Tuesday 29 May 2012

On tomorrow and to-morrow and to morrow

A correspondent has been reading Dickens, and writes to ask why to-day, to-night, and to-morrow were used with hyphens, and when did the practice cease.

The origins of the practice lie in etymology: the three words were originally (in Old and Middle English) a preposition (to) followed by a separate word (dæg, niht, morwen). As a sense of their use as single notions developed, so the two elements were brought together in writing, but with considerable variation in usage, seen from the earliest records (tonight, to night, to-night).

The view that they should be written as separate words was reinforced when Johnson listed them under to as to day, to morrow, and to night (with no hyphen). Nineteenth-century dictionaries (Worcester, Ogilvie, Webster...) opted for the hyphen in all three words, and this was further reinforced when dialectologists included other forms. Joseph Wright, in his English Dialect Dictionary, hyphenates them all, and adds to-year (= ‘this year’, in general dialect use in Britain and Ireland) and to-morn (= ‘tomorrow’, especially in N England - he has examples from Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, and Lancashire). In passing, he also has some nice examples of to-night meaning ‘the night just past’, as in I had slept well to-night, recorded in the English south-west.

The OED shows hyphenated examples throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. Latest examples are of to-day (1912), to-night (1908), and to-morrow (1927, with a possible further example as late as 1959). I have personal experience of all three words continuing to be hyphenated as late as the 1970s, as for some years now I’ve been editing the poetry of John Bradburne, who died in 1979, and in all his writing he consistently hyphenates. But he is a poet very much aware of the past, and regularly uses archaisms.

The current online OED says simply ‘also as two words and with hyphen’, though this is likely to be revised, given that hyphens were dropped from the eigtth edition of the Concise Oxford in 1990. The steady disappearance of the usage in the 20th century was influenced by Fowler, who in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage comes out against it: ‘The lingering of the hyphen, which is still usual after the to of these words, is a very singular piece of conservatism’. He blames printers for its retention, in a typical piece of Fowlerish irony: ‘it is probably true that few people in writing ever dream of inserting the hyphen, its omission being corrected every time by whose who profess the mystery of printing.’ Today, it’s rare to see it even mentioned as an issue. It doesn’t even merit an entry in Pam Peters’ Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

On rofling

A correspondent writes to tell me about a usage that he’s heard among young people college-aged and in their early twenties in America. It’s rofl, the texting acronym for ‘rolling on the floor laughing’. I’ll quote the bulk of Ariel’s message:

“To rofl now means sort of, to waste time in a pleasant way either alone or in a group. So someone sitting around looking at YouTube videos is rofling. So is someone throwing a football around with their 3-year-old. It's like ‘hanging out’ but with more positive and silly connotations, as if wasting time were a desirable thing.

You can also use to rofl to mean to fudge, or to make it up as you go. As in, ‘What's the plan on Friday?’ ‘We'll rofl it.’

On top of that, a few people also seem to be using it to mean ‘beaten badly in a competition or fight.’ As in, ‘We tried fighting the orcs in our game of Dungeons and Dragons this weekend, but we got rofled.’ From that the term ‘rofl-stomp’ has developed, meaning (as far as I can tell from hearing people use it), ‘to destroy decisively and in an impressive but comically excessive way’.”

I hadn't come across this before. It's a really interesting development, as few Internet acronyms have migrated into general usage in this way. People are always asking me whether texting abbreviations have had much of an impact on general usage, and my answer has always been ‘no’. Hardly any have achieved a usage outside of local slang – though LOL is a famous exception. Maybe rofl will be another.

Why this one? There always was a figurative sense to rofl: no one ever actually rolled on the floor. So it's not surprising to see it extending in meaning in various directions. It’s a nice opportunity to see semantic change in rapid action, as – with no standard dictionary usage to follow – people are evidently trying it out in different ways. I suspect one or two of these meanings will emerge as the winners in due course. In the meantime, it would be interesting to know from readers of this post whether the usage has turned up in other parts of the world – and I don't just mean the English-speaking world, for rofl has become a loan-acronym in several other languages. ‘Roflez vous’ perhaps?

Tuesday 22 May 2012

On capitalizing/Capitalizing

Two correspondents write in the same week worrying about capital letters. The first, working in ELT, has noted that many people write Past Perfect rather than past perfect (and likewise for other names of tenses). Which is it, he wonders? The second, working in the building industry, wants to know how to deal with such sentences as Wet rot has been noted in the door frame (photograph 2). Should it be (Photograph 2), given that a caption to the photograph, typically placed at the end of a report, would be either PHOTOGRAPH 2 or Photograph 2?

