Arrant Pedantry

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My Latest for Grammar Girl: “Verbing Nouns and Nouning Verbs”

A lot of people dislike it when nouns like task and dialogue are turned into verbs, but this process has been a normal part of English for centuries. In my latest piece for Grammar Girl, I explain why we should all relax a little about verbing nouns.

Read the whole piece or listen to the episode here.

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Get 20 Percent Off at the Arrant Pedantry Store

Today and tomorrow only, you can get 20 percent off T-shirts and other items at the Arrant Pedantry Store. Just use the code ANYTHING20 at checkout. And remember that you can customize the design color and even put the designs on other items, including mugs and phone cases. Just hit the pencil icon below the item and then pick the product you want.

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The Style Guide Alignment Chart

I’ve been thinking a lot about style guides lately, and I decided that what the world really needs right now is the definitive style guide alignment chart. I posted a version on Twitter the other day, but I wanted to do a slightly expanded version here. (Quotes are taken from easydamus.com.)

Lawful good: The Chicago Manual of Style, Neutral Good: The MLA Handbook, Chaotic Good: Buzzfeed Style, Lawful Neutral: The Elements of Style, True Neutral: The Wikipedia Style Guide, Chaotic Neutral: Wired Style, Lawful Evil: The New Yorker Style Guide, Neutral Evil: The AP Stylebook, Chaotic Evil: Publication Manual of the  American Psychological Association

Lawful Good: The Chicago Manual of Style

A lawful good character “combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly.” And boy howdy, is Chicago relentless—the thing is over 1,100 pages! Even if you use it every day in your job as an editor, there are probably entire chapters that you’ve never looked at. But it’s there with its recommendations just in case.

Neutral Good: The MLA Handbook

“A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do.” Look, the MLA Handbook certainly tries to do what’s right, even if it can’t make up its mind sometimes. Remember when it said you should specify whether a source was print or web, as if that wasn’t obvious from context, and then it took that rule out in the next edition? Enough said.

Chaotic Good: The Buzzfeed Style Guide

“A chaotic good character acts as his conscience directs him with little regard for what others expect of him.” Buzzfeed style is guided by a strong moral compass but doesn’t feel beholden to a lot of traditional rules. It has great entries on gender, race, and disability and would probably recommend singular “they” in that last sentence. It also has entries on celebricat (a celebrity cat), dadbod, and milkshake duck, because that’s the internet for you.

Lawful Neutral: The Elements of Style

“A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her.” The Elements of Style, a.k.a. Strunk & White, certainly upholds a lot of laws and traditions. Are they good laws? Look, I don’t see how that’s relevant. The point is that if you follow its diktats by omitting needless words and going which hunting, your writing will supposedly be just like E. B. White’s.

True Neutral: The Wikipedia Style Guide

A true neutral character “doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos.” Wikipedia doesn’t care for your edit wars. There are lots of acceptable style choices, whether you prefer American or British English. Just pick a style and stick with it.

Chaotic Neutral: Wired Style

A chaotic neutral character “avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions.” Wired Style has a chapter called “Be Elite” and another called “Screw the Rules.” The first edition is also printed on day-glow yellow paper, because screw your eyes too. It also has a chapter called “Anticipate the Future” but probably didn’t anticipate that it would go out of print twenty years ago.

Lawful Evil: The New Yorker

A lawful evil character “plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion.” The New Yorker uses jarring diereses to prevent misreading of words that no one has trouble reading, and it doubles consonants in words like focussed because it said so, that’s why. It also unnecessarily sets off certain phrases with commas based on a hyperliteral idea of what restrictive and nonrestrictive mean. Tell me that’s not mercilessly evil.

Neutral Evil: The Associated Press Stylebook

“A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with.” The AP Stylebook used to say that two things couldn’t collide unless they were both in motion, and it also used to recommend against not only split infinitives but also adverbs placed in the middle of verb phrases, which is the normal place to put them. They only abandoned those rules when John McIntyre finally called them on that BS.

