, and dashes.

At least it did when he wrote it. For example, here’s the concluding paragraph of the speech, as written:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

You can see images of Lincoln’s manuscript of the speech, in his own handwriting, at the Library of Congress website.

Of course, mid-19th-century prose had a lot more semicolons than we use today. When the speech is reproduced these days, the punctuation is usually somewhat simpler, with commas replacing the semicolons.

But the version engraved at the Lincoln Memorial is simpler still.

Both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address are engraved at the site in their entirety. And, as is usual with public memorials, the engravers have done their best to make the writing unreadable.

The speeches are rendered in all capital letters, with paragraph indentations barely visible and punctuation reduced to a minimum. The website of the National Parks Service has an image of the speech as engraved.

See what we mean? The stone inscription certainly doesn’t invite readers in, to say the least. And that’s too bad.

The Second Inaugural is one of the most powerful and stirring speeches in our history. Lincoln delivered it on March 4, 1865, during the final days of the Civil War. Little over a month later, he was assassinated.

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When commas are uncommon

Q: I give up. How can I tell when to drop the commas in a string of adjectives before a noun?

A: The key here is the kinds of adjectives you’re combining and whether their order makes any difference. Here’s what you need to know.

  • If you can put “and” between the adjectives and make sense, use commas: “Daisy is a healthy, happy, outgoing puppy.” (It would be wordy, but you could say “healthy and happy and outgoing puppy.”)
  • If you can’t use “and” between the adjectives, drop the commas: “Daisy’s favorite toy is a big old blue velvet rabbit.” (You wouldn’t say “big and old and blue and velvet rabbit.”)
  • If the adjectives always occur in a certain order don’t use commas. “Her favorite playmates are two elderly black poodles that live down the block.” (You wouldn’t say “black elderly two poodles.”)

Some adjectives appear in a certain order when combined with dissimilar ones. These include adjectives for number (“two,” “three”), size (“little,” “tall”), age (“young,” “new”), color (“black,” “red”), and composition (“brick,” “leather”).

These adjectives always appear in a particular order. This explains why someone wears a “perfect little black dress,” not a “black little perfect dress,” as we wrote in 2010.

Here’s a parting sentence. It’s a mouthful, but we don’t feel a need to pause between adjectives when reading it aloud. And we didn’t feel a need for commas between adjectives when writing it.

“An overactive young terrier wearing a shiny new pink leather collar came out of an impressive red brick building and walked to the refurbished off-leash dog park to play with three aging French bulldogs in stunning white wool sweaters.”

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Compounding the problem

Q: In your “Compound fractures” post from 2012, you discuss hyphenating “potentially confusing compounds.” Shouldn’t that be “potentially-confusing”? I’m not being snarky, mind you, just trying to understand.

A: The use of hyphens in compounds is pretty straightforward—except when it isn’t.

One of the many exceptions to the conventions of hyphenation is that when an adjective is modified by an “-ly” adverb, the compound doesn’t get a hyphen.

Pat uses these examples in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I: “That’s a radically different haircut. It gives you an entirely new look.”

We’ve written before about when to hyphenate compound modifiers, but a little repetition never hurts.

You’re probably familiar with the general practice.

Two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue suit,” “dark-haired toddler,” “well-done steak”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a suit of powder blue,” “a toddler who’s dark haired,” “a steak well done”).

The hyphenation of longer adjectival phrases before a noun is similar: “an up-and-coming playwright,” “run-of-the-mill special effects,” “a business-as-usual attitude,” “a ruthless, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners corporate policy.” (Some of these may be hyphenated even after the noun: “The special effects were run-of-the-mill.” Check your dictionary.)

Now for some more exceptions.

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens.

Some prefixes usually take hyphens (as in “self-effacing manner,” “quasi-official position”). Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre-,” “re-,” “ultra-,” “anti-”).

However, the hyphenation of prefixes is very fluid, and authorities may differ. A prefix that’s hyphenated in one dictionary or style guide may not be in another. If in doubt, check your dictionary or style manual.

In case you’d like a short refresher course on hyphens, we wrote in April 2013 about omitting part of a hyphenated term (as in “full- and part-time job”); in July 2012 about hyphens in dimensions (like “five-foot-six woman”); and in January 2012 about when to hyphenate a term like “African American.”

You can find others by putting “hyphen” in the search box on our  blog.

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Can a ‘run-on’ sentence run on?

Q: I’m puzzled by this sentence: “Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers.” Technically, it’s a run-on sentence and incorrect. But it feels so right. What are your thoughts?

A: It’s true that in general you shouldn’t use a comma alone—without a conjunction like “and” or “but”—to join two independent clauses (that is, clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences).

Supposedly, to use a comma instead of a semicolon creates a “spliced” or “run-on” sentence. Or so we’ve been taught.

But we think the example you sent is fine as it is. In our opinion, it’s not a run-on sentence.

This is a natural (and very common) way of writing everyday English. In more formal—perhaps legal or academic—writing, you might prefer a semicolon to a comma.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a discussion of “what prescriptivists call a ‘spliced’ or ‘run-on’ comma,” and it provides this example: “The locals prefer wine to beer, the village pub resembles a city wine bar.”

Such a sentence would be “widely regarded as infelicitous,” say the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But in certain cases, commas are accepted when used to join two independent clauses, Huddleston and Pullum write. They give these examples:

(1) “To keep a child of twelve or thirteen under the impression that nothing nasty ever happens is not merely dishonest, it is unwise.”

Here a negative clause is followed by a positive, the authors note. In such cases—especially where the negative clause has “not only,” “not simply, “not merely,” or “not just”—the positive clause often starts with “but.” The authors add that the “construction without but is also common, however, and readily allows the comma.”

(2) “Some players make good salaries, others play for the love of the game.”

Here, the Cambridge Grammar explains, “The comma is justified by the close parallelism between the clauses and their relative simplicity.”

The sentence you ask about—“Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers”—is like No, 1, with a negative clause followed by a positive. It also resembles No. 2 in that the two independent clauses are closely parallel.

This is why we don’t consider it a run-on sentence, and why we think the comma is fine.

