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A couple of pieces of language news have come through the pipes lately. I only have a little bit to say about each of them, so I figured, why not combine them? (The answer, as any SEOer worth their salt could tell you, is that presenting them separately will drive additional traffic to the site. But you are worth far more to me than mere traffic stats, dear reader, and so I’ll present them together in a more efficient package.)

The first bit of news is that the AP has at last caved to the present and changed their stylebook to request email over e-mail. Some people made quite a bit of fuss over this, but it really doesn’t matter. The AP Stylebook no more determines the English language than any else does. The stylebook is reacting to modern English, not shaping it. John McIntyre and Arnold Zwicky and Jan Freeman have more on how much this doesn’t matter.

I'm very sorry to report that this sweet animated gif is now out-of-date around the AP offices.

The second bit of news is that the Oxford English Dictionary has a new update out, including revised “R” words, foods, Australian slang, and a couple of Internet initialisms: OMG and LOL. People also are freaking out over this. To clarify, the inclusion of LOL in the OED does not mean that it should be used in formal writing, it does not mean that the folks at the OED necessary like it, or anything more than that they believe it is a sufficiently common and important word in contemporary English that it should be recorded with its definition. No more, no less. They join other popular initialisms as BFF, IMHO, TMI, and everyone’s favorite, WTF. This was met with a wide range of misinterpretations on Twitter:

[The “some words are based on people’s opinions” line just keeps on making me laugh.]

The third bit of news is that the OED has added a new verbal sense (i.e., definition) to heart, meaning to love or be fond of. (This, by the way, is not the only verbal definition of heart; one definition, to embolden, dates back to 897 AD.) Contrary to what some have reported, it is not entered into the OED as <3, nor as ♥. It is simply a new sense for the five-letter word heart.

I repeat, as even some actual newspapers have claimed otherwise, that the symbol ♥ is not in the OED. Try, if you have a subscription to the OED, searching for ♥ online. You will find no such entry.

Furthermore, there are articles announcing that ♥ would be the first symbol in the OED, but that’s not right either. Under the heading C, one finds the symbol ©. So, no, ♥ is not in the OED, but even if it were, that wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Keep calm; English carries on.

This concludes the language news for today. Good night and good luck.

The orbit of the Earth being what it is, September 24th has come around again.  September 24th, for those of you who don’t have a copy of Chase’s Calendar of Events lying around, is National Punctuation Day.  But can I be honest with you?  I just can’t bring myself to care.

Don’t get me wrong, punctuation is great.  I use it all the time, I think it’s a great invention.  Like rechargeable batteries.  But, like rechargeable batteries, I just can’t get too excited about punctuation.  I’ve tried to, I really have.  I had a copy of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West shipped down to UCSD via Inter-Library Loan, which was supposed to be the definitive academic history of punctuation in English and related languages. I hoped it would reveal to me the history of punctuation, the evolution of its different forms and purposes. It very well might have, if it weren’t so incredibly dense and disorganized. I tried to read it in bed one night. I fell asleep around page 3. So I took it on vacation, the only book I’d packed in my carry-on at the airport.  I ended up sitting at the gate for an hour and a half, staring out the window at a unchanging hillside for an hour, because after reading a chapter of the book on my lap, I just couldn’t take anymore.  I put together one quarter-page of notes on the book by the time that the library asked for it back. I obliged them immediately.

I did get one point out of the book, though: punctuation arose as a means of marking where an orator would pause in delivering a speech.  Different marks could be used to indicate differing pause lengths, which generally corresponded to differing logical divisions.  Short pauses, like those indicated by the modern comma, usually divided segments that were still closely related to a core idea.  Longer pauses, like those of the modern semi-colon, indicated somewhat more independent segments, and still longer pauses, now periods, indicated still more independent segments.

This is the trouble with punctuation: it started out as an indicator of pauses, but due to the correlation with syntax, it has become common for punctuation to mark syntactic divisions instead.  Now we have hybrid punctuation that can either mark timing or serve as syntactic separators, and this has created a somewhat imprecise punctuation system in English.  Furthermore, punctuation is mostly silent.  Is there a difference in pronunciation between high definition and high-definition?  If there is, it’s very slight.  So too with you’re and your. or even

(1a) It seems we’ve failed, all is lost.
(1b) It seems we’ve failed; all is lost.

