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A Punctuation Paean

[ Posted Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 – 17:11 UTC ]

A paean, my dictionary informs me, is "an exultant song of praise or thanksgiving." The reason I'm offering up such praise today is that it is officially National Punctuation Day. [Who knew punctuation had its own day? Andy Warhol would likely have been amused, one suspects.] But just to warn everyone up front, we're veering off from political discussions today in order to have a punctuation discussion instead. I almost titled this article "A Pedantic Punctuation Paean," but you're going to have to look that word up yourself to see why I thought it was a bit too much. But if an article on punctuation sounds unbelievably boring to you... well, there's always kitten videos a-plenty out there to watch on the internet, right?

I have written about proper English usage before in the past, as regular readers will remember. Most of these have dealt with capitalization or spelling, however. Such as my longstanding insistence on using the proper spelling of "TelePrompTer," for instance. Or whether the first paragraph's penultimate word should have been "Internet" instead of "internet" -- a raging editorial debate that has not yet been fully resolved. Or my more recent pondering over which is correct: "brinkmanship" or "brinksmanship"? Punctuation does occasionally come up in these discussions, such as the deep question of which is best: "lions den," "lion's den," or "lions' den"? Or pondering the evolution of the complex words when creating a neologism in the world of politics (should I go with "moose poop," "moose-poop," or "moosepoop"?). But today we're going to deal solely with punctuation; in particular, two all-but-lost (but still correct) English accent marks.

I had to resist the urge, however, to digress into a discussion of equally-arcane matters of spelling, created by the very title I chose today. Because the Greek influence on English brought with it several compound vowels, which were originally individual characters and then (due to easier typesetting, no doubt) became two separate letters, until (most prominently, in American English) one of the letters was just dropped. When reading books printed in England, an American reader will stumble over words such as "oestrogen" or "encyclopaedia." As I said, originally these would have appeared as "œstrogen," "encyclopædia," and (of course) "pæan."

But we're not going to get distracted by such fascinating tangents. Because we're (finally!) about to introduce the main subject of this article, in what I hope will be a spirit of learnéd coöperation. Aha! To quote the esteemed philosopher Craig Ferguson: "You see what I did, there?" Because we have indeed arrived at the crux of the matter.

But first, we're going to veer off on another tangent, sorry. Because English is perhaps the most maddening language to learn as a second language. Well, OK, tonal languages like Chinese are pretty tough, too -- but for a different reason. English is hard to learn because there are so many exceptions to its rules. Right there is one of them -- because a possessive is supposed to include an apostrophe, but "its" is the correct possessive (because of the existence of the contraction for "it is"). Exceptions abound in English -- you don't have to look very far to find one of them.

However, English is actually easier to learn -- in three respects -- from most other languages based on either Latin or German. First, there is no "gender." A table is a table is a table, and it is not "masculine" or "feminine." That saves a whale of a lot of memorizing, right there. There is only one form of "the" in English, to put this another way (although there is "a" and "an," to complicate things a bit -- but even this has nothing to do with the "gender" of the following noun).

Secondly, there is no "formal" versus "familiar" in the second person. There is only "you," my friend -- and it doesn't matter how close a friend you are, you are still "you." Of course, formal and informal do actually exist in English, but nobody uses these forms in their vernacular any more (other than Quakers, who do so for religious reasons). Because there actually is "you" and then there is "thou." Amusingly, while most would assume "thee" "thou" and "thy" are the formal English forms (an assumption stemming from the fact that the only place non-Quakers hear these terms is in the seemingly-formal language of the Bible), in fact they are the informal terms, which are now archaic. To put this another way, if English had retained this usage, you would use "thou" to address your child, but "you" if you were speaking to your boss.

And thirdly (and -- finally! -- most-relevantly), English has no accent marks, which abound in other European languages. Or is this really the case?

There are indeed two mostly-forgotten but still-proper accent marks in English. The first is (in French) called the accent aigu, and the second (in German) is called the umlaut. The very fact that English has no homegrown labels for these accents (or, at least, none of which I am aware, beyond computer programming's "acute" for aigu) indicates how disused they are today. But while teetering on the brink of being archaic, I would argue that they are still valid indicators of pronunciation and therefore should be celebrated on National Punctuation Day.

How else to indicate that I want the phrase "my belovéd wife" to contain five syllables, and not four? Of course, the main beneficiaries of this accent mark are poets, for whom syllabic counts are important (at least for poets who still pay attention to such things as meter). And snobs, too -- can't forget the snobs. Because the only other word that springs easily to mind in English which requires an accent for the full level of snootiness desired is the previously-mentioned "learnéd" -- a snooty second syllable if ever there was one.