In a footnote, the Cambridge Grammar mentions a third kind of sentence in which a comma is used to separate two independent clauses. The example given is “Order your furniture on Monday, take it home on Tuesday.”

Technically, the authors write, these are two separate imperative clauses. But the sentence “is interpreted as a conditional statement, ‘If you order your furniture on Monday you can take it home on Tuesday.’ ”

Using a semicolon instead of a comma (“Order your furniture on Monday; take it home on Tuesday”), the authors write, “would allow only the literal interpretation as a compound directive.”

Here’s something else to keep in mind. As the Cambridge Grammar points out, the great mass of published English that we read is edited according to “codified rules” of punctuation that are “set out in manuals specific to a particular publishing house or accepted more widely as authoritative guides.”

Despite this “codification,” the Cambridge Grammar says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.” As we’ve written on our blog, punctuation also changes with the times.

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What is a con-see-AIR?

Q: Your “prix fixe” post reminds me of encounters with people who try too hard to pronounce French-derived terms. For example, a hotel receptionist in Texas once invited me to use the services of the con-see-AIR. The latter threw me for a loop until I realized it was supposed to be “concierge.”

A: Some English speakers apparently mispronounce “concierge” in an attempt to sound sophisticated. They say con-see-AIR (sometimes even con-see-AY) because they think that’s the proper French pronunciation.

It’s not, of course. The French word concierge ends with a soft “g” sound, like “zh,” and the “g” in the English “concierge” sounds much the same way. To pronounce it otherwise would be a faux pas (also spoken in English à la française).

Thanks to the Internet, you can listen to the French and English pronunciations of concierge / “concierge.”

The proper English pronunciation has three sounds, con + see + AIRZH, but the last two sounds are blended into one syllable, so the word is spoken as con-SYAIRZH.

English adopted “concierge” from French in the mid-17th century, when it meant “the custodian of a house, castle, prison, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest written example in English is from 1646: “He is knowne and re-known by the Conciergres [sic], by the Judges, by the greater part of the Senate.” (From George Buck’s History of the Life and Reigne of Richard the Third.)

“In France and other countries,” the OED says, the word was once “the title of a high official who had the custody of a royal palace, fortress, etc.”

In more recent times, Oxford says, “concierge” in England as well as in France came to mean “the person who has charge of the entrance of a building; a janitor, porter.”

This meaning was first recorded in English sometime before 1697: “The concierge that shewed the house would shut the door” (from a portrait of Sir Francis Bacon in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives).

However, the OED’s entry for “concierge” has not been updated since 1891, and does not include the modern sense of an employee who helps guests at a hotel.

Today, “concierge” has two meanings in standard dictionaries. Here, for example are the definitions given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

“1. A staff member of a hotel or apartment complex who assists guests or residents, as by handling the storage of luggage, taking and delivering messages, and making reservations for tours. 2. A person, especially in France, who lives in an apartment house, attends the entrance, and serves as a janitor.”

But “concierge” is now becoming a trendy word intended to add snob appeal to anyone paid to help you, at least here in the US, and standard dictionaries aren’t keeping up.

Besides the hotel “concierge” who gets you theater tickets and dinner reservations, there are “concierge” doctors (you pay a fee up front to get more of their time), and “concierge” shoppers (that is, personal shoppers), as well as “concierge” real estate brokers, dog groomers, personal trainers, car washes, travel agents, and dry cleaners.

And as we all know by now, front-desk people at restaurants, car rentals, salons, spas, and offices of all kinds are commonly called “concierges.” As far as we can tell, the “concierge” designation has no particular meaning except to add cachet.

As we said, English got “concierge” from French, but etymologists don’t know where the French word came from (“derivation unknown,” says the OED).

The word in Old French was spelled various ways: cumcerges, concerge, conciarge, consirge, consierge, and concherge.

The Old French term gave medieval Latin the word consergius, first recorded in writing in 1106, according to the OED.

French etymologists, in Le Trésor de la Langue Français Informatisé and elsewhere, suggest the Old French word may have its origin in the Vulgar Latin conservius (“fellow slave”).

If so, the posh English use of “concierge” may ultimately be derived from a colloquial Latin term for a fellow slave. Chic, n’est-ce pas?

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English English language Expression Grammar Punctuation Usage Writing

To be or not to be a question

Q: Often, when I write emails to finalize appointments, I end as follows, “Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you.” Although this would seem to be a question, I am not clear as to whether it really is one and needs a question mark.

A: No question mark is necessary.

Although that sentence is worded as a question, it’s not intended as one. It’s intended as a polite imperative—that is, a courteous command or directive. The speaker (or writer) softens the imperative by framing it as a question.

This is a very common way of expressing a command in a mannerly way.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) calls sentences like this “requests as questions,” and says they don’t need question marks: “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this form of expression an “indirect speech act,” one in which meaning is conveyed indirectly.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, use as an example the sentence “Would you like to close the window.” As they explain:

“Syntactically, this is a closed interrogative, and in its literal interpretation it has the force of an inquiry (with Yes and No as answers).” But in practice, they say, it’s “most likely” a directive, a request to close the window.

“Indirect speech acts,” the authors write, “are particularly common in the case of directives: in many circumstances it is considered more polite to issue indirect directives than direct ones (such as imperative Close the window).”

Clearly, a sentence like yours—”Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you”—is neither a question nor a demand. It lies somewhere in between, which is why a question mark (and certainly an exclamation point) might seem inappropriate.

Still, we would not call a question mark incorrect here—just unnecessary. The use of a question mark instead of a period would make the request sound even more tentative, an effect you might not want.

If you wanted to make the request firmer but still polite, you could use a straight imperative, refined with a “please,” as in “Please confirm that this appointment will work for you.”

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Apostrophic illnesses

Q: I’m a physician who’s irritated by the increasing tendency for writers to omit the apostrophe in a disease named for a person, as in “Parkinson disease.” I resist this, and write “Parkinson’s disease,” which I think is correct.

A: You’re in an unfortunate position here. As a doctor, you’re caught between the recommended usage in the medical profession and standard usage everywhere else.

