Punctuation marks as words slash sounds slash gestures

Young people nowadays?  They end their sentences with a rising intonation?  So that every sentence sounds sort of like a question?

So, I was listening to a woman on a podcast, and she was describing her mixed feelings about a movie:

“I liked it — question mark?”

She felt the need to verbalize the punctuation mark, because her typical speech pattern couldn’t convey her doubt about whether she actually liked the movie — because every sentence she spoke seemed to convey a bit of doubt anyway.

Another punctuation mark that gets verbalized is the slash used as a conjunction, as in “I walked/ran all the way home.”  But I hadn’t realized how far this had gone until my son sent me this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Slash has become a word used in everyday writing as well as speech — a new conjunction or conjunctive adverb.  The following usage is straightforward: the word is just substituting for the punctuation mark:

Does anyone care if my cousin comes and visits slash stays with us Friday night?

But the following usage, as the author points out, is more interesting:

I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?

Or even:

JUST SAW ALEX! Slash I just chubbed on oatmeal raisin cookies at north quad and i miss you

Here slash has wandered far from the standard use of the equivalent punctuation mark.  It is introducing an afterthought or topic shift, without much in the way of a relationship to the previous sentence.  That’s super-cool and awesome!  (The word chubbed is also super-cool and awesome, by the way.)

The writer concludes:

The emergence of a new conjunction/conjunctive adverb (let alone one stemming from a punctuation mark) is like a rare-bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language. This use of slash is so commonplace for students in my class that they almost forgot to mention it as a new slang word this term. That young people have integrated innovative slash into their language while barely noticing its presence is all the more reason that conjunctive slash might have staying power.

All of this reminded me of Victor Borge’s famous phonetic pronunciation routine, which YouTube kindly provides:

Life would be much more interesting if we all talked like that.


Is that province “restive” or “resistive”?

A Washington Post article reprinted in today’s Boston Globe refers to Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province as resistive.  But the same article in the Post itself uses the more expected word restive.  What’s up with that?

Restive is a tough word–it provides you with two different ways to get it wrong.  Language mavens will tell us that it isn’t a synonym for restless–it means “difficult to control,” not “fidgety.”  But I’ve also seen it used as a synonym for restful.  Here, for example, we have an online thread about what to do when you’re able to get to sleep but your sleep isn’t “restive.”

The Globe seems to want to eliminate the confusion by changing the word to resistive, presumably meaning resistant, which I suppose also fits Baluchistan.  The dictionary will give you that definition for resistive, but it seems to be used that way mostly in technical contexts.  Of course maybe the Globe didn’t make the change.  It’s also possible the writers themselves used resistive; the Post corrected it, but the Globe didn’t bother.  Either way, this is probably one of those substitutions that show a word is on the way out.  The Google Ngram Viewer tells us that restive peaked in popularity around 1930 and has been on a downward slide ever since.  It’s a useful word, but it’s time may have passed.

As they are want to do

I came across this mangling of the standard “as they are wont to do” in an award-winning book published by a mainstream publisher and written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.  (On the same page “pretension” came out “pretention.”)  I don’t recall encountering this usage before, but a Google search turns up 382,000 of ’em.  Plus 2.6 million occurrences of its cousin “as is their want”–this one actually outpolls “as is their wont,” which garners only 558,000 usages. (Google helpfully asks me if it didn’t really mean to search for “as is their want.”)  So this is an idiom that seems to be having an identity crisis.  I have a pit in my stomach just thinking about it.

Marry merry Mary?

Here are some beautiful maps showing the way pronunciation and usage vary across America.

For me, the oddest result was the map showing that I live in a small area of the country that pronounce Mary, marry, and merry differently.  Can that be right?  Of course they’re all pronounced differently!  On the other hand, I can’t hear any difference between Don and dawn, which I read somewhere are obviously different.

I was also baffled by a couple of regionalisms that they omitted.  There’s a map showing regional variations in the word used for soda, but they don’t include tonic for New England.  I suppose that usage is dying out.  But the word rotary for roundabout or traffic circle isn’t dying out.  Why don’t we get credit for that? Look, we even put the name on signs:

A rotary in Lowell, Massachusetts.

(There is an absurdly long Wikipedia article about roundabouts.  Someone must really care about them.)

The bell tolls for “whom”

Here is a nice essay about the inevitable decline and fall of “whom,” a word that continues to exist only to trip people up and make them feel stupid. The Google Ngram Viewer for “whom” shows a decline of about 75% from its peak in 1820 or so to today.  But why?

One explanation is that the word has outlived its ability to fulfill the most important function of language: to clarify and specify. Another is that its subject/object distinction can be confusing to the point of frustrating. The most immediate reason, though, is that whom simply costs language users more than it benefits them. Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a “pompous twerp.”

The writer quotes William Safire about what a writer should do about the word: “The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence.”

It’s annoying that “whom” continues to bedevil us when there are so many words that we need but that don’t yet exist.  Here are just a few:

  • A gender-neutral singular word for “they” and “them” instead of the atrocious “s/he” and the wordy “him or her”
  • A word like “either” that applies to more than two choices
  • A word for someone you are living with who is more than your girlfriend or boyfriend and less than your fiancée or spouse or (ugh) life partner

These words would make a writer’s life a whole lot better.  Whom can I talk to about coming up with them?

“It changes the whole complexity.”

Recently the polling group Public Policy Polling (PPP) polled Massachusetts residents about the upcoming senate race, and threw in other random questions while they were at it.  PPP found that the disapproval rate for Red Sox manager was 1%, an inconceivably low number.  This may change if he keeps saying stuff like this (from today’s Boston Globe) about Jacoby Ellsbury’s base-stealing ability:

It changes the whole complexity. When you’ve got that kind of base-stealing threat at first, the attention is split by the guy on the mound, potential mistakes on location at the plate. We can potentially capitalize on those situations.

The baseball wisdom is unexceptionable; however, the use of “complexity” instead of “complexion” will not win him any fans among language snoots. The Red Sox had better do well against the Yankees this weekend.  Red Sox fans, as well as language snoots, are a fickle bunch.

A few thoughts about “Telegraph Avenue”

Telegraph Avenue is Michael Chabon’s latest novel.  I’ve read two others by him: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and the entertaining but less interesting serial novel Gentlemen of the Road.  He is an astonishing writer.  Quit reading this stupid post and download one of his books.

That said, I didn’t like Telegraph Avenue as much as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I thought was utterly brilliant.  It’s about black and Jewish folks just getting by in the Oakland of 2004.  Two men run a marginally profitable used record store threatened by a superstore that may be built nearby.  Their wives are midwives struggling to keep their practice going in the face of opposition from hospitals who don’t want them doing home births.  All the characters are wonderfully comic and sympathetic.  Their lives are described in rich detail.  I don’t know how Chabon does it.

Still, at 465 pages the book feels overstuffed and somewhat exhausting.  While I willingly gave myself up to the strange alternate universe of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I wasn’t especially interested in the extensive, loving descriptions of 70s black music and films that is central to the book.  Your mileage may vary.

A couple of other points:

Telegraph Avenue is best read on an ebook reader with a built-in dictionary. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself looking up a lot of words — Chabon’s range of vocabulary is spectacular.  I’m not a foodie, so I don’t feel too bad not knowing lavash and turmeric.  But I figure I should have known a lot of his other words — clabber and selvage, for example.  I know ’em now.

Finally this was the first book I’ve come across where the author credited the hardware and software used to create it: “This novel was written using Scrivener on Macintosh computers.”  Modern times.