Yes, there are certainly rules about punctuation, but they’re mostly boring and uncontroversial.  “Put a comma after an interjection.” Okay, fine.   The ones that are controversial, like whether to put periods inside or outside of quotation marks, or the Oxford comma, aren’t interestingly controversial.  One person says “I put the period inside the quotes.”  Another says, “Oh, I put it outside”.  The former is more standard American style, the latter more standard British.  What is there to argue?  I like to wear shorts, and my friend likes to wear long pants.  Who’s wrong?

All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon.  Punctuating your writing is, I think, intensely personal, and you have to practice it to get your voice down.  Whenever I edit a friend’s work, I always find instances where I’d change their punctuation (usually by adding a comma), but then it wouldn’t sound like them anymore.  I always found this especially difficult when I’d look at my mom’s writing; she writes more directly than I do, and is much more frugal with her commas than I am, so my inner editor would be distracted noticing all the perfect nesting spots for commas in her sentences.  Arguing about how to best punctuate is often like trying to convince someone that liking chocolate milkshakes is bad because strawberry milkshakes are good.  The trick lies in realizing that there’s more than one good way to do it.

So to return to my original point, the 600-odd words above notwithstanding, a day for punctuation just doesn’t excite me much.  As Vampire Weekend so deftly put it, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

[By the way, goofy over at bradshaw of the future always brings out his A-game for National Punctuation Day, and this year is no exception.  Go read it.  Now.]

You know how prescriptivists are always on about how kids these days lade their speech with hedges like like or kinda or sorta?  (Of course, adults do the same thing, but that’s neither here nor there.) I wrote about this a while back and, like a moth to a flame, a prescriptivist flew through and commented on the travesty that is kids’ speech today.  Why don’t these dang kids just come out and say things categorically and unequivocally?

Well, if kids will permit me to take up their mantle for a moment, I’ve got to say, the kids are right to do what they do. Prescriptivists don’t hedge nearly enough. Witness Josh Abraham’s open letter to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

[…] you recommend punctuating as follows:

4   Though it is less rigorously applied than it used to be, there is a rule that when a noun phrase such as “stainless steel” is used to qualify another noun, it is hyphenated, as “stainless-steel kitchen”. Thus you have corrugated iron, but a corrugated-iron roof. The match has a second half, but lots of second-half excitement. Tom Jones was written in the 18th century, but is an 18th-century novel. The train leaves at seven o’clock; it is the seven-o’clock train.


Therefore, crazy lady who does not practice what she preaches, one has zero tolerance, but a zero-freakin’-hyphen-tolerance approach. Where the bloody blazes is the dang hyphen betwixt “Zero” and “Tolerance” in your stupid title, you daffy bird?!?

This isn’t out of the ordinary for prescriptivists; hardly a month goes by without the Language Loggers pillorying some foolishly certain prescriptivist for breaking the very rule the prescriptivist was trying to impose.  For goodness’ sake, guys, learn how to hedge!  We descriptivists appreciate you making it easy for us to show that your advice is poorly-thought-out, but c’mon — we do like a challenge every now and then.  Offering up such obvious hypocrisy makes it like shooting fish in a barrel.

[hat tip for the Abraham letter to Justin Moss]


Also, a dispatch from the “I majored in math and therefore find patterns in everything” portion of my brain: If you’ll be so kind as to direct your attention to the Blogroll to your left, you’ll note that I finally (only, what eight months after the fact?) got around to re-naming “Notes from the Copy Editor” to “Language is the People’s“.  This means that the blogroll now has an unintentional linear separator.  All of the Language Blogs come before “lively” in the dictionary, while all of the Not Language Blogs come after. Unfortunately, this means that it will be very difficult for me to add a new blog to the blogroll if it does not fit this scheme.  I wish I could say I was joking.  Please adjust your blog names accordingly.