The AMA Manual of Style (10th ed.), for example, recommends dropping the ’s in such diseases, as does the 27th edition of Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.

Although Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (30th ed.) says the ’s “is becoming increasingly less common,” it includes some diseases with the ending and some without to “reflect this ongoing change in usage.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, which is intended for a broader audience, generally considers the ’s versions the usual forms, though it sometimes includes the stripped-down forms as acceptable variants.

As for common usage, the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked usually list only the ’s versions for these terms, though bare versions are sometimes given as acceptable or equal variants.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists only “Parkinson’s” while The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives “Parkinson’s” as more common, but includes “Parkinson” as an acceptable variant.

The American Medical Association’s style guide acknowledges that the issue is still somewhat controversial, but says that the use of the ’s in medical eponyms, the technical term for things named after people, is a thing of the past.

“There is some continuing debate over the use of the possessive form for eponyms, but a transition toward the nonpossessive form has taken place,” the AMA guide says.

The AMA editors recommend dropping the ’s to represent “the adjectival and descriptive, rather than possessive, sense of eponyms” and to “promote clarity and consistence in scientific writing.”

We take issue here with the AMA editors. Technically, the ’s here is not possessive but genitive. As we’ve written before on our blog, genitives show associations and relationships much broader than ownership.

In a genitive construction like “last night’s mashed potatoes,” we’re not talking about ownership. The ’s here means “associated with” or “related to,” not “possessed by.”

Nevertheless, the misconception persists. The National Down Syndrome Society, in its Preferred Language Guide, gives this explanation for opposing the ’s:

“Down syndrome is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition, but did not have it. An ‘apostrophe s’ connotes ownership or possession.”

In fact, the AMA stylebook cites the Down Syndrome Society’s language guide in support of its belief that a transition toward non-genitive eponyms has taken place:

“A major step toward preference for the nonpossessive form occurred when the National Down Syndrome Society advocated the use of Down syndrome, rather than Down’s syndrome, arguing that the syndrome does not actually belong to anyone.”

Other critics argue against medical eponyms whether they have apostrophes or not, saying the names may credit the wrong people or are out of date.

Victor A. McKusick, for example, says in Mendelian Inheritance in Man (11th ed.) that “often the person whose name is used was not the first to describe the condition … or did not describe the full syndrome as it has subsequently become known.”

Although “Down syndrome” is now more common than “Down’s syndrome” and standard dictionaries prefer the shorter form, most other medical eponyms still have the ’s in dictionary entries.

Of the 11 eponyms we’ve checked, “Alzheimer’s,” “Addison’s,” “Parkinson’s,” “Bright’s,” “Crohn’s,” “Hansen’s,” “Hodgkin’s,” and “Raynaud’s” diseases usually have the ’s. Only “Down,” “Munchhausen,” and “Tourette” syndromes are usually bare.

In fact, searches with Google’s Ngram viewer indicate that medical eponyms with ’s are overwhelmingly more popular in books than the stripped-down versions.

However, medical toponyms (diseases named after a place) don’t have apostrophes. For example, “Rocky Mountain spotted fever” or “Lyme disease” (named for Lyme, CT).

Note that the capitalized name in a medical eponym or toponym is traditionally followed by a lowercase generic term, as in “Lou Gehrig’s disease” or “West Nile virus.”

The old tradition of naming diseases or parts of the body for their discoverers dates back to the use of Latin medical terms.

An example is tuba Fallopii for the structures first described by the 16th-century anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, also known by his Latin name, Fallopius. Today we say “fallopian tubes,” which many standard dictionaries give with a lowercase “f.”

Since you are a physician, you may be interested in an excellent article we came across on the history of medical eponyms.

John H. Dirckx, a doctor who has written frequently about the language of medicine, says such terms “are cherished by most physicians who have a sense of history.”

Besides, he writes in a 2001 issue of the journal Panace@, they “are often embraced as a pleasant relief from polysyllabic terms derived from classical languages.”

They also have a “value as euphemisms,” he adds. A term like “Hansen’s disease,” for example, is a welcome replacement for “leprosy” and all that it conveys.

As for the ’s, he writes, “Some of the arguments offered by editors and others to justify exclusion of the genitive from eponyms are simply ludicrous.” (He mentions the objections we noted above, that the person didn’t have the disease or possess it.)

Such critics, Dr. Dirckx writes, “display ignorance of linguistics, a superficial and mechanistic view of language, disdain for tradition, and, sometimes, the arrogance of authority.”

He concludes, probably with tongue in cheek: “Will even the homely lay term Adam’s apple (nuez, prominentia laryngea) eventually come under the universal ban?”

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English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Writing

¿Why isn’t English like Spanish?

Q: Why does the question mark and exclamation point appear at the end of a sentence in English? To my mind, it would make more sense if they were at the beginning. Or at the beginning and end, as in Spanish, though I’ve read that this convention is falling out of favour, no doubt under the influence of that mongrel language from perfidious Albion.

A: Your question requires a brief look back at medieval English, where the earliest punctuation marks were intended as verbal cues for one reading to an audience.

In the medieval church, reading was something done aloud, and punctuation showed the lector where to pause for breath and how to modulate his voice to convey the meaning of the words.

The first marks seen in English writing indicated pauses in a sentence: brief pauses in mid-sentence (voiced with a rising intonation), versus a longer, final pause at the end (a falling intonation).

In Beowulf, an Old English poem written as early as 725, the basic mark of punctuation is a simple point, according to A Critical Companion to Beowulf (2003), by Andy Orchard, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

The English marks identifying a sentence as a question or an exclamation developed later, the linguist David Crystal writes in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015).

The interrogative mark, according to Crystal, was recorded in Old English around the year 1000, and the mark of exclamation or admiration appeared in the 1500s in early Modern English. (Versions of both were recorded earlier in medieval Latin.)

The early interrogative and exclamation marks in English were the precursors of our modern question mark and exclamation point, though they looked nothing like today’s versions and didn’t get their modern names until centuries later.

From the beginning, however, they were always found at the end of an English sentence. Yes, they offered vocal cues (if a bit late in the sentence). But like the period, they  showed stopping points—almost as if they were variations on the period.

