Thursday 17 April 2008

On boilt

A correspondent writes to say : 'I discovered that the verb to spoil has preterite and past participle spoiled but that it also has spoilt (not sure whether one is British and the other American). What I want to know is whether boil works the same way.'

I can find no trace of the boilt spelling in standard English. There are no instances in the OED, although there was a great deal of spelling variation in the early centuries of its use. But regional dictionaries show examples, especially in Scotland, Ulster, the Isle of Man, and parts of the USA (especially those influenced by Scots-Irish). A Scots poetic example from 1790: 'Twa pints o' weel-boilt solid sowins' [an oat-meal beverage].

With verbs which have two -ed forms, such as spoiled and spoilt, the situation is interesting and not entirely understood. The -t ending is rare in American English, certainly. In British English, an aspectual distinction is usually involved. The -ed form is used when the duration of an action or the process of acting is being emphasized, and the -t form when something happens once, or takes up very little time, or the focus is on the result of a process rather than on the process itself.

To test this hypothesis, the best way is to compare pairs of examples. In The house burnt down, the implication is that the event took place quite quickly, whereas burned is more likely in The house burned for days. Similarly, I've dreamed all my life of living in Scotland is more likely than I dreamt all my life of living in Scotland. Dreamt tends to be used for single, short, and determinate instances of dreaming, where the dreamer is asleep (I dreamt last night I was in Italy); dreamed tends to be used for a more continuous and indefinable dreaming, where the dreamer is awake (I dreamed of meeting you all week). There is some overlap, though not in contexts where the 'awake' sense is clear, such as day-dreaming, which gives rise to I day-dreamed, not I day-dreamt. It is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it does help to explain the relative frequency of different items. Spilt is much more likely than spilled because the action of spilling is usually short. Learned is much more likely than learnt because the action of learning usually takes some time.

On who plurals

A correspondent writes to say that someone corrected him when he asked (before a tennis match): Who are playing? His friend said it should be Who is playing? He agreed that the plural sounded funny, but couldn't think why.

The plural sounds a bit odd because it is the normal unmarked use of who to be singular. This is because the who question is usually definite and particular. Who wants to open the bidding? is asking a specific individual to begin. Note the contrast with the indefinite and general use of who in the singular, as in Who wants to get Alzheimer's?, which means 'There is no-one who wants...' Faced with a question where a singular or a plural answer are both possible (as in the tennis case), people will find the singular interpretation more natural than the plural.

A plural indefinite who is perfectly possible, however, especially when the post-verbal element is explicitly multiple, as these examples illustrate:

Who are our top ten salesmen this year?
Who won first three places in the race?
Who are playing Smith and Brown in the doubles?
Who were fighting to preserve their nation?
Who are playing Hamlet and Horatio?

The last type of case is nice: it would be impossible to have a definite singular interpretation here, unless the actor somehow managed to play both parts simultaneously!

Monday 14 April 2008

On semi-colons

Are semi-colons really necessary, asks a correspondent?

Well it all depends on what she means by necessary its perfectly possible to have a long piece of writing with no punctuation at all and it still makes sense with very little if any ambiguity people arent used to it of course so it isnt particularly easy to read

And so on. James Joyce did it better (at the end of Ulysses). Punctuation gives us two kinds of information: it helps us see the grammatical structure of a sentence, and (the older use) it gives us a clue about how to read text aloud.

The semi-colon first appears in Europe at the end of the 15th century, and (according to M B Parkes) 'seems to have been a deliberate invention designed to fulfil a particular need'. Aldus Manutius explains it as a sort of compromise: the semi-circle (i.e. comma), he says, doesn't give a long enough pause, whereas the double point (i.e. the colon) slows up the speech too much. It rapidly spread in Europe during the 16th century, and is found in English from the 1530s. It took much longer to become widely accepted, probably because of uncertainty about its overlap with the function of the colon. Henry Denham was said to be 'the first to use the semicolon with propriety' (in 1579). It was well established by Ben Jonson's time, but typesetters varied enormously in their use of it. Semi-colons appear on some pages of Hamlet in Shakespeare's First Folio and not on others.

Today, the semi-colon has a clear grammatical (rather than a phonetic function), allowing writers to mark a level of grammatical organization higher than the comma. Its function is to coordinate. Semantically it closely resembles 'and':

John drank tea; Mary drank juice.

It is therefore used to link units at the level of clause or phrase - even allowing single-word units, when some of the other units contain a comma. The example I found for Making Sense of Grammar illustrates the value of the semi-colon:

The menu offered us juice; a boiled, fried, or poached egg; toast; and tea or coffee.

Replacing the semi-colons by commas makes this much more difficult to read:

The menu offered us juice, a boiled, fried, or poached egg, toast, and tea or coffee.

So yes, it's a useful mark, I think.

On possessive apostrophes

A correspondent writes to ask about the possessive apostrophe. Is it actually an apostrophe of omission?

The apostrophe is a relatively late arrival in English. Its origins lie in Europe, where early 16th century printers introduced it (based on Greek practice) to show the omission of a letter (usually, showing the elision of a vowel in speech). The earliest appearance of it in England is in a book printed by John Day in 1559, William Cunningham's The cosmographical glasse. It was definitely seen as a sign of omission. Ben Jonson describes it as 'the rejecting of a vowel from the beginning or end of a word', such as we would see in heav'n or desir'st. And this is how it was with the possessives, where it was originally used to show the omission of an e, as in dogges - and also to mark a plural, especially of foreign words (where folioes would be written as folio's).

In the seventeenth century, practice slowly standardized. The use to mark the e in a plural died away (though not entirely - it can still be found in the quotations in Johnson's Dictionary of 1755), and the use to mark a possessive extended to all cases of possession, whether there was an original e there or not. So we find, in the 18th century, such forms as woman's as well as for conscience' sake. 19th-century printers then developed the rules which made the distinction between singular and plural possession (cat's vs cats') - though not without some opposition from grammarians. The OED has a nice example from Mason's English Grammar of 1876 which shows how the idea of elision was still present in people's minds : 'It is an unmeaning process to put the apostrophe after the [possessive] plural s (as birds'), because no vowel has been dropped there'.

On question-marks

A correspondent writes to ask when the question-mark symbol was first used in English? Was it an inverted semi-colon.

No, the question-mark is much older. The origins of punctuation lie in the need to give clues as to how liturgical texts should be read aloud. A system of symbols developed in Europe in the eighth century - they were called 'positurae' in the Middle Ages - distinguishing the end of a statement, the end of a question, and a major within-sentence pause. The punctus interrogativus, as it was called, consisted of a dot underneath a right-leaning or horizontal wavering dash - a bit like a modern italic question-mark, but lacking the prominent semi-circular bend. The influence of Charlemagne's court spread it throughout the monasteries of Europe in the ninth century, including England. As handwriting practice changed, in the Middle Ages, the mark became more rounded in shape, to distinguish it from the other marks (and especially, later, from the exclamation-mark). The earliest printers cut a fount which reflected this shape, and gradually the question-mark emerged in its modern upright look. The 'old roman' fount of Aldus Manutius became the European norm in the late 15th century. In England it seems to have been first used by Pynson in 1502, and question-marks are regularly found in printed texts of the 16th century. The semi-colon took much longer to be accepted.

Anyone interested in the history of punctuation should look at M B Parkes, Pause and Effect (Scolar Press, 1992), which has an excellent set of pictorial illustrations of manuscripts throughout the period.