English English language Grammar Punctuation Usage


Q: I turn to you to resolve a matter of some debate at the office. The question of the day: Which of the following is correct when it comes to proper use of hyphens? (1) “The project will create an estimated 300 full- and part-time jobs.” (2) “The project will create an estimated 300 full and part-time jobs.” Please help before we hyperventilate over hyphens.

A: We vote for option 1: “full- and part-time jobs.” The second part of the compound adjective “full-time” has been dropped, but the hyphen remains.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a matter of style, not grammar, and we’re talking about the commonly observed convention in published writing.

We’ll quote The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.): “When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples: “fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages” … “Chicago- or Milwaukee-bound passengers.”

Hyphenated terms for ages are treated similarly, as the manual notes. It gives the example “a group of eight- to ten-year-olds.”

But when the two hyphenated expressions form “a single entity,” the manual notes, there’s no intervening space, as in “a five-by-eight-foot rug.”

If you think your readers might find it odd or even confusing to see a hyphen hanging out at the end of a word, you could always write “full-time and part-time jobs.” There’s no crime in using “time” twice in one sentence.

Going  back to your example, note that hyphens are always used in the compound adjectives “full-time” and “part-time” (as in “She gets a full-time salary for part-time work”).

However, “full time” and “part time” aren’t generally hyphenated as adverbs (“She works full time, not part time”), though you’ll find differing opinions here.

If you use the unhyphenated forms, don’t insert a hyphen just because a part has been omitted. Example: “She doesn’t know whether she works full or part time.”

We answered a similar question about hyphenation a few years ago on our blog. In that case, a part was omitted from a solid (not a hyphenated) compound.

The Chicago Manual’s example for a case like this is “both under- and overfed cats.” This works, however, only when the second part of the compound (“fed” in this case) is the same in both words.

We’ve had many other posts about hyphenation, including one about why Spider-Man has a hyphen and another about hyphenated Americans. We also had a brief summary a few years ago about the use of hyphens.

In case you’re curious, English adopted “hyphen” from late Latin in the early 1600s,  but the word is ultimately derived from a cup-shaped Greek symbol placed under a compound to show that it should be read as one word, not two. (In Greek, “hyphen” means “under one.”)

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Punctuation Usage

Elliptical reasoning

Q: I’m a court reporter working in Baton Rouge. When someone ends a sentence with “so,” we have differing thoughts here amongst the 20 plus of us. Example: “Question, Why did you buy the drugs? Answer, I had the money, so.” Some here end the answer with “money … so.” What are your thoughts.

A: In the sense you’re talking about, “so” is a conjunction meaning “therefore” or “consequently” or “with the result that.”

A sentence ending with this kind of “so” is incomplete. The speaker is indicating that a fuller reply is possible but isn’t being offered. So the sentence is deliberately incomplete—that is, the speaker wasn’t cut off mid-sentence.

Such a deliberate omission, according to the ordinary rules of English punctuation, should be indicated with ellipsis points at the end.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), under section 13.53 (Deliberately incomplete sentence), says, “Three dots are used at the end of a quoted sentence that is deliberately left grammatically incomplete.”

So your sentence would be transcribed this way: “I had the money, so …” Note the space between “so” and the first ellipsis point. No period follows (three dots, not four).

You definitely should not use ellipsis points BEFORE the “so.” If any are used at all, they should FOLLOW the “so.”

But if ellipsis points would lead to any ambiguity, don’t use them.

We wouldn’t use them, for example, if there’s any chance that they could be interpreted as meaning that something unintelligible followed or that the speaker was interrupted.

We weren’t familiar with the punctuation conventions of court reporting, but we took a crash course by visiting the website of Margie Wakeman Wells, author of Court Reporting: Bad Grammar/Good Punctuation.

Wells says the use of ellipses to mark a trailing off has been gaining favor among court reporters. She says the use of a dash should be avoided, even with a space before the dash and a period after it.

A dash would be misleading, in our opinion: “I had the money, so—” It would indicate that the speaker was cut off.

If any misinterpretation is possible, we’d throw the rules to the wind and use a simple period: “I had the money, so.”

Your principal aim is not to follow the conventions of ordinary English punctuation, but to accurately convey the sense of what a witness said. And a simple period would do that.

In short, ellipsis points would be our choice—but ONLY if you’re sure that ellipses couldn’t be interpreted as signaling that the speaker was cut off or unintelligible.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Grammar Punctuation Usage

Quote école

Q: I just discovered your blog and enjoyed reading several entries, although I noticed a small error in the recent post about British and American punctuation. The closing quotation mark in the British example should be inside the period, or rather the full stop, as the British say.

A: We’re glad to hear that you’re enjoying the blog. But our Oct. 29 post is punctuated correctly.

As you note, and as we’ve written before on our blog, British style often calls for placing periods outside closing quotation marks.

Often, but not always. The example we used in our blog post is an exception.

Here’s what The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has to say in a paragraph devoted to the British style for punctuating quotations:

“Single quotation marks are used, and only those punctuation points that appeared in the original material should be included within the quotation marks; all others follow the closing quotation marks. (Exceptions to the rule are widespread: periods, for example are routinely placed inside any quotation that begins with a capital letter and forms a grammatically complete sentence.) Double quotation marks are reserved for quotations within quotations.”

The sentence we used as an illustration is a typical example of this exception: As Professor Witherspoon told us, ‘The word “fructify” means to bear fruit.’

The quotation begins with a capital letter and is a grammatically complete sentence, so the period is placed BEFORE the closing quotation mark.

Keep reading. And keep reading so closely. We like our readers to keep us on our toes.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin

Shady language

Q: I recently heard a recording in which a doctor pronounces “atropine” as if it were spelled “atropin.” Is this legitimate?

A: Yes, there are two standard pronunciations of the organic compound that eye doctors use in solutions to dilate pupils: AT-ruh-peen and AT-ruh-pin.

In fact, “atropin” was the original spelling of this poisonous compound obtained from belladonna and other related plants. Several standard dictionaries still list that as a variant spelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, cites both spellings, with “atropine” pronounced AT-ruh-peen and “atropin” pronounced AT-ruh-pin.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has only the “atropine” spelling and At-ruh-peen pronunciation.

In addition to being used in solutions to dilate eyes, the naturally occurring alkaloid atropine is used, among other things, in medicine to inhibit muscle spasms.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Records of General Science, an 1836 collection of scientific knowledge:

“Atropin may be obtained in a crystalline state by dissolving it in the smallest possible quantity of boiling water.”

The word “atropine” comes from atropa belladonna, the scientific name of the perennial plant that’s also known as deadly nightshade.

English borrowed belladonna from the Italian name for the plant (it comes from the Italian words for “beautiful woman”).

However, the plant’s name is ultimately derived from Atropos, one of the three Greek Fates, according to the OED.

In Greek mythology, Atropos was the Fate responsible for deciding how people died and cutting their threads of life with her shears.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Grammar Punctuation Usage

A sense of wonder

Q: I was typing out dialogue for a play, and wrote this sentence: “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle?” I see dialogue like this all the time, written as if the speaker is asking a question. But then it struck me; is this truly a question? Should it be punctuated with a question mark or a period?

A: Obviously, someone who wonders about something has a question on his mind.

But a sentence beginning “I wonder” is a statement, not a question, and a statement should end with a period: “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle.” (In case any readers are wondering, we’ll discuss “who” versus “whom” later.)

This is an example of an indirect question, and as The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, “An indirect question never takes a question mark.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples of indirect questions: “He wondered whether it was worth the risk” and “How the two could be reconciled was the question on everyone’s mind.”