In fact, during the late 19th and early 20th century, these marks were sometimes called “question stop” and “exclamation stop,” just as today the British call the period a “full stop.”

In his book, Crystal says that “the question mark, like the exclamation mark and the period, acts unambiguously as a sign of separation—to show where one sentence ends and the next begins. That’s why a period was included within the symbol (and reflected in the term question-stop).”

In Spanish, too, the question mark and exclamation point originally came at the end of a sentence, not the beginning.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the Spanish Academy suggested adding them, upside down, at the front too, as in ¿Quien sabe? (“Who knows?”).

As the Academy explains in a treatise published in 1754, “one can use the same sign of interrogation, inverting it before the word that has the first interrogative intonation, in addition to using the regular question mark to signal the end of the clause.” The exclamation mark was treated the same way.

Why the change? Because, as you suggest, placing a mark at the beginning is a cue to the reader that a question or exclamation is coming.

To some Spaniards, a solitary mark at the end “was felt to be inadequate for the requirements of Spanish pronunciation,” Alexander and Nicholas Humez write in their book On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World (2008).

“It did not provide a reader with enough information to enable him to express adequately the full significance of a question in long sentences,” they add.

“Following its own prescription,” the Humez brothers write, “the Adademia put this into practice in the books published under its auspices, and other publishers eventually followed suit.”

Interestingly, the 16th-century English educator John Hart suggested in An Orthographie (1569) that the interrogation mark (he called it “the asker”) and the exclamation mark (“the wonderer”) should be used at the beginning and end of a sentence.

And at least one 18th-century commentator made a similar suggestion. In a letter to Noah Webster, dated Dec. 26, 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“We are sensible that when a question is met with in reading, there is a proper variation to be used in the management of the voice. We have therefore a point called an interrogation, affixed to the question in order to distinguish it. But this is absurdly placed at its end; so that the reader does not discover it, till he finds he has wrongly modulated his voice, and is therefore obliged to begin again the sentence. To prevent this the Spanish printers, more sensibly, place an interrogation at the beginning as well as at the end of a question.” (From The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1809.)

The practice never took hold in English. And as you’ve noted, some Spanish-language writers (notably the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda) have abandoned such marks. However, we doubt that Neruda, an ardent Communist, was influenced much by perfidious Albion.

Why did the inverted question mark catch on in Spanish but not in English?

Questions in both languages often begin with interrogative function words like Cómo (“How”), Dónde (“Where”), and Quién (“Who”).

But the wording of Spanish statements and questions are often identical: Tienes hambre (“You’re hungry”) versus ¿Tienes hambre? (“Are you hungry?”).

In addition to having interrogative function words, English questions tend to begin with auxiliaries (“Do you like me?”) or have different word order (“Are you tired?”).

Despite the benefits of inverted question marks in Spanish, some people drop them on social media, as in these comments on Twitter: Por qué las personas te decepcionan? (“Why do people let you down?”) and por q te llama a vos y no a mi? (“Why does he call you and not me?”]

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 8, 2022.]

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English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin

What’s in a nameplate?

Q: I have often wondered about the period at the end of the Wall Street Journal’s presentation of itself on page one. Is this a pure design choice, by an artist or like person?  Or is there a usage I could learn about?

A: Periods were once common at the end of newspaper names appearing on page one, called “nameplates” or “flags” in American newspaper jargon.

The tradition-minded Wall Street Journal simply kept its period while other newspapers dropped theirs.

The New York Times, no slouch at minding traditions, kept a period at the end of its nameplate until well into the 1960s.

And the Hartford Courant, considered the oldest continuously published paper in the US, revived its old period for a while in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

We’ll have more to say later about those periods at the Journal, the Times, and the Courant, but first let’s look at the evolution of punctuation in nameplates at American newspapers.

The American colony’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which was shut down by the British after its initial issue on Sept. 25, 1690, didn’t have a period after the nameplate but it had one at the end of the subtitle, “Both Forreign and Domestick.”

A British-subsidized weekly, the Boston News-Letter, the first continuously published newspaper in the colony, had a period at the end of its nameplate when it appeared on April 24, 1704.

The next paper to appear, the Boston Gazette, had a period at the end of the nameplate when it began publishing on Dec. 21, 1719. It later changed the period to a comma and added a subtitle, then alternately used a period, a comma, or nothing after the subtitle.

The fourth paper on the scene, the American Weekly Mercury, had a comma after the nameplate when it began publishing in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1719, but a period had replaced the comma by the time it stopped publishing on May 15, 1746.

In one of the odder examples of nameplate punctuation, the Providence Gazette and Country Journal once had a semicolon after “Gazette,” a colon after “Journal,” and a period after its subtitle. But it later had a more typical 18th-century title.

As you can see, the punctuation in nameplates of American newspapers wasn’t all that consistent in the 1700s. Why a comma or a semicolon after the title? Perhaps because some editors considered the date below the title to be part of the nameplate.

But by the 1800s, most US nameplates probably had periods at the end. That’s what we’ve concluded after examining several dozen front pages in America’s Historical Newspapers, a subscription-only database.

We had similar results in examining a dozen or so front pages in databases available to the general public, including examples from the Richmond Planet, the Washingtonian (Leesburg, VA), the Wabash Express (Terre Haute, IN), and the Morning Clarion (Oxford, NC).

Our searches indicated that newspaper nameplates gradually lost the periods during the 1900s, though some periods lasted until well into the 20th century.

The Cincinnati Post’s period was gone at the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, but the Duluth News Tribune still had a period when the Titanic sank six years later.

The Chicago Daily Tribune still had its period at the start of World War I, but the Indianapolis Star had dropped its period.

The Evening Star in Washington, DC, still had a period in 1920, while the Daily News in New York didn’t in 1921.

The New York Times had a period from its founding on Sept. 18, 1851, until it dropped the punctuation mark on Feb. 21, 1967, to the consternation of some tradition-minded readers.

Although dropping the period was part of a number of design changes intended to give the newspaper a more modern look, the Times let it be known that the move saved the paper $41.28 a year in ink.