But the other English accent is perhaps more deserving of modern proper use, because it actually crops up a lot more than learnéd or belovéd ever do. The umlaut is of Germanic origin, but has its proper use in English when indicating a syllabic break between double vowels. The only publication (of which I am aware) to resolutely and consistently still use this accent is The New Yorker, whose editorial standards never seem to slip. In their fine pages, you will still read of people coöperating and coördinating a politician's reëlection.

In my own writing, while fully aware of the proper use of the umlaut, I must admit I do not hew to the same editorial guidelines. Mostly this is due to my knowledge of the unfamiliarity in most of the reading public of the accent's proper use. Instead, cravenly, I have adopted the hyphen in the term oft-most used in political writing, spelling it "re-elect." Deep down in my editorial heart-of-hearts, I know I should be proudly writing of Barack Obama's reëlection, but somehow it's just a bridge too far, even for me.

Now, my own editorial standards are always subject to correction, when I realize I've been misusing punctuation unknowingly. The most recent of these revelations dealt with proper names' possessive nature. I had thought that names ending in "s" or "z" only required a trailing apostrophe to indicate possessiveness. I was wrong. My style guide (which, in my own defense, I've only had for a fraction of the time I've been blogging) tells me that this is incorrect, and that this website should be referred to as Chris's blog (and not Chris' blog). When pronouncing the term, a second "s" sound is used, and needs to be present in the spelling. If there are multiple folks with the same name, they are properly Chrises, and if we collaborated on writing, then it would properly be Chrises' blog. The trailing "z" is treated the same, leading us to routinely ridicule Ted Cruz's buffoonery.

But I digress (yet again). My point being, if I feel strongly enough that I'm doing something wrong, then I can indeed change my editorial standards. So, Dear Reader, I would like to hear from you on the umlaut situation. Would you feel more comfortable reading about re-elections or reëlections? If you indicate a preference for the umlaut, then I will dutifully investigate the actual boundaries of acceptable and proper use, to quell such tricky questions as to whether it would be proper in dissimilar vowels (coeducation or coëducation?) or how far into the word are umlauts properly used (skiing or skiïng?). Is this effort worth it? I do like to think I have rather high editorial standards here, and so will begin using umlauts properly if there is an acceptance of such a rule change among my readership. So take a moment, here on National Punctuation Day, to let me know your feelings, in the comments below.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “A Punctuation Paean”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    So take a moment, here on National Punctuation Day, to let me know your feelings, in the comments below.

    Aren't you missing a comma, there?

    Don't answer that! :)

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    When are we going to get an edit function around here?

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM -

    We've got something even better, here -- your very own personal editor!

    All fixed!



  5. [5] 
    SF Bear wrote:


    You have spent way too much time talking to your cat. Use the hyphen already!

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Thank-you, thank-you very much ... :)

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    [Who knew punctuation had its own day? Andy Warhol would likely have been amused, one suspects.]

    You DO realize that Andy Warhol is an alien, right? :D

    Of course, the main beneficiaries of this accent mark are poets, for whom syllabic counts are important (at least for poets who still pay attention to such things as meter). And snobs, too -- can't forget the snobs.

    Isn't that a bit redundant? :D

    I vote for the hypen over the umlaut.


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    SF Bear -

    Strangely, my cat agrees with you.

    [Heh. Couldn't resist.]


  9. [9] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    To quote the esteemed philosopher Craig Ferguson: "You see what I did, there?"

    that is much older. it's been part of billy crystal's schtick since forever, and i think he got it from a golden age comedian, whose name is probably lost to history. it's in when harry met sally at least once, and features prominently in mr. saturday night.


  10. [10] 
    TheStig wrote:

    National Punctuation Day!

    There, that's better!

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 -

    You're probably right, but Ferguson's the one that uses it these days on teevee.

    Any time anyone asks me (and I get it a lot): "How can you continue to microanalyze the sewer of politics day in and day out and not go crazy?" I answer with: "I watch Craig Ferguson every night, and no matter how crazy the day's been, he makes me laugh."


    Ironically, I first noticed Craig when he went on an epic political (pro-voting) rant:

    Ironic, because Craig usually doesn't say much at all about politics, one way or the other. Except for his Bill Clinton impression, of course, but that doesn't really count...


  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Oh, and for LizM -

    That link (above) contains the first-ever usage of the term "Biden-ey" by anyone. You're welcome!



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