This is a subject we touched on in 2010, but it’s worth mentioning again.

Sometimes a mini-question (like the single word “who,” “when,” “how,” or “why”) is embedded within a statement. Here, too, no question mark is used, though the word may be italicized.

The Chicago Manual illustrates this with two examples: “She asked herself why” and “The question was no longer how but when.”

Similarly, as Chicago says, “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

A typical example: “Would you kindly respond by March 1.”

So much for indirect questions. But as conscientious language mavens, we should mention one other point about your sentence, “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle.”

A purist would remind you that technically, the grammatical construction calls for “whom” instead of “who.” But we believe that “who” can be defended here.

As we’ve written before on our blog, in speech or in casual writing it can seem stuffy and unnatural to begin a sentence or clause with “whom.” So in what appears to be an informal office conversation, you can certainly justify your use of “who” instead.

By the way, the verb “wonder” is very old, dating back to
Anglo-Saxon days. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Alfred’s translation of Boethius into Old English, circa 888, when “to wonder” meant to be struck with surprise or astonishment.

The noun “wonder” is even older, according to OED citations, first appearing in “Caedmon’s Hymn,” an Old English poem from around 700, when it referred to something that causes astonishment.

The noun (wunder in Old English) is similar to words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, and other Germanic languages.

Check out our books about the English language

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Pronunciation Punctuation Slang Spelling Usage

Pat in NY Times on Web. 3 furor

Read Pat’s review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on the furor over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. She’s reviewing The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner.

Check out our books about the English language

English language Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Something for the weekend?

Q: Before 1945, there was, in effect, no “weekend.” My father worked Saturday and half Sunday up to the late ’40s. Also, my memory is of a hyphenated “week-end.” It must have changed over the late ’50s and early ’60s.

A: The two-day weekend break (three or more days on holidays) may be relatively new, but the word “weekend” isn’t. It dates back to the 17th century.

As for that hyphen, “weekend” evolved like most compound words: they usually begin life as two separate words, are later hyphenated, and finally become one solid word, though this process can be a bit messy.

We checked nine standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all of them now list “weekend” without the hyphen.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary still hyphenates the word in its main entry (“week-end”), though the term is hyphen-free in all OED citations from the 1970s onward.

What is a “weekend”? Well, some dictionaries consider it Saturday and Sunday, others include Friday night, and still others describe it as the period between the end of one workweek and the start of another. (A “long weekend” is one extended by adjacent days.)

When the word entered English nearly 400 years ago, it simply meant the end of the week—at least, that’s the apparent sense in the OED’s earliest citation, a 1638 quotation reproduced in the Victoria County History of Yorkshire:

“The greatest weight of the said exaction will fall upon very poor people … who making every week a coarse kersey and being compelled to sell the same at the week end … are nevertheless constrained to yield one half penny apiece.” (Kersey is a heavy wool or wool and cotton fabric.)

In the next OED citation, from The Journal of the Rev. William Bagshaw Stevens (1793), the author seems to be using the word “weekend” in the sense of a period of leisure between two workweeks.

In a journal entry, Stevens, headmaster of the Repton School in Derbyshire, notes his plans to visit a friend, the Rev. John D. Dewe, a master at the Appleby School:

“Wrote to Dewe that I would put on my seven league boots next weekend and stretch my course to Appleby.”

(The excerpt comes from a version of the journal edited by Georgina Galbraith and published in 1965. The editing may account for this early appearance of “weekend” as a solid word.)

The next two OED citations, from the 19th century, are more specific about the meaning of the term.

Here’s an example from the Food Journal (1870): “ ‘Week-end,’ that is from Saturday until Monday,—it may be a later day in the week if the money and credit hold out,—is the season of dissipation.”

The journal Notes and Queries printed this passage in 1879: “In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.”

But the fun begins on Friday in this example from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel The Day Will Come (1889):

“Theodore and his friend betook themselves to Cheriton Chase on the following Friday, for that kind of visit which north country people describe as ‘a week end’.”

As we’ve said, none of the OED citations for “weekend” since the 1970s have hyphens. Here are a few examples, with “weekend” used attributively—that is, as an adjective:

“Lieutenant Mark Phillips, on weekend leave from Germany, went hunting on Saturday with Princess Anne.” (From the Guardian, 1973.)

“A weekend bag packed with scent, toothbrush and so forth.” (From Julia O’Faolain’s novel The Obedient Wife, 1982.)

“Humphrey Brooke was only a weekend gardener until … he decided to retire.” (From Harper’s and Queen, 1974.)

“Weekending French families setting out in their saloons for the countryside.” (From Anthony Grey’s novel Some Put Their Trust in Chariots, 1973.)

In Western countries, the week is typically divided into a workweek of Monday through Friday, and a weekend of Saturday and Sunday.

However, the usual workweek is often longer in other parts of the world. And the weekend can fall on other days, depending on the predominant religion in the area.

We won’t get into a detailed history of the two-day weekend, except to note that Henry Ford began giving his auto workers Saturday and Sunday off in 1926, the year the American Federation of Labor set a five-day, 40-hour week as one of its goals.

By the summer of 1929, according to a report by CQ Researcher, from one-half to three-quarters of a million American wage earners had a five-day week.

We should note, though, that many Americans don’t have a traditional workweek. When we were journalists, for example, we often worked on Saturday and Sunday, and had our days off on weekdays.

We’ll close this with a usage that was new to us. The phrase “something for the weekend” is a British euphemism for a condom (and sometimes for another sexual aid, like an aphrodisiac).

The OED explains the origins of this colloquialism: “Traditionally, as part of a question that barbers were said to have put to their customers.”

According to a 1987 citation in the Sunday Times of London, “Barbers would ask our fathers: ‘Anything for the weekend, sir?’ ”

This would seem to give a whole new meaning to the question, “How was your weekend?”

Check out our books about the English language

English language Punctuation Usage

Quote du jour

Q: I grew up learning and practicing that single quotes belong within double quotes, or sometimes in headlines. But everybody seems to be using single quotes now. Have double quotes gone the way of the buggy whip?

A: We haven’t noticed an increase in the use of single quotation marks—at least not in American usage. Could it be that you’ve been reading a lot of British authors lately?

In the American system of punctuation, double quotation marks are used to enclose quoted material. Any interior quotations—that is, words quoted within a larger quotation—are enclosed in single quotation marks.

The British convention is just the reverse. The British generally use single quotation marks, while the interior quotations are enclosed within double quote marks. That’s why novels and other materials published in the UK can look startling to an American reader.

So if you’re seeing more single quote marks in writing by Americans, you’re seeing something unusual. However, as you say, single quote marks are used in most newspaper headlines.

Here’s how the same sentence would be punctuated in the US and UK systems.

American: As Professor Witherspoon told us, “The word ‘fructify’ means to bear fruit.”

British: As Professor Witherspoon told us, ‘The word “fructify” means to bear fruit.’

However, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) points out that there are exceptions in some specialized kinds of American writing.

In linguistic and phonetic studies, a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks.

And in horticultural writing, the names of cultivars are sometimes enclosed in single quotation marks.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Punctuation Usage

Plural jam

Q: After being so careful to say “daughters-in-law” and “passersby,” it seems wrong to say “cupfuls” or “handfuls.” Can you explain?

A: The convention here, according to usage guides, is that you use a normal plural ending for a solid compound and that you pluralize the most important part of a compound that’s split into parts.

But what about “passersby”? It’s the exception that proves the rule (an expression we’ve discussed on the blog).

“Passerby” was two words when it first showed up in the 16th century as the plural “passers by,” according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A hyphenated version appeared in the mid-18th century and a one-word version in the late 20th century. When the hyphen was lost, though, the plural “s” remained in the middle of “passersby.”