A Times history published in 2001 noted one reader’s reaction to the changes. “What has God re-wrought?” said the letter to the editor. “No period in the New York Times masthead? The weather unboxed? ‘All the News’ restyled?”

The Hartford Courant, which began publishing as the weekly Connecticut Courant on Oct. 29, 1764, brought back the period in its nameplate in 1997, and then turned it into the dot of “.com” as part of a short-lived design change in 2008.

In a Sep. 28, 2008, interview with, Melanie Shaffer, the design director at the Courant, discussed the decision to make the nameplate vertical and incorporate the period in “.com”:

“We already had this period sitting at the end of the Hartford Courant nameplate. Yes. It was there on the original nameplate—200 years ago. It sort of disappeared for a while, then we brought it back with the ’97 redesign. We wanted to figure out how to incorporate the dot-com. When you turn the masthead sideways and the dot-com sort of rounds the corner, it made good sense.”

As it turned out, the upside-down vertical headline, with a perpendicular “.com” at the top of the page, made sense to designers but not to readers of the Courant.

The Courant responded to the grumbling by asking its readers in June 2009 to choose from among three different nameplates. The winner was a black-and-white horizontal design with the period gone.

As you can see from the changes at the Times and the Courant, the use of a punctuation mark at the end of a newspaper’s nameplate is a style or design issue, not a matter of grammar or usage.

As for the Wall Street Journal, which began publishing on July 8, 1889, we asked Ashley Huston, the chief communications officer at Dow Jones, why the paper still had its period.

“The period is a holdover from the 1800s when other papers also had a traditional period,” she emailed us. “We have kept it while others gradually dropped it.”

She noted that the subject had come up in a 2012 article in the Journal about the period at the end of “Forward.”—an Obama campaign slogan.

In the article, she said no one at the paper knew why the Journal had kept the period in its nameplate when other papers gradually dropped theirs.

We should mention here that many newspaper headlines, as well as nameplates, used to end with periods, but the practice died out in the 20th century. If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog post on the subject in 2013.

And we ran a post in 2014 about the origins of the word “masthead,” both nautical and journalistic. The one on a ship apparently gave us the one in a newspaper.

You didn’t ask, but some British papers, including the Times (London) once had periods at the end of their nameplates, but the practice wasn’t as common in the UK as in the US.

In the UK, a “nameplate” is referred to as a “masthead,” a term that in the US is generally used for the interior box that lists the publisher, senior editors, and address. This box is known as an “imprint” in the UK.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin

New Year’s daze

(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2013.)

Q: I have a customer who gives out T-shirts at a New Years party. The back of the shirts has the year. Should the date for the next party be 2013 or 2014? I think it should be 2013 because the party starts on New Years Eve. Is there a grammar rule that would apply here?

A: No, we can’t think of any grammar, usage, or style rule that would apply.

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says only that the terms “New Year’s Eve” and “New Year’s Day” should be capitalized (don’t forget the apostrophes).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “New Year’s Day” as the first day of the year and “New Year’s Eve” as the last day of the year.

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked have similar definitions.

What do we think? Well, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but we think the year on the back of those T-shirts should reflect the new year, not the old one.

From our experience, the main point of a New Year’s party is to celebrate the new year, not the old one, though we imagine that some people would disagree with us.

To the extent that New Year partyers do any serious thinking, it’s to make New Year’s resolutions, which the OED describes as resolutions “to do or to refrain from doing a specified thing from that time onwards, or to attempt to achieve a particular goal, usually during the coming year.”

The earliest written example of “New Year” in the OED is from the Ormulum (circa 1200), a book of biblical commentary that refers to “New Year’s Day” (spelled newyeress dayy in Middle English—we’ve replaced the letter yogh with “y”).

Yes, we know what you’re thinking—where’s the apostrophe?

Although “New Year’s Day” now takes an apostrophe, the use of the punctuation mark here is relatively new.

The earliest OED example of an apostrophe in “New Year’s” is from The New Mirror for Travellers, an 1828 travel guide: “It was new year’s eve, and Douw was invited to see out the old year at Judge Vander Spiegle’s.”

The apostrophe showed up in English in the 1500s, but it was originally used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters in a word (as in a contraction like “can’t”).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “apostrophe” is ultimately derived from prosoidia apostrophos, the classical Greek term for an omission mark—the Greek phrase literally means “accent of turning away.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post a few years ago about how the apostrophe became possessive.

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English English language Expression Punctuation Usage Writing

A timely hyphen

Q: When we describe a range of time, we say “from 3 to 4 p.m.” or “between 3 and 4 p.m.” What preposition should we use when there’s a hyphen between the two numbers? For example, “Our shop is open from/between 1-2 p.m.”

A: This is a style issue, and our go-to source for a question like this is The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). The answer?

You don’t use either “from” or “between” when the two numbers are connected by a hyphen.

You use a preposition only when the numbers are connected by “to” or “and” (“open from 2 to 4 p.m.” … “open between 2 and 4 p.m.).

Here are additonal examples: “It was missing from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.” … “It was missing between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.” … “It was missing 10 a.m.-8 p.m.”

We should explain here that most people use a hyphen for this purpose, but a publishing house would prefer a mark called the “en dash.” It got that name in the 18th century because the piece of type used to print it was as wide as the letter “n.”

The en dash is a teensy bit longer than the hyphen but smaller than the usual dash, which is technically called an “em dash” because the type is as wide as the letter “m.” Oh yes, and there are also “2 em dashes,” and “3 em dashes.” Got that?

The Chicago Manual, which is a guide used by publishers, refers to the en dash, not the hyphen, in discussing how to connect numbers in a range:

“For the sake of parallel construction, the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.”

The book uses these examples: “Join us on Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m., to celebrate the New Year” … “She was in college from 1998 to 2002 (not from 1998-2002).”

When the en dash is used to connect numbers, according to Chicago, it signifies “to,” “up to and including,” or “through.”

Remember, where the Chicago Manual says “en dash,” mentally substitute the word “hyphen.” The average reader can’t tell the difference without a microscope, and frankly, life is difficult enough.

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English English language Punctuation Usage

Where are all the apostrophes?