Chaotic Evil: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

A chaotic evil character is “arbitrarily violent” and “unpredictable.” Have you ever seen APA-style references? Some titles are in title case, while others are in sentence case. And, for reasons I can’t understand, volume numbers are italicized but issues numbers aren’t, even though there’s no space between them. “Arbitrarily violent” is the best description of that mess that I’ve seen.

Naturally, there will be some disagreement over the placement of some entries. I’ve also had a lot of calls to include Bluebook, with most people wanting to put it somewhere on the evil axis, while others have wanted to include The Yahoo! Style Guide, The Microsoft Manual of Style, or AMA Manual of Style. I’ve decided that I’m probably going to have to do a yearly update to add new entries or move some to more fitting spots. In the meantime, if you’ve got opinions—and I’m sure you do—feel free to chime in below.

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That’s My Name; Please Wear It Out

Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that my name has a slightly unusual spelling: it’s Jonathon rather than Jonathan. If you’ve ever been tempted to joke that my parents spelled my name wrong, please don’t. I’ve been hearing that joke for over thirty years now, and I can promise you that it wasn’t funny even the first time.

But in a way the jokers are right. I’m named after the Old Testament figure (the son of Saul and friend of David), whose name is usually rendered Jonathan in English translations of the Bible. My parents thought the -on form was the usual spelling, so that’s what they put on my birth certificate. But I happen to like the spelling of my name, and, anyway, it’s a legitimate variant. The NameVoyager on Baby Name Wizard shows that it’s been around since at least the 1940s or ’50s, though it’s never rivaled Jonathan in popularity. I’ve been asked if the unusual spelling of my name helped propel me to become an editor because I had to pay extra attention to the spelling, but I don’t think it’s true. It makes a nice story, though.

However, my name does serve as sort of a miniature editing test for those times when I’m hiring editorial interns. I’m usually pretty generous with who I invite to come take our editing test, but applicants who address their emails to Jonathan Owens never seem to do as well on it. If you’re applying to an editing job, you’d do well to make sure you spell the hiring manager’s name right.

But I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that most people won’t spell it right without help. I don’t usually bother to spell it for people in situations where it doesn’t matter, like when someone is taking my order at a fast-food place and they just need to get it close enough that they can call out my name correctly. (Though I appreciate when they ask how to spell it anyway.)

Occasionally I’ll get it spelled right, but more often I get Jonathan or Johnathan or Johnathin or some other weird spelling that makes me wonder if the person writing it has ever seen the name before. For years the weirdest version I’d ever gotten was Jhonathen, but just a couple of months ago I got a receipt that said Jouhathine. I’m not sure that one will ever be topped.

But the one thing that I can’t stand is people automatically shortening my name to Jon. Though, in all honesty, sometimes it’s just as annoying when they ask if they can shorten it. On a couple of occasions I’ve had conversations like this:

Arby’s cashier: Can I get a name?
Me: Jonathon.
Arby’s cashier: Can I put John? I don’t want to butcher it.
Me, mentally: You kind of just did.

It’s annoying enough when I give my name to the cashier at Arby’s as Jonathon and they put Jon or John* on my receipt, but it really grates when I introduce myself to someone as Jonathon and they immediately call me Jon. You’d be surprised how often I’ve had exchanges that go like this:

Them: What’s your name?
Me: Jonathon.
Them: Jon? Nice to meet you.

Did I not enunciate well enough? Was their attention span so short that they could only manage to catch the first syllable? Do they just assume that anybody with a name as long as mine—three whole syllables!—naturally prefers a short form, even though I didn’t give them one? And then I always feel like a jerk for correcting them, even though I shouldn’t have to. (Side note: There was a lot of gratuitous backstorification in Solo: A Star Wars Story, but the part that annoyed me the most was when Han learns Chewbacca’s name and then decides to call him Chewie—without asking if he was okay with it!—because Chewbacca is just too long.)