This issue has come up before on this blog: see On studying history/History. I made the point there that capitalization is a highly variable matter, influenced by personal taste, graphic aesthetics, and social trends, so there is never a hard-and-fast rule for examples like these. Devising a capitalization policy was one of the trickiest things I had to do when editing the Cambridge Encyclopedia family in the 1990s. You can read the relevant remarks in a paper in English Today I did in 1990, which I paraphrase now:

'The problem is one of gradience, from the clear-cut case where we are talking about a unique person, place or thing, to cases where we are talking about the class of entities. Thus, we have President Kennedy, at one extreme, and The country is governed by a president, at the other. But there are many intermediate cases.'

And I give a list of some of them, all taken from the Encyclopedia. Which would you choose and why?

...charity, founded in 1919, and having as its president/President the Princess Royal...
...Indian philosopher, statesman, and president/President...
...the country's first president/President...
...US Republican statesman and 40th president/President...
...the domestic policies of US president/President Roosevelt...
...a department responsible to the president/President for the conduct of...
...and his successor as president/President (1989)...
...led to his being elected president/President of the colony...
...the constitution of 1987 provided for a president/President...
...chairman of the Hawker Siddeley Group from 1935, and president/President from 1963...
...as president/President of the provisional government...
...the first president/President of the Royal Academy (1768)...
...and became the only president/President to be re-elected three times...
...he became president/President of the National Union of Mineworkers...

There are subtle constraints at work here. Context seems important. Thus, Indian President is more acceptable than Indian philosopher and President, and I doubt whether anyone would go for Indian Philosopher and President. The implied importance conveyed by a capital letter makes President of the United States more likely in a general reference work than President of the National Union of Mineworkers. The 'general' is important, as in publications emanating from the NUM the opposite priority would probably be encountered. And a provisional government presidency, being only provisional, might not merit capitals at all.

What is clear is that no simple principle will work for all cases. 'All official titles should be capitalized' says one house-style manual on my shelves. But does this work?

He became Emperor of Rome.
He became Emperor of all lands west of...
He was crowned Emperor.
He acted as Emperor.

Or take academic titles. Dennis Gabor, for example, was a professor of physics, but one could not write this as Professor of Physics, for this was not his title: he was in actual fact Professor of Applied Electron Physics. To refer to his official role briefly, as general reference books often do, one would have to avoid capitals altogether (unless one accepted Professor of physics).

So, to return to my correspondents... The typical semantic function of a capital letter is to draw attention to an item of special significance, such as a proper name or personification, or to Make an Important Comment. The usage variation raised by my first correspondent arises because people will have different views about what is 'specially significant'. In an ELT context, I can easily imagine some teachers seeing tense forms as being so important that they feel the need to give them special graphic prominence, as she mentions. But not everyone will see them in this way. Personally, I wouldn't capitalize. Tense forms are so frequently mentioned in a grammar book that the capital letters would turn up all over the place, reducing their attention-drawing function, as well as adding to the visual clutter of the page. It is a slippery slope. Present Progressive... Third Person Singular Present Progressive...

The problem facing my second correspondent is different, for it introduces the discourse function of capitalization, to mark identity throughout a text so that readers are left in no doubt that the same item is being referenced - that is, the repeated use of a particular word needs to be consistently capitalized. This is especially important with cross references, such as that illustrated by the photograph example, and seen also in The point is dealt with in chapter/Chapter 3 and suchlike.

The reason for my correspondent's doubt is that there is a clash between the two types of function in her example. A cross reference is not, by its nature, of special semantic significance, so there is no real reason for using an initial capital. On the other hand, the caption to the photograph does use an initial capital, so this motivates the parallel use of a capital in the parenthesis. When semantic significance (no need for a capital) clashes with discourse significance (need for a capital), semantics usually wins. If there's no special reason for drawing attention, the general view would be not to use a capital letter.

But style books vary, especially over time. Fashion is a critical factor: in the late 17th and early 18th century, for example, virtually any noun would be capitalized. And there are regional differences: American English uses capitals far less than British English - a preference that may well have originated in dictionary practice (the original OED having all headwords beginning with a capital, unlike the typical American convention). On the whole, the advice in style guides is 'If in doubt, don't capitalize'. But above all: 'Be consistent, whatever you decide to do'.