Q: I am directed to address my dental contract queries to an office in St Annes Road, Eastbourne (sic). Being a grumpy old pedant, I often insert an apostrophe as I understand “St Anne’s” to be genitive. Whilst I understand that “St Annes” is in common usage, surely frequency does not make it correct, or does it? Sent with a great big smile.

A: You are correct. “St. Anne’s” is a genitive usage and deserves the apostrophe. However, the use of apostrophes in place names is controversial.

As we wrote in a post last year, postal authorities and governmental agencies commonly eliminate apostrophes in place names and street names as a matter of policy.

They do this not because they believe the usage is grammatically correct, but for reasons of  efficiency.

Of course, such bureaucratic edicts fly in the face of grammatical correctness. In ordinary writing, this use of “St. Annes” would be considered an error.

So while governmental bodies may use “St. Annes” on street signs, maps, addresses, and in their own documents, that shouldn’t prevent you from including the apostrophe in your own writing.

We assume that the addition of an apostrophe won’t confuse a clueless postal computer.

In case you’re interested, we wrote on our blog last year about why schools named for saints employ the genitive (St. Mary’s Academy) rather than an ordinary attributive construction (St. Mary Academy).

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English English language Grammar Punctuation Usage

Appositively speaking

Q: I seem to be the only person who feels that this construction requires a comma after “Delmonico” to offset the appositional phrase: “The oldest resident of the nursing home, Delmonico is given to reciting bawdy limericks.” Thanks for any light you can shed.

A: Grammatically, as you know, “apposite” means equivalent (not to be confused with “opposite”), and an appositive is the explanatory equivalent of a noun or noun phrase previously mentioned.

In the sentence you cite, the appositive “Delmonico” helps identify the noun phrase “the oldest resident of the nursing home.”

An appositive, as we wrote in a 2013 post, is sometimes surrounded by commas and sometimes not.

The appositive is set off between two commas only if it’s not essential—that is, if it could be deleted without losing the point of the sentence. If it’s essential and couldn’t be dropped, it isn’t followed by a comma.

In your example, the point of the sentence is that Delmonico, the real subject, likes to spout racy limericks. The introductory phrase merely adds information about Delmonico.

The point of the sentence would be lost if we dropped “Delmonico,” so the appositive here isn’t followed by a comma.

If we rewrite the sentence and make “Delmonico” the introductory element, then the nonessential stuff that follows becomes the appositive and is surrounded by commas:

“Delmonico, a long-term resident of the nursing home, is given to reciting bawdy limericks.”

In short, put commas around an appositive that’s dispensable—one that could be dropped without losing the point of the sentence.  But don’t put commas around one that’s essential to the point.

By the way, an appositive is usually found right after its equivalent, but that isn’t always the case.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives this example of an appositive that’s separated from its “anchor,” or original noun phrase: “I met a friend of yours at the party last night—Emma Carlisle.”

Here are some additional examples that may help illustrate the use of appositives and commas:

● “My youngest son, a whiz in shop class, is handy with a hammer and nails.” The appositive (“a whiz in shop class”) can be deleted without losing the point of the sentence. Arrange it differently, and you can drop the second comma: “A whiz in shop class, my youngest son is handy with a hammer and nails.”

“A trim athlete, my sister tries to watch what she eats.” The introductory phrase adds information, but it’s not essential. The appositive “my sister” is essential—it’s the whole point of the sentence. So it’s restrictive and should not be followed by a comma.

You sometimes see this construction in cases where a name has already been mentioned and it’s replaced by a pronoun as an appositive.

Consider this passage: “Delmonico is a born comic. A long-term resident of the nursing home, he’s given to reciting bawdy limericks.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin

A lowering sky

Q: How is “lowering” pronounced when used to describe a threatening sky? And is this usage related etymologically to things descending?

A: The “lowering” that we use to describe a threatening sky is not related to the “lowering” that means descending. It’s a different word entirely, with a different origin and a different traditional pronunciation.

The word found in expressions like “lowering clouds” or “a lowering sky” traditionally rhymes with “flowering,” “towering,” and “showering.” It was originally spelled “louring,” with the “our” pronounced as in “hour” or “sour.”

Its source was the verb “lour,” which was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This verb initially meant “to frown, scowl; to look angry or sullen,” the OED says.

The earliest example Oxford cites is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a chronicle of the lives of the saints:

“He … lourede with sori semblaunt: and þeos wordes out he caste.” (“He loured with an angry countenance and these words he cast out.”)

By the late 16th century, people were using “lour” and “louring” in reference to menacing skies as well as to menacing looks. The OED’s earliest examples are from the stage:

“O my starres! Why do you lowre vnkindly on a King?” (from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, written sometime before 1593).

“The cloudes that lowrd vpon our house” (Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1597).

Note that by this time a “w” had crept into the spelling, and the old “lour” became “lower.” But thanks to poets and to early pronouncing dictionaries, we know that its pronunciation stayed the same.

For example, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer rhymed “loured” and “devoured” in The Hous of Fame (circa 1384). Centuries later, John Milton rhymed “hour” and “lowre” in Samson Agonistes (1671).

And in the 19th century, a satirical poet known only by the pseudonym Quiz wrote these lines in The Grand Master (1816): “His tone of insolence and pow’r, / Made all the passengers to low’r.”

Even today, the original pronunciation is the only one recognized by the OED and some standard dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

But some others, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), say this sense of “lower” now has two acceptable pronunciations. It can rhyme with “flower” or with “knower.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that with two words spelled “lower,” the more common one would influence the pronunciation—and even the meaning—of the lesser-known word.

As the OED notes, “The spelling lower (compare flower) renders the word identical in its written form with lower v., to bring or come down, and the two verbs have often been confused.”

In speaking of clouds, Oxford says, the “lower” that means to look threatening “has some affinity in sense” with the “lower” that means to descend, “and it is not always possible to discover which verb was in the mind of a writer.”

In fact, pronunciation may be a moot point here. It’s been our experience that the threatening sense of the word is seldom if ever used in speech. Most of the time we encounter it in writing—and rather elevated writing at that.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English describes “lower” or “lour” as a literary term in British English. Longman gives as examples “lowering clouds” and “The other driver lowered at us as we passed him.”