Here’s how Pat, in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, explains the pluralization of compound words:

“• If a compound word is solid and has no hyphen (-), put the normal plural ending at the end of the word:

Churchmen love soapboxes. Kipling appeals to schoolchildren and fishwives. Doormen are good at getting taxicabs. You don’t find Biedermeier bookcases in alleyways. Babies dump spoonfuls of jam on footstools.

“• If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part (underlined in the examples):

Mothers-in-law like to attend courts-martial. Are they ladies-in-waiting or just hangers-on? Those counselors-at-law ate all the crêpes suzette. Do rear admirals serve on men-of-war?

“• Watch out for general when it’s part of a compound word. In a military title, general is usually the important part, so it gets the s. In a civilian title, general isn’t the root, so it doesn’t get the s:

Two attorneys general went dancing with two major generals. Those consuls general are retired brigadier generals.

We’ve discussed hyphens and compound words many times on the blog, including a posting a couple of years ago.

As we said then, “Often nouns begin life as two separate words (like ‘home school’ and ‘try out’), then become hyphenated words (‘home-school,’ ‘try-out’), and finally lose their hyphens as they become more common (‘homeschool,’ ‘tryout’).”

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Five foot two, hyphens too?

Q: Woe Is I saved me from an “I”-versus-“me” embarrassment in a murder mystery I wrote. But I can’t find anything in Pat’s grammar book about “six foot ladder” and “five feet two” questions. I’m on the side of not using hyphens in these cases. Hope to gain a bit of insight from you.

A: This is an issue of style, not grammar. Although style guides agree on “six-foot ladder” (they recommend a hyphen), they’re at odds about “five feet two.”

We’ll get to our opinion in a moment, but we should mention that Pat does include a section on hyphens, “Betwixt and Between,” in Woe Is I (pages 175-79 in the third edition).

And she discusses whether to hyphenate a two-word description that modifies a noun (as in “six-foot ladder”). Here’s an excerpt:

“One of the hardest things to figure out with hyphens is how to use them in two-word descriptions. When two words are combined to describe a noun, sometimes you use a hyphen between them and sometimes you don’t.

“The first question to ask yourself is whether the description comes before or after the noun.

“• If it’s after the noun, don’t use a hyphen. Father is strong willed. My cousin is red haired. This chicken is well done. Ducks are water resistant.

“• If it’s before the noun, use a hyphen between the two words in the description. He’s a strong-willed father. I have a red-haired cousin. This is well-done chicken. Those are water-resistant ducks.

Pat goes on to point out several exceptions, but we don’t need to get into them here. In answer to the ladder question, style manuals would recommend that you climb “a six-foot ladder,” but “the ladder is six feet” (or “six feet tall”).

Why “foot” in the first example and “feet” in the second?

We use singular nouns in nearly all adjectival phrases that precede nouns: “two-car garage,” “three-week vacation,” “four-bedroom house,” “five-month-old puppy,” “six-foot pipe,” and so on.

The only exception is with fractions, where the plural is often used in adjectival phrases that precede nouns: “a two-thirds turnout,” “a three-fifths margin,” etc.

Woe Is I doesn’t get into the hyphenation of adjectival phrases that describe dimensions (as in your “five feet two” question), but we’ve discussed this subject on our blog.

Again, if the phrase precedes a noun, it’s hyphenated, and a noun that’s part of it is singular: “a five-foot-two girl.”

Style guides differ, however, on how to deal with an adjectival phrase that follows the noun it modifies: Use hyphens, or not? Spell out numbers, or not? And so on.

The New York Times, for example, would say the girl is “5 feet 2 inches tall” or “5-foot-2.” The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, would recommend she’s “five feet two,” though it would accept what it considers the more colloquial “five foot two.”

The Times’s style on this seems reasonable and natural to us. There’s nothing wrong with saying “She’s five feet two inches,” but if you drop the word “inches,” it seems to us that “She’s five-foot-two” is more idiomatically correct (with or without the hyphens). 

Now, the Chicago Manual does appear to be on your side about whether to use hyphens here. And with style guides at odds, the choice is yours. Feel free to say, “She’s five feet two.”

We can’t resist concluding with a few lines from one of the many hyphenless versions of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”

Five foot two, eyes of blue,
But oh! what those five foot could do,
Has anybody seen my gal?
Turned up nose, turned down hose,
Never had no other beaus,
Has anybody seen my gal?

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation Usage

Why the hyphen in Spider-Man?

Q: The latest Spider-Man movie made me realize that I’d been misspelling the superhero’s name as “Spiderman” (as I type this the red, wriggly, spell-check line tells me the non-hyphenated word is wrong). So why does “Spider-Man” have a hyphen?

A: Spider-Man’s name has a hyphen because Stan Lee, who created the comic character with Steve Ditko, apparently wanted to distinguish him from Superman.

In a Feb. 24, 2010, comment on Twitter, Lee wrote: “Spidey’s official name has a hyphen—‘Spider-Man.’ Know why? When I first dreamed him up I didn’t want anyone confusing him with Superman!”

However, Lee’s memory may have been playing tricks. His superhero’s name appeared as two words, “SPIDER MAN,” when it first showed up in 1962 on the cover of the final issue of Amazing Fantasy (a magazine previously known as Amazing Adult Fantasy).

And clarity may not have been the only reason for distinguishing Spider-Man from Superman. We’ve read that Lee, a former president of Marvel Comics, may have wanted to avoid infringing on the DC Comics trademarks for the unhyphenated Superman.

(“Stan Lee,” by the way, is the pen name of Stanley Martin Lieber.)

Interestingly, the word “spider-man” had been around (with and without a hyphen) before the Stan Lee character showed up.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Britannica Book of the Year (1955): “Spiderman, an erector of building structures.”

The OED’s entry for “spider-man” (Oxford uses a hyphen) defines the term as “one employed to work on high structures; a steeple-jack.”

We’ll end with a 1958 citation from the Radio Times, a British magazine that features broadcast program listings:

“These spider-men and steel-erectors work at great heights, often where there are no means of protection. They walk along girders at dizzy heights as though they were strolling along Piccadilly.”

And by the way, be skeptical of those red, wriggly lines. There are lots of words that spell-checkers don’t know!

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Dating service

Q: I am a proofreader at a law firm where the house style calls for a comma after a full date in a sentence. Recently I was reprimanded (mildly) for removing commas after the years in a list like this: “July 24, 2011, letter; February 16, 2012, memorandum; April 19, 2012, document , etc.” I contend that the dates here are being used as adjectives, and should not be separated by punctuation from the nouns they modify. Can you help me with this? Otherwise I will be forced to insert commas while my mind screams “NO.”

A: Our answer will disappoint you. As we’ve written before on our blog, “In the month-day-year style, we use commas both before and after the year (except at the end of a sentence): ‘The party on March 3, 2009, was a blowout.’ ”

And this is true whether or not the date is being used as an adjective, as in “The March 3, 2009, party was a blowout.”

Most American style and usage authorities follow this system, though not all. One dissenter, Bryan A. Garner, is an authority on legal writing, and his views may be of particular interest to you. We’ll get to them later.

But first let’s see what The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), one of the most widely used American style guides, has to say on the subject of “dates as adjectives”:

“Dates are often used as descriptive adjectives, more often today than in years past. … If a full month-day-year date is used, then a comma is considered necessary both before and after the year (the May 18, 2002, commencement ceremonies).”

Here the Chicago Manual adds that such a construction is awkward and “is therefore best avoided (commencement ceremonies on May 18, 2002).”

