Book week: Collins dictionary & Punctuation

I missed a couple of my promised 'post a day for Book Week' posts because I was running a fantabulous event (if I do say so myself) called Doing Public Linguistics. The event was about linguists doing things like I do here with the blog—engaging non-academics in the work we do as academic linguists. One of the best bits of the day was when Geoff Pullum (speaking about his involvement in Language Log) gave us their motto for how to deal with media stories about language: "We can fact-check your ass". It's what I do, but I'm glad now to have a motto to go along with the doing.

Now back to books!

Free book 7: Collins English Dictionary, 12th edition

The beautiful cover
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One of my hobbies: looking up words that start with nid-
I'm grateful to the Collins people for sending me a copy of the latest edition of their beautiful dictionary. Collins is one of the dictionaries I regularly use for checking BrE facts. It's also now the basis for the  Official Scrabble Words used in the UK and most of the rest of the world, so I know its two- and three-letter words intimately.  (Scrabble is owned by a different company in North America, so it's been hard to standardi{s/z}e our ways of playing.)

It claims to be the most inclusive single-volume dictionary of English (any English? I'm not sure). One of the marketing points for this edition is that it includes more words without making the dictionary bigger. Looking at the pages, you see why. It is crammed with print. It's also, as they go, a fairly encyclop(a)edic dictionary—including a lot of proper names of places and people. (Don't try playing them in Scrabble.)

I think the binding is beautiful, but the truth of the matter is that despite their gift, I still mostly use the online version. Since I'm mostly on the computer when I need to use a dictionary, it just makes sense. I also haven't found that this paper dictionary is particularly easy to find one's letter-place in.

I will be using the print edition when I get a bit further into the research I'm doing on American and British Dictionary Cultures, and I look forward to doing so!

Free book 8: Punctuation..?

User Design sent me this book after asking if I might like to review their new book. I said 'okay', received the book. Three weeks later, they emailed me to see how the review was coming along—and that was part of what inspired me to do Book Week and try to salve my conscience about all these free books. But instead of reviewing theirs immediately, I wrote back with a question: why was I told this was a new book, when it was published in 2012 (as an improved second edition)? A week later, I still don't have an answer to that one. The other mystery is why the title of this book has been punctuated with a combination of marks that's not found in the book itself.

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The book introduces each of the punctuation marks with little cartoons that illustrate  examples of the marks' "correct" use. And when I say 'each of the punctuation marks', I mean above and beyond the usual expectation. They've got guillemets (the «  » you might see surrounding quotations in French texts), the interpunct · and the pilcrow ¶. Still, they don't have my fave, the swung dash:

I'm not 100% sure who the book is for. It claims to be age-non-specific, and suggests it be given as a gift. I suspect it would be best given to designers, as they need to know a bit about punctuation, including things like interpuncts and pilcrows, but they don't need to know a lot. A telling quotation is:
"An almost identical character to the forward slash is the fraction or division slash (/) but with more of an angle, it is used to make fractions" (p. 20)
Who but a typesetter would need to know the difference between a forward slash and a division slash? Where do I find a division slash on my keyboard? And, most importantly, why are these two sentences separated by a comma, rather than a full stop or a semi-colon?

It's definitely a pretty little book, but from this blog's point-of-view, it commits a major sin: it claims to give "the correct uses" of these marks, but never acknowledges that these are only the correct uses in certain places and in certain styles. You could say that the hints are very strong that this is about British punctuation, since it talks about full stops (not periods) and exclamation marks (not exclamation points). But I'd say that's not enough. Readers may be able to identify that the American names aren't there, but they won't (unless they're well versed in these things) necessarily know that what's been claimed as "correct" is only correct so far as some stylesheets in Britain are concerned. (General ignorance that there is a transatlantic difference was what allowed Eats, Shoots and Leaves to be a US best-seller.) Without qualification, the book tells us that you don't put a full stop after Mr or Dr or within an acronym like USA. The one place I noticed such a much-needed qualification was in the discussion of quotation marks, where there is an "In the UK," qualification. That's something, at least, but we're not told what happens elsewhere. (You might say: "that's ok because it's a book for British people". But then I'd ask: then why did we need to know the difference between French and German practice in the guillemet section?) At the back of the book, we are told that initial reference for the text content was the Oxford English Mini Dictionary, 5th edition. Oddly, the book neither uses nor mentions the Oxford comma.

So, if you know a British designer who needs a handy reference for the difference between en-dashes and em-dashes, this might be a cute little gift. But for people who need more practical information beyond what you learned in primary school (e.g. which lists of prenominal adjectives get commas and which don't? how many spaces after a full stop? should you ever capitali{s/z}e the first word after a colon?) and global outlook (e.g. how do Americans use quotation marks?), you probably need to look for something else.