As for its origins, the verb “lower” (to look threatening) has corresponding forms in old and modern Germanic languages. These words, the OED says, mean to frown, knit the brows, watch stealthily, spy, or lie in wait.

The other “lower”—the verb and adjective referring to height or position—comes from the adjective “low.” This word, the OED says, is descended from early Scandinavian, where it meant short, near to the ground, humble, or muted in voice.

Finally, a little detour to the barnyard.

That last sense of “low,” descriptive of a quiet or muted voice, may lead you to think of the “lowing” of cattle. But that’s another “low” entirely; it has nothing to do with the “low” that’s the opposite of “high.”

The “low” that refers to the sound of cattle (it rhymes with “toe”) was recorded in Old English (hlowan), but is much older. It’s been traced back to proto-Germanic (khlo) and to an even more ancient Indo-European root (kla), according to etymological dictionaries.

As you might suspect, the Old English hlowan and its predecessors were imitative in origin—they mimicked the resonant moo of a cow. As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Indo-European root, kla, was onomatopoeic.

That ancient root was also the origin of noise-making words in Latin and Greek, specifically the verbs that mean something like “call”—clamare and calare in Latin, kalein in Greek.

Ayto says the Indo-European root that gave us the bovine “low” also produced these words: “Latin clarus (which originally meant ‘loud’ and gave English clear and declare), clamare ‘cry out’ (source of English acclaim, claim, exclaim, etc.), and calare ‘proclaim, summon’ (source of English council).”

But getting back to the barnyard, the old Germanic verbs corresponding to “low” meant “to moo, bellow,” the OED says. But nowadays, Oxford says, the English word represents “a more subdued sound than bellow, being roughly equivalent to moo but somewhat more literary.”

So now we know. Ordinary cows “moo,” but literary ones “low.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin

A “sell-through” date

Q: Do you think “sell-through” should be hyphenated when it’s used as a marketing term? One of my associates argues that “sell-through” should only be hyphenated if it’s an adjectival phrase, not a noun phrase.

A: The phrase “sell-through” is hyphenated in most dictionaries. And the hyphen is there whether the phrase is used as a noun (“We were hoping for a quick sell-through”) or as a modifier (“The sell-through numbers were good”).

Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster’s Unabridged give the term as hyphenated. So do the Cambridge Dictionaries Online and the Collins English Dictionary.

Only one standard dictionary, as far as we know, disagrees. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives it as one solid word, “sellthrough.”

However, we think a hyphen makes the term easier to read, so we’d recommend “sell-through.”

The OED defines the noun phrase “sell-through” as “the retail turnover of a product” or “the proportion of goods (of a particular type) purchased wholesale which is successfully sold to consumers at retail, typically expressed as a percentage.”

The term has been around since the late 1970s, according to citations in the OED. The earliest example is from a 1978 article in Business Week: “The sell-through on our Time-band watches was nearly complete.”

This later example is from a 2001 issue of the New York Times: “We look at the weekly sell-through of our products … and listen to what our customers are saying.”

Oxford describes another meaning of the noun phrase that dates from 1985: “the practice of marketing videotapes or DVDs for retail rather than rental,” or “a videotape or DVD marketed in this way.”

Here’s an early example, from a 1988 issue of the Sun, a newspaper in Brisbane, Australia: “Slackening sales of pre-recorded video cassettes for rental purposes have forced many small video publishing companies to sharpen their focus on ‘sell-throughs.’ ”

And in this 1994 example from the Face, a London magazine, the phrase is used attributively (that is, adjectivally): “Arthouse films have become more readily available on sell-through video.”

If you’re using “sell” as a verb in its usual sense, of course, the words “sell through” aren’t hyphenated: “I sell through eBay” or “His car was sold through Craigslist.”

In such constructions, “sell” is a verb and “through” is an adverb describing the manner of selling.

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English English language Grammar Punctuation Usage

Comma relief

Q: Do I need a comma after the word “expert” in this sentence: “I spoke with an expert and if I were a betting man, I would pick the Cowboys.” The few “experts” I have consulted seem unsure of the rule for punctuating a complex sentence like that.

A: Sometimes commas are optional, and your sentence is a good example. There’s no specific “rule” for punctuating a sentence like that.

If it were up to us, here’s what we would suggest: “I spoke with an expert, and if I were a betting man I would pick the Cowboys.”

Why? Because of the three clauses, the last two are more closely connected than the first two. We would separate the first clause from the rest, because we sense a natural division there.

However, other writers might disagree; they might prefer a differently placed comma, or two commas, or none at all.

Even when only two clauses of this type are involved, the use of commas is a matter of preference rather than correctness.

You might choose this, for example: “If I were a betting man I would pick the Cowboys.” But this would be equally correct: “If I were a betting man, I would pick the Cowboys.”

There’s a certain amount of flexibility in the use of commas to separate clauses. As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.”

For example, the Cambridge Grammar notes the “distinction between light and heavy punctuation styles.” It gives these examples:

light or “open” style: “On Sundays they like to have a picnic lunch in the park if it’s fine.”

heavy or “closed” style: “On Sundays, they like to have a picnic lunch in the park, if it’s fine.”

“This distinction,” the authors explain, “has to do with optional punctuation, especially commas: a light style puts in relatively few commas (or other marks) in those places where they are optional rather than obligatory.”

When in doubt, let your ear decide. If you feel a pause is in order, exercise your option and stick in a comma.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage

The genitive wars

Q: I question the use of an apostrophe in “Seven Years’ War.” I assume that “Seven Years” is simply an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “War.” However, your “Sui Genitive!” post supports the apostrophe. I have a book on the subject due for publication next year, and I want the correct punctuation on the cover!

A: In our 2010 post, we say expressions like “a three weeks’ holiday” and “in three weeks’ time” have traditionally taken apostrophes.

If you used the noun phrase “a three-week holiday,” no apostrophe would be used; in that case, “three-week” is simply an adjectival phrase.

But “a three weeks’ holiday” is a different animal. Here “three weeks” is a what’s called a genitive construction—the equivalent of “a holiday OF three weeks.”