Later, the editors give examples of non-adjectival usage, like this one: “June 5, 1928, lives on in the memories of only a handful of us.”

We’re not sure the dates in your list can be called adjectives or not, but that’s irrelevant. Either way, we recommend that you retain the commas after the years.

Again, this convention applies only to dates that use the full shebang—month, day, and year. As we noted in that previous blog entry, you don’t need a comma if only the day and month, or the month and year, are given: “The March 5 party was a blowout” or “The party in March 2009 was a blowout.”

By the way, we’re describing the use of commas in the American dating system (month-day-year). In the British system (day-month-year), no commas are used.

Here’s an example of the British style from the Chicago Manual: “See his journal entries of 6 October 1999 and 4 January 2000.”

Now for that dissenting opinion from Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and editor of Black’s Law Journal.

In the third edition of his usage guide, Garner agrees with the Chicago Manual that using the full date as an adjective “is particularly clumsy.” But then he goes on to say:

“Stylists who use this phrasing typically omit the comma after the year, and justifiably so: in the midst of an adjective phrase (i.e., the date), it impedes the flow of the writing too much.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Punctuation

Lyrical punctuation

Q: Anthropologie, a price-inflated clothing company with a creatively spelled name, emailed me a sales pitch with a line of lyrics that I found hilariously alienating. Who goofed—the writer of the song or of the ad?

A: In Anthropologie’s email, the first line of Ingrid Michaelson’s song “You and I” reads this way: “Oh let’s get rich and buy our parents’ homes in the south of France.”

That possessive apostrophe doesn’t belong there.

Obviously, the indie singer-songwriter means “buy our parents homes”—that is, buy homes for the parents, not from them.

The possessive apostrophe in the email version skews the meaning into “let’s buy from our parents the homes they own in the south of France.”

But the mistake is Anthropologie’s, not Ingrid Michaelson’s. The lyrics as given on her website don’t use the apostrophe.

On the other hand, Michaelson isn’t entirely without blame. In the lyrics on her website, the contraction “let’s” is missing its apostrophe. And everything is lowercase, even “France.”

However, we aren’t usually bothered by lyric writers who take liberties with English. We’ve said before on the blog that lyricists are exempt from the rules of grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, pronunciation, and even logic!

As for the company’s “creatively spelled name,” it’s the French word for “anthropology.” In fact, the English word has occasionally been spelled that way too.

For example, that spelling is used in a 1673 English translation of De Motu Cordis, William Harvey’s 1628 book in Latin about the circulation of blood:

“I call the generall doctrine of man Anthropologie, the parts of which, I do ordain to be, according to this division, Psychologie, Somatologie, and Hœmatologie, into the doctrine of the soul, bodie, and blood.”

In case you’re curious, “anthropology” (spelled with a “y”) entered English in the late 16th century.

In fact, the first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1593 work by another Harvey, the astrologer and polemicist Richard Harvey:

“Genealogy or issue which they had, Artes which they studied, Actes which they did. This part of History is named Anthropology.”

The word is ultimately derived from the Greek anthropos (man) and –logia (a science or area of study).

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Pronunciation Punctuation Spelling Usage

Was the Founders’ English less than perfect?

Q: A coworker points out that the Founding Fathers used “insure” incorrectly. Of course no one wants to say Thomas Jefferson was wrong! And as you note, “ensure” and “insure” have much in common.

A: The Constitution and its Preamble were written in 1787, and the language, capitalizations, and spellings reflect the usage of the day. The Preamble reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

We’ve reproduced the original 1787 spellings, quoting from the document held in the National Archives. The spellings “defence” (still used in British English) and “insure” were common usage in the 18th century.

As we’ve written before on our blog, in current usage to “insure” is to issue or buy insurance against financial loss, while to “ensure” is to make certain of something.

That’s the usual practice, and the one recommended by usage guides, though dictionaries say the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Meanwhile, in current usage to “assure” means to reassure or remove doubt, though the British sometimes use the term in the technical sense of to underwrite financial loss.

As you can see, English usage changes over time!

Thomas Jefferson used “insure” in the general sense in a memoir he wrote in 1825, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A recurrence to these letters now insures me against errors of memory.”

Jefferson, by the way, didn’t write the Preamble or any other part of the Constitution. He was ambassador to France at the time, and was out of the country during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

But he did write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, though a few touches were added by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

The authorship of the Preamble and much of the rest of the Constitution is credited to another of the Founders, Gouverneur Morris, who was a Pennsylvania delegate to the 1787 convention.

In the past, we’ve answered several other questions about the Preamble, in case you’re interested.

In 2011, we had postings in May and November about the phrase “We the People.” And in 2008, we had postings in January and November about the phrase “more perfect.”

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Just because

Q: I’m in the editing phase of a book and notice that the copyeditor has added a comma before many (perhaps most) occurrences of the word “because.” This seems to halt the flow of the sentences, but I wonder if a rule exists that I’m not aware of.

A: Generally, according to the few usage guides that comment on this issue, a comma is not used before “because.”

The comma is appropriate only when needed to guide the reader through an unusually long or complex sentence.

The conjunction “because” generally introduces a dependent clause, one that adds information to the main clause. The “because” clause provides a reason, cause, or motive—the “why” of the sentence.

Normally, the “because” part flows smoothly from the main clause and no break is needed between them: “He ran because he was a coward” … “They moved because they’re expecting a third child” … “She’s upset because you left.”

However, according to some usage guides, you do need a preceding comma if the clause starts with “perhaps because” or “possibly because” or “but not because” (“He ran, perhaps because he was a coward”).

And you need a following comma, according to these usage authorities, if the “because clause” comes first (“Because he was a coward, he ran”).

You’ll find advice along these lines in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) and The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage.

Note that a sentence with a negative verb followed by “because” can easily be misread: “He wasn’t fired because he was late.” Was he fired or wasn’t he?

Do the reader a favor and clarify the situation: “He wasn’t fired because he was late. He was fired because he embezzled money.”

That kind of negative sentence, by the way, can be changed completely if a comma is thoughtlessly added.

For example, these two sentences have opposite meanings: “She didn’t marry him because he was dying” … “She didn’t marry him, because he was dying.”

In the first sentence, she married him—but not because he was dying. In the second sentence, she didn’t marry him—because he was dying.

If the first sentence is what you mean to say, it’s better to rewrite it and avoid the ambiguity: “She married him, but not because he was dying.”

It’s always worth taking one more look at those commas!

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Punctuation Usage

Is “who’s” short for “who is” or “who has”?

Q: I avoid “who’s” when referencing “who has” as opposed to “who is,” which seems the most obvious and possibly only correct usage. Can you clarify whether “who’s” can be used for “who has,” and if other contractions like it are acceptable as well?

A: In pronoun + verb contractions like “she’s,” “he’s,” “who’s,” “that’s,” and so on, the ’s ending represents a shortening of either “is” or “has.” Both are grammatically correct, according to standard usage guides, including Pat’s book Woe Is I.

So “who’s” is a legitimate contraction of both “who is” and “who has.” Examples: “Who’s he?” … “Who’s done the dishes?”

Similarly, “what’s” is a legitimate contraction of “what is” and “what has.” Examples: “What’s your name?” … “What’s happened to you?”

However, the use of ’s as a shortening of “does” is considered a casual or informal usage. So using “what’s” for “what does” (as in “What’s he think he’s doing?”) would not be recommended for formal writing. We recently had posting about this.

One last point: A lot of people think contractions aren’t quite right, especially when they want their writing to be at its very best. If you’re one of them, think again.