The funny thing is that I tried to go by Jon once when I was a kid, and it didn’t go well. We had moved to Utah during the summer and were living with my grandma while we saved for a house. On the first day of second grade in my new school, my teacher asked if I preferred Jon or Jonathon. On a whim, I said Jon, so that’s what everyone called me. The only problem is that I wasn’t used to going by Jon—my family only ever called me Jonathon—so when people said my name, it always took me a second to realize that they were talking to me. But by then it was too late to do anything about it. I felt too embarrassed to announce to the class that, on second thought, I preferred Jonathon after all.

Thankfully, we moved into our own place just a few weeks into the school year, so I was able to start over at a new school, once again as Jonathon.

And that’s how I’ve remained ever since. Maybe you’re dying to point out that it looks like a misspelling to you, or you might be itching to ditch those extra syllables and just call me Jon, but please refrain. I’m happy with my name just how it is.


* You may be surprised to learn that the names Jonathan and John are unrelated. Jonathan comes from the Hebrew יְהוֹנָתָן‎ (Yehonatan) or יוֹנָתָן‎ (Yonatan), meaning ‘Jehovah has given’. John, on the other hand, comes from the Hebrew יוֹחָנָן‎ (Yochanan), meaning ‘God is gracious’. But because of their similar forms, people conflate Jon and John and then start spelling Jonathan like Johnathan.

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20 Percent Off at the Arrant Pedantry Store

There’s a sale going on at the Arrant Pedantry Store today and tomorrow only. Just use the code LOVE19 at checkout to get 20 percent off any order—there’s no minimum purchase.

And if you haven’t visited the store in a while, you might want to check out some of my new designs. Take a look!

Ask me about the Great Vowel Shift. Ask me about linguistics.
Ask me about the Oxford comma. I (manicule) OT

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Science and Shit

A recent discussion on Twitter about whether the line “I’m gonna have to science the shit out out of this” was in Andy Weir’s book The Martian or was only found in the movie reminded me of one of my favorite facts: science and shit are related. So let’s science the shit out of this etymology.

It all starts (as so many of these things do) with Proto-Indo-European. The root *skey meant ‘to cut, split, separate’. The extended form *skeyd became scit in Old English. The sc sequence was originally pronounced /sk/ in Old English and other Germanic languages, but it eventually became pronounced /ʃ/ (the “sh” sound) in Old English. The sh spelling came later under the influence of French scribes. But despite those minor spelling changes, the word has remained virtually unchanged in over a thousand years. You could travel back to Anglo-Saxon times, and they would understand you if you said shit.

So how did a root meaning ‘to cut, split, separate’ come to mean ‘feces’? From the notion of separating it from your body. The same metaphor is found in the Latin excrementum, which employs the unrelated root meaning ‘to sift, separate’.

This means that shit probably started out as a euphemism. Speakers of Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Germanic may have talked about needing to go separate something rather than use a more unsavory term. In English, shit was fairly neutral for a long while and apparently didn’t become taboo until around 1600, at which point it mostly disappeared from print. It isn’t found in Shakespeare’s plays or in the King James Bible.

Euphemisms often become sullied by the connotations of the thing they’re euphemizing, which leads to the need for new euphemisms, a process sometimes called the euphemism treadmill. So even if shit started life as a polite way to talk about defecation, it eventually became a rather crude one.

(By the way, the “ship high in transit” etymology is pure . . . well, you know. Kory Stamper’s excellent book Word by Word covers this and other bogus acronymic etymologies in more detail.)

In Latin, the PIE root *skey gave rise to the verb scire ‘to know, to understand’. It probably developed from ‘separate’ to ‘distinguish’ or ‘discern’ (that is, ‘tell things apart’) and then to the more general sense of ‘know’.

A noun form of the present participle of scire, scientia, originally meant the state of knowing—that is, ‘knowledge’. Scientia became science in French, which was then borrowed into English. In English it came to mean not just knowledge but the body of knowledge or the process of gaining new knowledge through the scientific method.