  1. Your almost-final comment reminded me about a couple of scientific papers that I published fairly recently in international journals. Copy editors introduced capital letters just after colons, and I went to some trouble to convince them that they would seriously mangle what I was saying. The final versions did revert to my original text here, but I am still mystified ....

    Well, I may be a barbarian, but I never had these problems when I published in British journals. Evidently the international journals used an American convention that I knew nothing of.

    In my (BrE) usage, a colon divides a sentence into two connected parts: they may each contain a verb but they are not separate sentences.
    A colon is also sometimes used in lists: a single 'stem' is followed by several subsidiary points, and introducing a capital letter turns them into pseudo-sentences that make no sense.
    In other lists the colon is a sort of 'equals' sign between items that may be separated by a comma. Colour: red, size: medium, and so on.
    In all these cases, the colon is WITHIN the sentence and I see no justification for inserting a capital letter on the next word!

  2. As ever, David Crystal has wise words on your issue, biochemist:

    Related to this is the question: should we ever a capital letter after a colon? With quotations and direct speech, as we see, the answer is yes. It's yes also if what follows the colon is a series of sentences:

    Two things would follow: First, the rivers would overflow. Second, the low-lying villages would be flooded.

    Showing that the sentences are parallel is felt to be the more important issue: both sentences relate back to Two things. Hence the following version is disturbing, as the orthography is sending its contradictory messages at the same time:

    Two things would follow: first, the rivers would overflow. Second, the low-lying villages would be flooded.

    Where just one sentence follows, the answer is less clear, because usage varies:

    Everyone accepted John's point: We had no choice but to go.
    Everyone accepted John's point: we had no choice but to go.

    The capitalised version is far more common in American English writing, but style guides differ. Publishers will have made their choice in their house styles. In other circumstances the only advice is to make your choice and be consistent. Taste rules, once again. And if you don't like any of the above, the only solution is to rephrase.

    (Making a Point p 225)

  3. “But with more of an angle” is an absolute.

  4. Only because the previous text is missing.

  5. I did write

    Only because the previous text is missing

    but I was wrong!

    With more of an angle is straightforwardly relative. The full text (unfortunately on a different screen when I was posting) reads:

    "An almost identical character to the forward slash is the fraction or division slash (/) but with more of an angle, it is used to make fractions"

    There's fully enough text to show that

    with more of an angle

    is an elliptic equivalent of

    with more of an angle than that of the forward slash.

  6. OK, perhaps you have a point after all, Pascal. The sentence doesn't identify the quality of an angle which is 'more' in the case of the decision/fraction slash.

    Even so, I think we can identify the quality from the term forward. In a forward slash, the top is forward of the base, just as in a backslash the top is backward of the base.

    Sure enough, if you draw the top further forward you get what the Unicode system of typeface design for the Internet calls a division slap. However, this is not the same in Unicode as a fraction slash, which is not as tall.

    So if angle means 'angle of lean forward from the perpendicular', the the sentence truly is relative.

  7. Remarkably, Unicode doesn't seem to recognise the term forward slash, preferring to call it solidus. Similarly the term preferred over backslash or backward slash is reverse solidus.

    In Making a Point, David Crystal discusses the mark under the name slash, but notes that it is also called slant, solidus, diagonal and oblique.

    Since 1980, it has been renamed forward slash — because of the very recent invention of the backslash for use in programming languages and in Windows file path notation.

  8. Lynne, the place you'd expect to find a division slash on a keyboard is above 9 on the number pad, between = and *.

    But it's not there. What prints is identical to the solidus which shares the ? key in lower ~ upper case.

  9. Number pad? I have no such monstrosity.

    'Virgule' seems to be left out of the discussion.

  10. My mistake. Virgule is in David Crystal's list. I just failed to copy it.

  11. David Crosbie:
    Thank you for the very clear quotation from David Crystal's book. His instruction for the first example, where the colon is followed by complete sentences, really only works if 'second' starts a new sentence. Even so, I think I would have been brought up short by reading that text. Contrast these two examples of British writing (Peter Frankopan in Silk Roads) where the colon marks a pause before the explanation of the fist part of the sentence:

    But two other important reasons also help explain the triumph of Islam in the early part of the 7th century: the support provided by Christians, and above all that given by Jews.

    Three major political centres had evolved by the start of the 900s: one was centred on Cordoba and Spain; one on Egypt and the Upper Nile, and the third on Mesopotamia and (most of) the Arabian peninsula, and they fought with each other over matters of theology as well as for influence and authority.

    That second example could easily have been divided into two complete sentences, but it would have lost fluidity, and over-emphasised the items in the list at the expense of the message that they fought with each other.

    Finally, have you noticed that Alan Bennett manages very well without colons or semi-colons, it seems to make his writing very colloquial.

  12. Are you sure that "with more of an angle" is intended as the end of the sentence in question? I could read it as a problem of commas not being paired to clarify the sense and rhythm of the sentence - "but, with more of an angle, ......"

    Or maybe that's just me.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)