As we write in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, writers have been using contractions since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

“And such shortenings were an accepted part of the language for hundreds of years,” we say. “In Elizabethan times, for instance, Shakespeare didn’t spare contractions. He used them in dialogue (‘But he’s an arrant knave’—Hamlet), in titles (All’s Well That Ends Well ), and in sonnets (‘That’s for thyself to breed another thee’).”

It wasn’t until the early 1700s that anybody thought to question the use of contractions. Addison, Swift, Pope, and others began raising questions about their suitability in print, though educated people routinely used them in conversation.

By the late 18th century, contractions were tolerated in speech but considered a no-no in writing. But by the early 20th century, contractions were back in favor again.

In the 1920s, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his famous usage guide, and most writing handbooks now recommend contractions.

Lots of traditionalists, however, still haven’t gotten the word.

Check out our books about the English language

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

An etymological valentine

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, both of whom are 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 Middle English, 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?

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language.

Grammar Punctuation Usage

Need a PhD to pluralize “master’s degree”?

Q: I’ve been asked to edit some policy papers for the graduate dean at the university where I teach. My inclination is to change “Masters degree” to “Master’s degree.” Do you have an opinion? Also, after reading through some rather convoluted arguments on the Web, I’m at sea over how to punctuate “I have two Master’s degrees.” Do you have a clear explanation of the issue?

A: On our blog, we follow The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), and use the apostrophe: “master’s degree.”

We also lowercase “master’s” when used generically (as in “My son is working on a master’s degree”).

Note that when you pluralize the phrase as a whole, only “degree” gets the plural “s.” The adjective “master’s” doesn’t itself become plural.

So that sentence you’re editing should be written this way: “I have two master’s degrees.”

This practice is also followed in publications of the Modern Language Association.

For example, here’s a sentence from a paper published by the MLA last June (“Rethinking the Master’s Degree in English for a New Century”): “Across all fields of study, the number of master’s degrees granted between 1980–81 and 2007–08 increased 111%, from 295,731 to 625,023.”

We wouldn’t be surprised if the master’s and bachelor’s degrees lost their apostrophes someday, just as the abbreviations—MA and BA—have lost their periods.

Punctuation does tend to fall away over time, as with USA, MD (for medical doctor), USA, NFL, and so on.

But for now, the apostrophe is still used with those degrees in the Chicago Manual as well as in standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Usage

What’s your weekend look like?

Q: The other day I got a brochure in the mail with a cover that read, “What’s your weekend look like?” Yikes! So embarrassing!

A: The writer of that brochure used “what’s” as a casual or informal contraction of “what does.” But in standard written English, “what’s” is normally a contraction of either “what is” or “what has” (as in “What’s you name?” or “What’s he done now?”).

In written English, the verb “do” is normally contracted only with “not”—in “don’t,” “didn’t,” and “doesn’t.” It’s not usually contracted with a pronoun (like “what”).

When people use “what’s” to mean “what does”—shrinking “does” to an apostrophe and “s”—they’re more likely to be talking than writing.

In discussing contracted forms of the verb “do,” Sidney Greenbaum writes in the Oxford English Grammar: “The contracted form ’s is only occasionally found in writing: Who’s she take after?, What’s he say? It is more common in informal speech.”

In another oral contraction we sometimes hear, “did” is reduced to an apostrophe and “d,” as in “What’d they say?” This too is often heard in speech but very seldom used in writing (except written dialogue).

So we don’t think this use of “what’s” belongs in good writing, unless you’re deliberately trying to to sound colloquial, and it probably shouldn’t have appeared in a brochure seeking business. But we don’t consider it an egregious error, and it’s fairly common in casual conversation.

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Compound fractures

Q: You recently quoted a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary that uses the word “overtasking.” I initially read this as “overt-asking.” You’ve written before about how a compound often evolves from two separate words, to hyphenated words, to one word. But what about confusing compounds? Do they keep their hyphens to avoid misunderstanding?

A: Yes, some potentially confusing compounds do retain their hyphens to avoid misunderstanding, though “overtasking” isn’t generally considered one of them. Most of these puzzlers begin, or appear to begin, with prefixes.

The prefix “re-” is probably the biggest culprit here. For example, a hyphen can help a reader differentiate “re-creation” (making anew) from “recreation” (an enjoyable activity), and “re-sign” (sign again) from “resign” (quit).

Here are some other examples: “re-cover” (cover again) from “recover” (regain); “re-collect” (collect again) from “recollect” (remember); “re-form” (form again) from “reform” (change); “re-treat” (treat again) from “retreat” (go back).

Other prefixes can be confusing too. A hyphen in the adjective “multi-ply” (having several layers) distinguishes it from the verb “multiply.“ And before cooperative apartments became more common, hyphens were always used in “co-op” so it wasn’t mistaken for the “coop” that chickens live in.

We once wrote a blog entry that touches on confusion over the pronunciation of a word that could perhaps use a hyphen: “biopic” (a film biography).

No, the prefix “bi-“ isn’t there, but the eye might think it is. Maybe “biopic” should have a hyphen after “bio” so it’s not interpreted as “bi-opic,” which sounds like a word for double vision.

Familiar phrases can mislead us too. At a glance, the eye might read the phrase “a fine toothbrush” as “a fine-tooth brush.”

And a writer might want to distinguish between a “small businessman” and a “small-business man,” though we’d probably avoid the confusion by referring to the little guy as a short businessman.

We could give you more examples, but you get the idea. The presence or absence of a hyphen can make a difference, so both writer and reader need to pay attention.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation Usage

When did “Venus’s beauty” get a second “s”?

Q: I am 50 and I was taught that words ending in “s” (“Chris,” for example) were made possessive by adding an apostrophe (“Chris’ coat”). But in recent years I have noticed another “s” being added after the apostrophe. When did “Chris’s” get an extra “s”?

A: As far as we can tell, an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns since at least the 1700s. This has been true whether the nouns ended in “s” or not.

A 1772 edition of Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar, for example, says the possessive “is formed by adding (s) with an apostrophe before it” to a singular noun. Examples include one with a singular noun ending in “s” (“Venus’s beauty”).

So a name or other singular noun that ends in “s” (like “Chris”) is usually made possessive with the addition of an apostrophe plus a final “s” (as in “Chris’s coat”).

Here’s the rule, from The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.): “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 sx, or z.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 24, 2019, to cite the wording in the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual.]

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

The manual goes on to say: “Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s—hence ‘Dylan Thomas’ poetry,’ ‘Etta James’ singing,’ and ‘that business’ main concern.’ Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

The point about pronunciation is a good one. When a name ends in  “s” or another sibilant sound, we add a syllable when pronouncing the possessive form. So the possessive form of the name “Chris” is pronounced KRIS-ez—a good enough reason to retain the final “s.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written before on the blog about forming the possessive of plural names. And if you’re game for a little history, we had an item on how the apostrophe became the mark of possession.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Usage

A cereal comma?

Q: I’ve noticed that the NY Times has changed its comma rule for punctuating words in a series. The paper now drops the comma before the last item. Example: “Cheerios, Fruit Loops and Rice Krispies.” This can be confusing. Any idea how the Times arrived at this decision?

A: As far as we know, this has always been the Times’s policy on commas. Like many newspapers, it doesn’t use a final comma before the last item in a series.

The paper’s most recent style guide (1999) says: “In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series.” The Times’s policy was the same in the previous style guide (1976).

When the two of us worked for the Times, we naturally followed the rule. But we think, as you do, that the final serial comma (sometimes called the Oxford comma) is a good idea and aids in readability. We use it in our blog.

We’ve written postings in 2011 and 2010 on the subject. The latest one includes some speculation (not by us!) about why newspapers omit the serial comma.

