Welcome to Wordwatch Towers where you’ll find lots of stuff about how to write well. Please scroll down for the latest posts or explore the Wordwatch Towers vaults for more information about punctuation, grammar and how to use the English language.
*Important legal disclaimer: Not really.
A woman without her man…
Good grammar and punctuation aren’t optional extras:
A woman without her man is nothing.
With the correct punctuation all becomes clear:
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Anchors and beech trees. I know, how come I’ve not covered these already? Anyway, the first bit of this will be a confession about how thick I can be, and the second bit is designed to take your mind off the first bit.
Until very recently I thought that ‘anchors aweigh’ was spelt ‘anchors away’. Well, in my defence, I’ve never had to actually write the phrase down and the ‘away’ spelling that was vaguely lodged in my mind does kind of make sense; after all, the anchor is pulled away from the seabed when the ship has to start off (or whatever the nautical phrase is for a ship starting off).
So why ‘anchors aweigh’? Well, here’s a pretty good explanation from the US Navy website:
The word ‘weigh’ in this sense comes from the archaic word meaning to heave, hoist or raise. ‘Aweigh’ means that the action has been completed. The anchor is aweigh when it is pulled from the bottom. This event is duly noted in the ship’s log.
However, the soup thickens. Apparently, says Oxford Dictionaries, nautical types are allowed to spell ‘under way’ (as when something is in progress) as ‘under weigh’. Who knew?
Root and branch investigation
So, we’ve established that I shouldn’t be editing the next edition of The Big Book of Nautical Words, but what about the beech trees?
This is from the enchanting Tree Wisdom by Jaqueline Memory Paterson. She explains that the beech tree has a unique place in European legend due to the belief that thin slices of beech wood were used to create the first book, as well as surfaces for writing on.
These stories, says the author, are backed by etymology, as the Anglo-Saxon for ‘beech’ was ‘boc’ which became our word, ‘book’. ‘Buche’ is the German for ‘beech’ and ‘buch’ the German for ‘book’, and the Swedish word ‘bok’ means both ‘book’ and ‘beech’.
See, now you’ve forgotten all about the anchors aweigh fiasco. Although I will be including the phrase in future spelling tests, so be warned.
Where was I? Oh, yes: serendipity.
The Wordwatch Towers inbox has recently been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of an email asking me to explain the origins of this lovely word (which means making a happy and unexpected accidental discovery).
The butler (at a loose end since my reader Gladys went to Devon to help celebrate her sister’s 86th) immediately dusted down Oxford Dictionaries online and discovered a rather lovely snippet.
Walpole used the word serendipity in his correspondence, having based it on The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian fairy tale (Horace called it ‘silly’) in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. You can read more about this on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.
Here comes the hmm … as you know, I am not one to nitpick (ahem), but there’s a first time for everything. The Oxford Dictionaries blog post referred to above describes the word serendipity as ‘wonderfully onomatopoeic’. Is it?
Doesn’t ‘onomatopoeic’ mean words like ‘buzz’ and ‘bang’ and hiss’ – words based on the sound they describe? Does serendipity sound like the – er – sound of happy chance discoveries? I don’t fink so.
Just in case any Wordwatchers out there are feeling poetic …
Bennison Books is crowdsourcing poetry! No, we don’t want your money: we want your words.
We plan to publish an anthology of poetry written by both published and unpublished authors. As long as your poem is in the English language and no longer than 50 lines, it will be considered for inclusion. Shorter poems are especially welcome.
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I’m so ashamed. The butler claims he told me ages ago (he didn’t) and is now sulking in the pantry. I considered pretending that I knew all along but my reader, Gladys (who seems to be spending a lot of time with the butler lately), would never forgive me for lying. So I have to ‘fess up.
It’s all to do with ellipsis. Now, ellipsis (plural: ellipses) can mean two things:
- a word or words that are left out (in speech or writing)
- the punctuation mark of three dots … that indicates the position of the missing words.
Who could possibly get this wrong? Oh, that would me.
Because, apparently (she said, trying to suggest that it’s been a well-kept secret until now), when using the three dots as a punctuation mark, there has to be a space either side of them. (I *ahem* sort of thought there only had to be a space after the end of the final dot.)
Here’s a great example from the story The Sisters in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners:
No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion …
(Not read Dubliners yet? Grab a copy – if only for the final genius story, The Dead.)
The ellipsis punctuation mark is also used in informal writing to indicate a trailing off of thought …
It can be used in this way both at the end of the sentence as above, or in the middle of a sentence:
I used to think I was good at this punctuation lark … oh, well, onwards and upwards.
Drama and hesitation
The ellipsis can also be used to build up dramatic effect:
I can’t believe it … you mean to say … he was the murderer?
Really? It doesn’t seem possible … he seemed to … well, I’ll wait and see.
Note the correct use of a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark in all these examples. *makes note to self while standing in corner with dunce’s cap on*
What can I do to make up for all this? Oh, I know, share some lovely words with you.
These are stolen from an article by Robert Macfarlane, author of the bestselling book, Landmarks, a celebration of the relationship between words and landscapes:
- burra: a sheltered spot, tucked away out of the wind , where certain flowers can grow (used in Oxfordshire, UK)
- kesh: a makeshift ramp or bridge over a stream or marsh (Northern Ireland)
- wicker: a goldfinch (Cheshire, UK)
- dimmity or dimpsey: twilight (Devon, UK)
- hazeling: of a spring morning, warm and damp, good for sowing seed (Hertfordshire, UK)
- smeuse: the gap in the base of a hedgerow made by the regular passage of a small animal (Sussex, UK)
- crizzle: the freezing of open water (Northamptonshire, UK)
- zawn: a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff (Cornwall, UK)
- ammil: the gleaming film of ice that cases twigs and blades of grass when a freeze follows a thaw (Devon, UK)
Note that some style guides say that as well as a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark, there should be a space between each dot. But, hey, let’s not go mad; that would be a kesh too far.