Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More on language

Substance and Style--Instruction and Practice in Copyediting by Mary Stoughton. 
What the title says. It is an oldie, but a goodie, despite one or two issues that are not relevant anymore in copyediting. My teacher recommended this book because it has a lot of exercises. I've now done them all, and whooboy--what a task. Contrary to Einsohn's book, where the exercises gradually build up, here they drill one aspect over and over again in short paragraphs and at the end of the book, compile everything you have learned into one, gigantic exercise which needs you to perform multiple passes on it. 

I think the two books complemented each other very well; whereas Einsohn's was fun to read and more up-to-date, Stoughton's offers a larger variety of brain puzzlers. I ended up skipping the short sections that describe the problem and just diving straight into the exercises. One reason for this was that Einsohn had unashamedly borrowed from Stoughton (which Einsohn admits readily in the foreword), so there would have been repetition anyway.

On the Dot--The Speck That Changed the World by Alexander and Nicholas Humez
This book has a big, whopping dot on the cover. Its preface states, "On the Dot, as the title promises, is a book about dots--mostly, though not exclusively, the sort we use in print."

This must be the worst thesis statement I have ever read--and I used to teach students how to compose academic papers!

I'm almost done with the book, but I'm not sure if it's worth my time to finish it. I'm very disappointed with how all over the place this book is. Often, it seems that the dot is used as a mere vehicle for a rant about the Patriot Act, or a long litany of an obscure word's etymology--and only because the word happened to remind the author of the word dealing with punctuation (although its meaning might be completely different). Let me illustrate:

The first chapter, "Time and Chance--punctuality and coin toss", begins with the idiomatic expression "on the dot", meaning that something happens exactly at the time predicted. Instead of discussing why the word "dot" has taken the meaning of punctuality (pun intended), we are immediately transported to a discussion about how Greenwich Mean Time became the official 0 hour for nagivation. The authors bring us back to "arriving on the dot" by making this bizarre claim, "You might think that the French expression for arriving on the dot would be arriver a point..." Who, except people who have no idea of how language works, would think that just because the word 'dot' is in French point, an idiomatic expression would be a literal translation? Ah, I see--this just worked as a nice lead into the history of coin toss, and how it has been described in various languages. At this point I am all question marks: sure, coin toss, and the history of "heads or tails" is fascinating, but... what does it have to do with the topic of this book, let alone this chapter?

We get further away from the dot when the authors introduce different types of die people use, and even what type of other materials can be used to throw stuff in games. They even detail the various possible scenarios in the game "Pass the Pigs", and end up talking about the fuzzy dice hanging from a young driver's rear view mirror. The chapter ends up with the etymology of the word 'pile'--with absolutely no connection to the beginning of the chapter. What?

The chapter on bullets, or raised dots to mark lists, begins promisingly: all of three pages are dedicated to the usage of bulleted points (but again, no visible reason as to why people began to use the raised dot...). Then, there is a sudden twist in the narration : "Of course, real bullets ... nowadays do have points on them." The ensuing paragraphs are all about the etymology of--not bullets, as you would expect--but balls. And just because the French word for a bullet (from a gun) is balle. We also learn that the Latin word bulla means "bubble." Guess will this chapter also talk about bowling and bowls?

If I had given a subtitle for this book, it would have been "Using punctuation to come up with whatever random crap words remind me of." How else can a chapter titled "...and a half--Musical dots" talk about feminism and its fight against simplifying the world into binary oppositions already in its third page? It has absolutely nothing to do with music, or using punctuation. It has something to do with the idea of a "half", but... the title is not "How world views the concept of halves." This chapter is horrible, anyway. It talks about how it's awesome that the Greek have a word for pairs (which, apparently is an indication of a binary world view) by giving words such as duo and binoculars as examples--and conveniently forgetting that there are also words such as a trio...

What the heck is this book about? Not only is it also really verbose to the point that I want to smack the authors in the head, it's hard to find any coherence in it. If they wanted to write a book about the etymology of words that literally mean points and dots but are now used in a variety of ways, they should've just said so.

On the Dot is not a "natural history" of the dot, although that's what the book claims it to be. I probably would've been absolutely fascinated by this book if it was framed differently. I picked it up to read about the dot, how it revolutionized communication, and so on. I did not need to know how abbreviations are formed.

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