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

A sign of the Times’s?

Q: On the Authors page of your website, you say Pat once “wrote the Times’s weekly columns on new video releases and paperback books.” Why do you add an “s” after the apostrophe in “Times’s”? I would think one “s” is enough.

A: The New York Times, like the Times of London, treats the “Times” in its name as a singular word. Thus when used as a possessive, the name “Times” is followed by an apostrophe plus another “s.”

Though this practice is a longstanding newspaper tradition, it’s not endorsed by standard guides on usage. So you’re right to question our use of the extra “s.” But in our opinion, this is a style issue that’s neither right nor wrong.

Within an entry about the use of apostrophes, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says: “Almost all singular words ending in s require a second s as well as the apostrophe to form the possessive: James’s; Chris’s; The Times’s.”

Elsewhere, in an entry about the use of the newspaper’s name, the manual says: “Note the possessive: The Times’s coverage.”

And in an entry about possessives in general, it says: “Ordinarily form a possessive by adding ’s to a singular noun (the boy’s boots; the girl’s coat), even if the noun already ends in an s (The Times’s article).”

But the paper doesn’t extend this rule to other proper names that consist of technically plural words: “Sometimes a singular idea is expressed in words that are technically plural; in such a case, use the plural form of the possessive: United States’; General Motors’. Never United States’s, etc.”

Is this a double standard? Is the paper making an exception for itself?

For an answer we turned to The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.). In its rules on possessives, the style guide has a section about nouns that are plural in form but singular in meaning.

The Chicago Manual recommends adding only an apostrophe “when the name of a place or an organization or a publication (or the last element in the name) is a plural form ending in s, such as the United States, even though the entity is singular.”

The examples given are “the United States’ role in international law … Highland Hills’ late mayor … Callaway Gardens’ former curator … the National Academy of Sciences’ new policy.”

In a separate entry, the Chicago Manual discusses the use of apostrophes with italics (it recommends italicizing the names of publications). It gives these examples: “the Atlantic Monthly’s editor … the New York Times’ new fashion editor.”

So it appears that the newspaper does indeed have a double standard, allowing “Times” to be singular in its own name, but not “Motors” (in “General Motors”) or “States” (in “United States”).

But there’s some justification for this.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for many senses of the plural “times,”  including “the general state of affairs at a particular period.” This is the sense of the word that has appeared in the names of newspapers since 1788.

The Times of London, the first to use “Times” in its name, treats the word as a singular when referring to itself.

For example, a section called “Bricks and Mortar” is advertised as “The Times’s weekly property supplement.”

And recent news articles include such references as “before The Times’s revelations” … “not even The Times’s esteemed chief theatre critic” … “since the beginning of The Times’s campaign” … “The Times’s respected rugby correspondent” … “The Times’s profile of him.”

And the Financial Times has the same policy (“the Financial Times’s London office” … “the Financial Times’s analysis of health department figures”), though it modestly refrains from capitalizing “the.”

There’s one other point to be made here. If the possessive form changes in pronunciation (for example, from TIMES to TIMES-ez), then it’s usually spelled with an extra “s.”

The two of us worked at the New York Times for many years, and we know that the possessive form of the name is commonly pronounced with the extra syllable. But we don’t usually hear the extra “ez” in the possessive forms of “General Motors” and “United States.”

So we’ll stick with the extra “s” when we write the possessive form: “Times’s.” But those who choose to omit it may do so with a clean conscience.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Spelling Usage

Its/it’s: Grammar, punctuation, spelling?

Q: Over dinner, a friend said she had corrected a co-worker’s mistaken use of “its” where “it’s” was appropriate. She described this as a grammatical error, but our dinner party was evenly split over whether it was grammar or spelling. Any chance you can shed some light on this?

A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.

But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.

It also represents a failure to recognize that possessive pronouns don’t sport apostrophes.

So the problem is more than just a spelling goof in our opinion. That probably puts us into the grammar-error camp.

You might be interested in a blog entry we wrote last year about how the apostrophe came to be the mark of possession.

If any reader of the blog is confused by “its” and “it’s,” check out our 2007 posting about the “it” squad.

In the meantime, here’s an easy way to keep “its” and “it’s” straight: If you can substitute “it is” or “it has,” then “it’s” is right. Otherwise, choose “its.”

(The language blogger Jan Freeman argues that these “its”/“it’s” errors are merely typos, but comments from readers of our books, articles, and postings over the last 15 years suggest otherwise. Although a lot of the mistakes are undoubtedly typos, many, many people believe the presence of an apostrophe in “it’s” makes it a possessive. In fact, Pat’s first book, Woe Is I, was inspired by a publisher whose highly educated, adult children didn’t know the difference between these two words.)

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation Usage

Do you pronounce the H in Hubert?

Q: My brother’s name is “Hubert.” My son’s name is “Hugh.” Am I making a mistake when I say their names without pronouncing the initial “H”? What about “hue,” “humid,” “Hume”?

A: The short answer is that the “h” is usually pronounced in these words, so “Hubert” sounds like HYOO-bert, “Hugh” and “hue” like HYOO, “humid” like HYOO-mid, and “Hume” like HYOOM.

But quite a few people don’t pronounce the initial letter, so “Hubert” then sounds like YOO-bert, “Hugh” and “hue” like YOO, “humid” like YOO-mid, and “Hume” like YOOM.

And the people who do pronounce the “h” do it in all sorts of ways, from a very aitchy “h” to a whisper of aitchiness that can barely be heard.

Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).

All of the standard dictionaries we checked say the proper names you asked about (“Hubert,” Hugh,” “Hume”) should be pronounced with the “h” sounded.

But the dictionaries differ about pronouncing “hue” and “humid,” as well as “huge,” “human,” and similar words.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, lists only one pronunciation for each of these words: with the “h” sounded.

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also includes “h”-less pronunciations of “humid,” “huge,” and “human.” And the other standard dictionaries we checked generally agree with M-W.

In its entries for “humid,” “huge,” and “human,” the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary says the words are “often” heard with “h”-less pronunciations.

Interestingly, English adopted all three of these words from early versions of French where the “h” wasn’t sounded.

In the case of “human,” which comes from Latin via Middle French and Anglo-Norman, “the origin of the vocalism is unclear,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes that the word begins with an “h” in some Romance languages (for example, humano in Spanish, where it’s not pronounced) and without it in others (umano in Italian).

So are you making a mistake by not pronouncing the “h” in the names of your brother and your son?

Yes, according to standard dictionaries. But a lot of people do it. And as Alexander Pope observed, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Are you dotty enough?

Q: Would you please address the disappearing period in print, from AD to MD to CC Sabathia. What is being saved by dropping the dot?

A. Many abbreviations have lost their dots lately in dictionaries and publications: RSVP, MD, USA, and scores of others.

This is an issue of style or convention, and such things change over the years—usually in the direction of simplicity. When in doubt, check your dictionary (and make sure it’s up to date).

If you’re writing for publication, follow the house style guide on whether to use points or not in specific abbreviations.

The New York Times, for example, generally uses points in abbreviations when the letters stand for separate words: F.C.C, I.B.M., N.R.A., J. C. Penney.

But the Times drops the periods in acronyms (abbreviations pronounced as words): NATO, AIDS, NASA.

The Guardian, on the other hand, doesn’t use points in abbreviations (or spaces between initials): BBC, US, mph, eg, etc, 4am, No 10, PJ O’Rourke, WH Smith.

As you can see, the conventions for using periods in abbreviations differ from publication to publication, dictionary to dictionary, style manual to style manual.