In the earlier post I wrote on the email/e-mail debate, I claimed that, were I backed into a corner, I would favor the unhyphenated version. However, today I was writing my comps paper (on speaker choice in the needs doing alternation), and found myself typing the word “e-mail” into the paper. It just felt right in that situation. And that’s why I don’t want to be tied down to just one form or the other; sometimes the dispreferred form is just better for a given task.

I’m bringing this up not to bore you with the details of my personal life, nor to toss in a plug for my upcoming paper, (although these are both unintended benefits) but because I wanted an excuse to revisit the hyphenation question and give a few arguments against a few arguments that the hyphen is necessary. Commenter mike — who, by the way, has a nice blog and a great outlook on grammar — suggested that this website had some “not-unreasonable” arguments for the hyphen. The arguments didn’t seem unreasonable, but also the author took pains to condescend to people like me and Mike and Donald Knuth, who use email unselfconsciously. And so I was forced to take pains to point out some flaws in these arguments for e-mail.

First off, the author claims that “Established publications edited by grown-ups” use e-mail. We’re so predictable, those of us engaged in this prescriptivist/descriptivist war, huh? The prescriptivists call the descriptivists ill-educated, or child-like, or focused on the lowest common denominator, or claim that we’re opening the gates to language barbarians. The descriptivists call the prescriptivists bloody-minded pedants, cantankerous old cads, or angry old coots. And so on. (Some muckrakers might even go so far as to attempt to claim that I have at times in the past engaged in such sophomoric name-calling, but I’m nearly positive that they’re mistaken.)

Anyway, the author had best hope that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Reuters News Service, and the Guardian don’t catch wind of this slight. I think they all like to think of themselves as established and edited by adults — well-educated and grammatically precise adults, no less. Ditto the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists email as the preferred spelling of the noun and as an acceptable spelling of the verb. And it first attests email in 1982.

Okay, so respectable grown-up publications use email. Next point: e-mail is not a compound word, but rather a word headed by a single letter abbrevation for electronic. Thus the hyphen should be retained because “no initial-letter-based abbreviation in the history of the English language has ever morphed into a solid word”. At first, I couldn’t think of any example of this either. The author cites A-frame as one example, but in this case, the A isn’t short for anything, so we’re not looking at quite the same situation. Better examples would be A-bomb and H-bomb, short for atomic and hydrogen bombs. However, even this isn’t quite the same situation, because A and H aren’t productive prefixes in English, at least as far as I’m aware. It’s not like I can say A-clock and have people figure out I mean atomic clock. It seems to me that the e- prefix is relatively unprecedented, so you can’t dismiss hyphen removal out of respect for the past. Both e and i have established themselves as productive prefixes without hyphens: iGoogle, iPod, iMac; eHarmony, ecard, eBay.  I’m inclined to say these prefixes are proving themselves able to operate without a hyphen, regardless of what previous initial-letter-prefixes did.

And, finally, about the pronunciation of the unhyphenated version. No one but a contrarian would read the word email with the wrong pronunciation*; it’s common enough that people have memorized how it’s pronounced, and no reasonable mispronunciation of email sounds like another word. It is entirely possible for a word-initial e to be read as a long e [i: in IPA]; witness evil. And compounding/prefixing/suffixing words has always led to pronunciations that aren’t what you’d expect: cooccur, baseball, modeled. We are readers of English — complaining that a word doesn’t sound like it’s spelled is like complaining that a part of the ocean is too wet.

Summary: Look, there are arguments that e-mail is better with a hyphen, and there’re arguments that it’s better without one. None of them is compelling. Use the form you want.

[*An old (but not necessarily contrarian) potter could also confuse it with the word email, as in a type of ink used on porcelain, derived from the French word for “enamel”. This word is pronounced with an “eh” sound at the beginning. However, I can’t find this word attested on the internet, so I think the possibility of confusion is minor at the most.]

p.s.: I’m probably going to post quite sparingly for the next three to four weeks because I have to pound out my comps paper if I want to remain a graduate student. And I do, because it’s a pretty sweet lifestyle.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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