The Latin scire gives us a whole bunch of other words too, including conscience (from conscire ‘to know well, to be aware, to have on one’s conscience’), conscious (also from conscire), prescient (‘knowing beforehand’), and nescient (‘not knowing, ignorant’). A related form, nescius is also, surprisingly, the origin of nice, which is a great example of just how much meanings can change over time. Though it originally meant ‘ignorant’, it shifted through ‘foolish’ to ‘lascivious, wanton’ to ‘showy, ostentatious’ to ‘refined’ and then ‘well mannered’ or ‘kind’. The Oxford English Dictionary records many more obsolete senses. A different descendent of *skey yielded the Latin scandula, which later became scindula and was then borrowed into English, where it became shincle and then shingle (from the notion of splitting off a thin piece of wood).

In Ancient Greek, the root *skey yielded schism (meaning a division between people, often in a religious organization) and shizo-, as in schizophrenia (literally ‘a splitting of the mind’).

Back in English, *skey also yielded shed (meaning ‘to cast off’, as in shedding skin, but not the shed meaning a storage building). It probably also gave us sheath (from the notion of a split piece of wood in which a sword is inserted). The Online Etymology Dictionary says it also gives us shin (from the sense of ‘thin piece’, though that’s a little opaque to me). And it’s the source of the word share, from the notion of dividing what you have with someone else. It also gives us shiver (in the sense of a small chip or fragment of wood), which still appears as a dialectal word for ‘splinter’.

In Old Norse, *skey yielded skið also meaning ‘piece of wood’, which eventually gave us the word ski.

And *skey appears to be a variant of another root, *sek, meaning ‘to cut’, which gives us a whole host of other words like section and segment and saw, but I should probably cut this post off somewhere and save some things for another day.

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An Etymological Workout

If you’re like me and are still trying to get back into the swing of things after a nice holiday break, you might be having a little trouble focusing on work. You might even be suffering from a mild case of ergophobia, or the fear of work. So here’s some etymology to distract you.

Work comes from the Proto-Germanic *werkam, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *wérǵom, ultimately from the root *werǵ ‘to make’. In Ancient Greek, *wérǵom gave rise to ergon, which gives us energy, from the prefix en- ‘at’ + erg ‘work’ (‘at work, active’), as well as terms like ergonomics and ergative (and, yes, ergophobia). It also apparently gives us the name George, a name meaning ‘farmer’ or ‘husbandman’, which comes from ge ‘earth’ + ergon ‘work’, literally ‘earth worker’.

Forms of ergon also gave us surgery (from earlier chirurgerie, from the Greek kheir ‘hand’ + ergon ‘work’), metallurgy (‘metal work’), liturgy (‘public work’ or ‘public worship’), thaumaturge (‘wonder worker’), dramaturge (‘drama worker’), demiurge (‘public worker’, from a different root meaning ‘public’ than the one in liturgy), “argon” (from the prefix a- ‘not’ + ergon ‘work’, because argon is inert), lethargy (from leth ‘to forget’ + argos ‘not working, idle’), allergy (‘other working’), and synergy (‘working together’).

A variant of the PIE *werǵ, *worg, also produced the Ancient Greek organon, meaning ‘instrument’ or ‘tool’, which eventually made its way into English as organ (meaning the musical instrument, the body parts, and other senses). From this we also get the verb organize, which originally meant ‘to put in working order’, as well as other derived forms like organic and organism.

It also gave us orgy, which originally meant ‘secret rites’, probably from the sense of some kind of work performed for one’s gods. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “OED says of the ancient rites that they were ‘celebrated with extravagant dancing, singing, drinking, etc.,’ which gives ‘etc.’ quite a workout.” (This root did not, however, give us the word orgasm.)

The Proto-Indo-European *wérǵom also yielded the Germanic bulwark (literally ‘bole work’ or ‘tree work’), which originally meant a defensive wall made of logs. This word was borrowed into English either from Middle Dutch or from Middle High German. It was also borrowed into French and became boulevard, with an anomalous change from /k/ to /d/ at the end. It eventually came to mean a tree-lined street and was then borrowed back into English.

And, of course, it also yields the English wright, meaning ‘worker’ or ‘maker’, and the archaic wrought, which is an old past-tense form of work and not a past-tense form of wreak as some mistakenly believe.

So that one little root from Proto-Indo-European has been pretty productive. I should probably try to be too.