When you’re not writing for publication, be consistent. If you use dots with M.D. in one spot, don’t use a dotless MD in another.

We haven’t actually answered your question: What is being saved by dropping the dot?

Well, if you’re in a hurry, as so many of us are these days, every little dot counts.

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

An inner-office memo?

Q: I recently came across a person who uses “inner-office mail” as opposed to “inter-office mail.” When I questioned her usage, she informed me that many colleges use “inner” instead of “inter,” and that both are acceptable. Can you please shed some light?

A: A bit of googling reveals that it’s not uncommon to see such things online as “inner-office mail,” “inner office dating,” and “inner office relationships.” But Google helpfully (and correctly in these cases) suggests: “Did you mean: ‘interoffice.’ ”

Our cursory searching did indeed find quite a few examples of the misuse on academic websites. We won’t embarrass the colleges and universities by mentioning them, but they might consider sending around an interoffice memo on the subject.

“Inter” and “inner” mean different things. “Inter” means between or among. But “inner” (or “intra,” which is the more common prefix) means something quite the contrary: within.

That’s why “interstate” commerce is business conducted between states or across state lines, while “intrastate” (not “inner-state”) commerce is confined to a single state.

In a corporate or academic setting, an “interoffice” memo would be one between or among offices. An “intra-office” memo would be one sent around within the same office.

An “inner-office” memo could refer to one sent around within the same office, but “intra” is generally used in such compounds to mean within.

Besides, the noun phrase “inner office” has a special meaning—the chief or primary office, or one located inside another.

So an “inner-office” memo (if such a phrase were used) might mean one sent from, or within, the boss’s inner office.

One more word, about hyphenation. Most adjectives formed with “inter” and “intra” don’t have hyphens (“intercollegiate,” “intravenous”).

Adjectives formed with “inner” are sometimes hyphenated (“inner-city,” “inner-directed”) and sometimes not (“innerspring,” “innermost”).

When in doubt, check your dictionary.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation Spelling

Vowel language

Q: The vowels are reversed in “fuel” and “feud,” but they’re pronounced the same. Is it because “fuel” comes from French and “feud” from Scottish? Is it that simple?

A: Your instinct is right, but it’s not that simple.

“Fuel” and “feud,” which have similar sounds that are spelled differently, do come from different branches of the family tree.

Ultimately, “fuel” comes from Latin and “feud” from old Germanic sources. But their ancestries apparently don’t account for the difference in their spellings.

Of the two words, “fuel” has the more straightforward history.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the precursor to “fuel” was the Anglo-Norman word fuaille, derived from the medieval Latin focalia. The ultimate source is the classical Latin focus (hearth, fire).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, in the mediaeval Latin of France and England, focalia occurs frequently “in charters with reference to the obligation to furnish or the right to demand supplies of fuel.”

When the noun “fuel” came into English sometime before 1200, the Middle English spelling was fewaile, and the word was probably pronounced something like that.

Subsequent spellings, the OED says, included “fewall,” “fewel,” “fewell,” “fowayle,” “fowaly,” “fowel,” “fowell,” “fwaill,” “fuell,” “fuelle,” “feuel,” and finally “fuel.”

Why did the vowels end up as “ue” and their pronunciation as YOO?

Your guess is as good as ours, but you can see from the spellings above that the two vowels (or their sounds) seesawed a bit over the years.

By comparison, “feud” has a much more convoluted history.

Its probable ancestor is a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as faikhitho, which roughly means a state of “foe”-hood. The root of this same ancestor, faikh (hostility or enmity), gave us “foe.”

The word showed up in the early 14th century in Scottish English, where it was spelled “fede, feide, or something phonetically equivalent,” says the OED.

But the Scots didn’t get “feud” from Germanic sources, at least not directly. They borrowed it from the Old French fede or feide, which had been borrowed in turn from a word in Old High German, fehida.

In the 16th century, the word was adopted in England “with an unexplained change of form,” says the OED. The changes of spelling included “food,” “foode,” “feood,” “fuid,” “fewd,” and finally “feud.”

But don’t lose sight of the old “foe” connection. In the 17th century “the word was occasionally altered into foehood,” the OED says.

Now here’s the convoluted part.

That Old High German word that was borrowed by the French, fehida, had a cousin in Old English—fæthu (enmity), which apparently died out in Anglo-Saxon days.

Thus during the Middle English period the Scots had to re-borrow the word by the back door, as it were, by way of French.

As for the eventual spelling, Ayto comments, “It is not clear how the original Middle English form fede turned into modern English feud.”

It’s also not clear how the YOO pronunciation of the vowels in “feud” became the  dominant one.

So in the end we can’t account for the different spellings of the similar sounds of “fuel” and “feud.”

As we’ve said before (more or less), language isn’t Euclidean geometry.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation

With malice toward none

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.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Pronunciation Punctuation Usage

Is the diaeresis driving you dotty?

Q: Why has “naïve” survived, but not “coöperate”? Why do we write “Noël,” but not “poëm” or “reïgnite”? I’d appreciate (or appreciäte) any help you can offer on the rules for using the diaeresis. This particular issue is driving me dotty.

A: In a word like “appreciate,” the “i” and the “a” toward the end are clearly not a married couple.

Those two letters happen to be adjacent but they’re not a unit and aren’t pronounced as such. They belong to different syllables, and no one could mistake the way they’re sounded.

But in some words, two vowels side by side are pronounced as a diphthong—one vowel sound gliding into another within the same syllable, like the “oi” in “oil” or the “ou” in “loud.”

Then there are vowel pairs that might look like diphthongs but are in fact separate sounds in separate syllables.

In this case, a mark consisting of two dots over the second vowel can be used to show that the letter is sounded separately and not part of a diphthong.

This mark is called a “diaeresis” or “dieresis,” depending on which dictionary you follow. The two standard dictionaries we consult the most differ on this.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) prefers “dieresis” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) favors “diaeresis.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) says the occurrences of “diaeresis” in print outnumber those of “dieresis” by three to one, which is why we’re going with the longer version here.

A classic example of the diaeresis is in the word “naïve,” where the first two vowels are phonetically divided: nye-EVE. The mark over the “i” tells the reader it’s pronounced separately.

A diaeresis is also placed over a lone vowel to show that it’s not silent, as in the name “Brontë.” But in most names (as well as words) with diaereses, the mark is suspended over the second of two vowels: “Chloë,” “Eloïse,” “Zoë,” “Noël.”

In practice, however, many familiar words are no longer written with diaereses, since readers already know how to pronounce them. In familiar names, the marks mostly serve as decoration.

As Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) explains: “Since the sign is not often on modern keyboards it is often omitted in printed work; and it has also usually been dropped from such familiar words as aërate, coöperate (now aerate, cooperate).” 

But Fowler’s adds, “Occasional examples still occur, e.g., I reëntered the chestnut tunnel—New Yorker, 1987.”

Most publications don’t resort to diaereses as much as the New Yorker, where you’ll find spellings like “coördinate,” “reëngineer,” “preëminent,” “coöperative,” and so on.

In fact, “naive” often goes naked these days in publications other than the New Yorker.

In their entries for the word, both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage indicate that the diaeresis is optional. The spelling is given as “naive or naïve,” indicating that they’re equal variants and the choice is up to the reader.

You mention “poem” and “reignite.”

In fact, the first has sometimes been spelled with a diaeresis—“poëme” in the 1500s and “poëm” in the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And we found a few examples in blogs of “reignite” spelled with a diaeresis, though the usage seems to be extremely rare and idiosyncratic.

Today when a writer  worries that a word could be misread, the solution is usually a hyphen (“re-enter,” “re-ignite,” “co-op”), not a diaeresis.