Similarly, note the apostrophe in such constructions as “he has five years’ experience,” which is equivalent to “experience OF five years, and “a four days’ journey,” which is equivalent to “a journey OF four days” (alternatively, you could use “a four-day journey”).

We’ll quote the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 356) on the use of the apostrophe with genitives:

“Analogous to possessives, and formed like them, are certain expressions based on the old genitive case. The genitive here implies of: in three days’ time; an hour’s delay (or a one-hour delay); six months’ leave of absence (or a six-month leave of absence).”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., p. 647), has the same information. Periods of time and statements of worth are expressed with apostrophes. Garner’s gives these examples: “30 days’ notice (i.e., notice of 30 days), three days’ time, 20 dollars’ worth, and several years’ experience.”

Getting back to your question, “Seven Years’ War” generally takes an apostrophe for the same reason, though it’s sometimes seen without one. Ditto “Hundred Years’ War” and “Thirty Years’ War.”

It would be grammatically correct, of course, to refer to the three conflicts as the “Seven-Year War,” the “Hundred-Year War,” and the “Thirty-Year War,” but those aren’t their traditional names.

However, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War is often referred to as the “Six-Day War,” using an adjectival rather than a genitive construction.

In a 2013 post on our blog, we describe the difference between an adjectival phrase like “two-dollar word” and a genitive phrase like “Thirty Years’ War.”

As we note, “adjectival phrases consisting of a number plus a noun (like “thirty-year” and “two-dollar”) are normally formed with a singular noun (“year,” “dollar”).

In a genitive version of such a construction, the phrase becomes plural, loses its hyphen, and gains an apostrophe.

Our 2013 post includes a note about historical names, including the names of wars, which “develop through common usage, and not according to grammatical rules.”

“That accounts for why we see both ‘the Thirty Years’ War’ (a genitive usage for ‘a war of thirty years’), and ‘the Six-Day War’ (a simple adjectival phrase),” we write.

If you need a big gun as your authority, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the subject of your book this way: “Seven Years’ War, the third Silesian war (1756–1763), in which Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden were allied against Frederick II of Prussia.”

The OED also has this citation, from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, an 1837 book in which the phrase “seven years” is used in the genitive case (though Carlyle uses a hyphen): “In that seven-years’ sleep of his, so much has changed.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Word origin

Are scare quotes scary?

Q: Is there any legitimate reason for using single quotation marks, other than when a quote appears within another quote? I often see single quotation marks used to warn readers about a questionable term or simply to highlight a term.

A: In American usage, single quotation marks are generally used in prose for one purpose only: to surround a quotation nested within a larger quotation: “Was it Linus who said, ‘Get lost’?” asked Lucy.

There are exceptions in certain kinds of specialized writing, which we’ll get to later. And single quotation marks are generally used in headlines.

But the warning quotes you’re referring to, sometimes called “scare quotes,” should always be double quotes, not singletons, in American writing.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains the legitimate use of scare quotes:

“Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply ‘This is not my term’ or ‘This is not how the term is usually applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”

Here are the examples given (we’ll put them in italics to avoid confusing things with our own punctuation):

On a digital music player, a “track” is really just a separately encoded file in a directory.

“Child protection” sometimes fails to protect.

Another respected authority, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.), has these examples:

A silver dome concealed the robot’s “brain.”

Their “friend” brought about their downfall. 

All of those are perfectly justifiable uses of quotation marks, because the term in quotes is highlighted for a good reason—to warn the reader to be wary of it.

But sometimes writers (particularly sign painters!) use quotes merely to highlight terms, as in these examples:

“Fast” and “friendly” service! … Our bread is baked “fresh” daily … Employees must “wash hands.” … “Delivery” available.

We think a writer who wants to boast about a word or merely emphasize it should find another way—italics, perhaps, or a different size type. The quote marks imply that the words aren’t meant literally.

However, the lexicographer Grant Barrett defends the use of quotes for emphasis—a usage he refers to as “shout quotes.” In a May 14, 2008, post on his blog, he argues that it’s unlikely readers would misunderstand them.

By the way, the use of the phrase “scare quotes” in this sense is relatively recent, showing up in the mid-20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1956 issue of the journal Mind: The ‘scare-quotes’ are mine; Aristotle is not overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens.’ ”

An earlier use of the phrase, from Southern California: An Island on the Land, a 1946 book by Carey McWilliams, refers to quotations that can be used against a political candidate.

McWilliams writes that “the best advertising brains in California were put to work culling scare-quotes” from the candidate’s writings.

But let’s get back to single quotation marks. As we’ve said above and as we’ve written before on our blog, they’re sometimes used in a couple of specialized fields.

Horticultural writing is one of them. Some publications in the field, like the magazine Horticulture, use single quotation marks around the names of cultivars, the Chicago Manual says.

And in another horticultural exception to normal American usage, Chicago adds, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” Here’s the example given (we’ll use boldface here, since the illustration includes italics):

The hybrid Agastache ‘Apricot Sunrise’, best grown in zone 6, mingles with sheaves of cape fuchsia (Phygelius ‘Salmon Leap’).

There’s another kind of specialized writing in which single quotation marks appear.

“In linguistic and phonetic studies,” the Chicago Manual says, “a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks,” and here again, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” This is the example given:

The gap is narrow between mead ‘a beverage’ and mead ‘a meadow’.

But unless you’re writing about horticulture, linguistics, or phonetics, the convention in American usage is to use double quotation marks (except for internal quotes) and to keep commas and periods inside final quote marks. The Chicago Manual gives this example of the normal usage:

“Admit it,” she said. “You haven’t read ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ ”

Keep in mind that so far we’ve been discussing American-style punctuation. In British usage, single quotation marks are  more widely used.

As the Chicago Manual says, “The practice in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is often the reverse” of that found in American usage. Single quotation marks may come first, with double marks used for quotations within quotations.

For example, if Lucy and Linus had been characters in a British novel, that quote we cited above (from Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I, 3rd ed.) might have looked like this:

‘Was it Linus who said, “Get lost”?’ asked Lucy.

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