Thursday 17 May 2012

On interrobanging on

A correspondent writes to ask if I would settle an argument about the use of an exclamation mark after a question mark in order to add emphasis to a question, as in 'What?!'  The writer finds it unacceptable, and feels that if one wishes to add emphasis to a question, one should write it in italics. The other party has no problem with it.

Nor do I - though I have to say straight away that it's not possible ever to 'settle' arguments about punctuation, as attitudes are very much bound up with personal taste and trends in fashion. There's been antagonism towards the use of the exclamation mark for a long time, and especially since the 19th century, when writers used it a great deal. Fowler, for example, comments: 'Excessive use of exclamation marks is ‥. one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.' So the use of it along with the question mark has attracted extra ire from stylists, and 20th century house styles generally recommended the removal of exclamation marks unless absolutely necessary. Copy editors would never allow a multiple mark (!!, !!!), except in such genres as novels and poetry where the author insisted - and even then, they would do their best to persuade the author to remove them. I've had many of my exclamation marks removed, over the years, and have had to shout vociferously in order to get them back. But the attitude has influenced me, and I always look carefully at a piece of formal writing before deciding to use one, knowing that any use still antagonizes some readers.

But this prescriptive trend hasn't stopped their use, and in settings where copy editors are absent, we see multiple forms frequently, especially in blogs and other online genres where emotional expression is not being artificially constrained. Indeed, on the Internet there has been a remarkable proliferation of uses, including emails in which exclamation and question marks are combined in long sequences (?!?!?!) and used idiosyncratically along with other forms (such as ?!**!?, received in an email recently, which I interpreted as an emphatic questioning explosion of some sort). There has even been an institutionalization in print of the basic combination, in the form of the interrobang. The style is informal, of course, so the argument my correspondent reports really resolves into a stylistic question of the level of language the two parties have in mind.

It isn't just the Internet, however. The combined form makes available a further semantic distinction which is of general availability:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing? - a genuine question

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing! - an emphatic comment

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?! - a genuine question with added emphasis - the question function is primary in the speaker's mind

There is also a fourth possibility (much less often encountered):

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing!? - an emphatic comment with a questioning tone. The question is an afterthought, a bit like:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing! - huh?

I have no problem making this contrast in my own writing, but I've no idea how far the distinction is shared by others.

I can't imagine that the use of italics would work. Maybe it would, for single-word utterances. But it would seem like overkill to italicize a long sentential question.

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?

And it would disallow the use of italics in that question if the author wanted to highlight a single word, as in:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?!

So my view is that there's nothing wrong at all with a combined form, in informal contexts where the emotion is clearly warranted. But I'd be interested to see other examples of the usage, as readers of this blog encounter them.

Sunday 13 May 2012

On should better

A correspondent writes to ask about should better, which he has encountered from time to time, and wonders whether it is idiomatic English. He gives two examples, both taken from published books:

'The means by which one can solve the definitional equations are some very simple properties, which one should better specify in advance, and these are the properties of and and of yields.'

'One should better pay attention to what Darwin and Wallace had to say about the same problem. When faced with the monumental task of classifying natural life, both biologists came to the conclusion that all divisions were arbitrary.'

He asks: are they synonymous with had better do X or with specify/pay attention in a better way?

I think the context suggests the latter, in both cases. The first quote is from an Italian logician, Giovanni Sambin, in his One Hundred Years of Intuitionism, p.305, and he makes it very clear in the surrounding paragraphs what the 'better specification' is. Better is an adverbial modifier here. The string means 'which it would be better to specify in advance'.

The second quote is evern clearer, when we examine the context. It's from a book called A Scientific Model of History, by Juan J Gomez-Ibarra, p. 28, and in the previous paragraph we read:

'Should we reduce the figure of twenty-one civilizations down to twenty because of... Or, should we better rename the two societies as...'

The inverted order suggests that better is modifying rename - 'we should rename in a better way'. In which case, the 'we should better' usage follows on naturally. He is using better to modify pay attention. He doesn't mean 'ought to'.

So why was my correspondent uncertain? It's because there is interference from the had better ('ought to') construction, which has led to the use of a modal should better as a blend (of should X and had better X). I've heard this usage in several regional dialects, but it hasn't (yet) established itself as idiomatic standard English. I've also heard it quite a lot from learners of English as a foreign language. It's a usage which usually poses no problem of interpretation in speech, and is probably already a feature of English as a lingua franca. But, as we see from these examples, it is waiting in the wings to upset any adverbial use of better following should. For this reason, I'd avoid it myself, and go for an alternative syntactic solution, such as replacing better by rather or rephrasing (as above) with a more explicit adverbial phrase.