on language

13 December 2003

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (Profile)

Passions can run high about punctuation. I fondly remember a helpful publishing person once changing all my semicolons to colons, and vice versa, necessitating a long and increasingly grouchy explanation of why I had used them correctly in the first place. To certain eyes the misuse of a colon or comma bespeaks an almost immoral vagueness: if you can’t punctuate properly, you probably aren’t thinking properly in the first place. And then there are those hyper-sensitive souls who feel a misplaced apostrophe on a fruit-stall sign — “Banana’s” — as a sharp mental wound, a barbarism that really spoils their day. Continued →

11 August 2001

Encarta Concise English Dictionary, eds Kathy Rooney et al

In the preface to his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson painted an arresting image of the lexicographer’s nightmare:

While our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained ina dictionary than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water.

Every dictionary since then has acknowledged, however surlily, the project’s impossibility: a snapshot of meanings at one historical moment must necessarily fail to account for the metamorphoses that a living language undergoes. This difficulty is exacerbated the more up-to-the-minute a dictionary attempts to be, and the new Encarta Concise attempts to be very modern indeed. Continued →