The OED defines the noun “diaeresis” as “the division of one syllable into two, esp. by the separation of a diphthong into two simple vowels.”

It adds that this is also the word for “the sign [ ¨ ] marking such a division, or, more usually, placed over the second of two vowels which otherwise make a diphthong or single sound, to indicate that they are to be pronounced separately.”

The word for the mark was first recorded in English in 1611, according to citations in the OED.

It comes from the Latin diaeresis, but its source is the Greek diairesis (division), which in turn comes from the Greek verb diairein (to divide).

Now here’s a little detour.

The roots of that Greek verb are dia (apart) and another verb, hairein  (to take or choose), which also gave us the word “heresy.” Etymologically, a “heresy” is a choice one makes, a “heretic” being one who makes the wrong choice.

But getting back to the diaeresis, don’t confuse it with its look-alike, the umlaut, which is also two dots above a vowel.

The word “umlaut” comes from German (um means “about” or “around” and laut means “sound”), and the mark is used in English only with German words and names.

It shows that a vowel sound has been modified, as in the word über or names like Göring and Gödel (which are sometimes rendered in English as Goering and Goedel). 

Both the diaeresis and the umlaut are diacritical marks (or “diacritics”). They’re not punctuation; they’re phonetic guides. Such marks are becoming less common in English, though they cling to some foreign borrowings.  

Besides the diaeresis and the umlaut, here are the most familiar diacritical marks, along with words they may appear with: the acute accent (“blasé”), the grave accent (“learnèd”), the circumflex (“bête noire”), the cedilla (“façade”), and the tilde (“señor”).

As for the “rules” on when and when not to use a diaeresis, the best authority is your dictionary.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Punctuation Spelling Usage

Worl-dwide English?

Q: A few days ago I saw “worldwide” hyphenated as “worl-dwide” in a book. Is this an artifact of a computer spell-check program?

A: We’ve written before on our blog about some of the oddities of hyphenation, including postings last year on Jan. 15 and July 25.

As we note, hyphenations change, and different publishers may treat the same compound differently.

You’ll find “world-wide” in some places and “worldwide” in others. Generally, as compounds become more familiar over time, they tend to lose  their hyphens. So “world wide” becomes “world-wide” and eventually “worldwide.”

Now, a case like “worl-dwide” is a simple typographical error.

We’d guess that a word the publisher treated as a solid compound (“worldwide”) broke at the end of a line, and the typesetting program wasn’t properly programmed to hyphenate it correctly (“world-wide”).

In most cases, line-break errors in manuscripts are caught by proofreaders before publication. But strays can and do slip through the cracks.

If “worl-dwide” appeared in the middle of a line of text in a book, the error would be more unusual. We can’t begin to guess how that would happen!

A book is one thing, the Internet something else. We googled “worl-dwide” the other day and got 23,000 hits, most of them written as two words. Yikes!

A few examples: “Dhl Worl Dwide Express (Dubai)” … “RATED AS A TOP 10 DJ WORL DWIDE” … “Worl dWide PR.”

We won’t bother with links, since this posting may prod the miscreants to mend the errors of their ways.

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Quotes of many colors

Q: I’m puzzled by the way you use quotation marks/inverted commas on your blog. I thought they were only used for speech and longer quotations, but you use them in other ways.

A: No, quotation marks are not used solely for speech and other quotations. And the quotations don’t have to be long.

They can also set off words referred to as words (“restaurateur,” for example).

The convention with words used as words is to enclose them in quotation marks or to use italics, and we’ve chosen the former, which is newspaper style.

We’ll quote The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), section 7.58: “When a word or term is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself, it is either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks.”

Here’s an example given in this same section: Many people say “I” even when “me” would be more correct.

In addition, we use quotation marks when we make up examples that illustrate our points (“with Trixie and me,” not “with Trixie and I”).

This is a common practice and helps in readability. Otherwise, it can be unclear where an example ends and regular text begins.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Punctuation

Stop signs

Q: I was watching “Law & Order: UK” the other day when the Crown Prosecutor (or perhaps a barrister) ended a sentence by saying “full stop.” This reminded me that the British use “full stop” where Americans say “period.” I’d be interested in the history of these punctuation terms.

A: The terms “full stop” and “period” date back to Shakespearean times. Although both were once used in Britain for the punctuation mark, the Oxford English Dictionary describes “period” as now chiefly North American.

The OED’s earliest citation for “period” in this sense is from Arte Brachygraphie, a 1597 book about shorthand, by the English calligrapher Peter Bales: “The first is a full pricke or period.” (Here, “pricke” means a dot or spot.)

We haven’t seen the text of the Bales book, but the OED says the word “period” here refers to “the single point used to mark the end of a sentence.”

The dictionary has an even earlier citation that uses “period” for the full pause at the end of a sentence, rather than for the punctuation mark itself.

Here’s the citation, from Penelope’s Web, a 1587 collection of tales by the English writer Robert Greene: “She fell into consideration with her selfe that the longest Sommer hath his Autumne, the largest sentence his Period.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “full stop” to mean the punctuation mark is from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600). In urging Salanio to get to the end of a story, Salarino says, “Come, the full stop.”

And here’s an example using both “period” and “full stop,” from Micrographia, a 1665 book by the English polymath Robert Hook about his observations with a microscope: “A point commonly so call’d, that is, the mark of a full stop, or period.”

The use of “period” for the punctuation mark is derived from the Medieval Latin periodus (spelled peri[o]dos in Aelfric’s Grammar, a text in Latin and Old English from the early 11th century).

And with that, we’ll come to a full stop.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation Usage

A tussle over tousle?

Q: I looked up the word “tousle” in my dictionary today and was surprised to find that it’s pronounced TAU-zul. I always thought it was TAU-sul. I asked a couple of other people, one American and the other British, and there was no tussle. We all pronounce it TAU-sul. What is your ruling on this?

A: We assume you’re referring to the verb “tousle,” which means to rumple or dishevel. The less common noun refers to a tangled or disheveled mass of something, such as hair.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) list two acceptable pronunciations of the verb: TAU-zul and TAU-sul. (The first syllable rhymes with “now.”)

However, Merriam-Webster’s gives only one pronunciation for the noun: TAU-zul. American Heritage has the same two for verb and noun.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists only the TAU-zul pronunciation for verb and noun, and it includes “touzle” as well as “tousle” as spellings.

The verb showed up in English in the 15th century, several hundred years before the noun.

In addition to the verb’s usual meaning of to rumple, the OED lists one that’s new to us: “to handle (esp. a woman) rudely or indelicately.”

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Usage

Comma place

Q: What has happened to the comma that joins parts of a compound sentence?  Is it no longer used? I am seeing more and more compound sentences without it.

A: You don’t mention what kind of compound sentence you’re referring to, but we’ll do our best to answer your question.

There’s no absolute rule that one must use a comma to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction. (A clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb.)

In a blog item last year, we noted that comma use is sometimes governed by taste and rhythm, not by any formal rule of punctuation.

One author may use a comma to separate parts of a compound sentence where another with somewhat different tastes in punctuation might leave the comma out.

In our Jan 23, 2009, blog item, we quoted a passage from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run as an example of  the tasteful use and nonuse of commas.

In the passage (which we’ll repeat here), the protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, shoots a basket on a playground as he’s watched by a group of schoolboys:

“As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper.”

Updike uses (and doesn’t use) commas here because of a rhythmic effect he’s employing to build suspense. It would be a crime to interrupt and separate some of those breathless clauses.

Nonfiction is different, of course. But when no rules are being broken, writers have a lot of latitude in comma use.

Check out our books about the English language