Posts tagged ‘Oxford English Dictionary’

Pronouns, "Quotation Marks," and Punctuation (oh my)

Dr. Mercury at Maggie's Farm supports my use of "they" as the gender-neutral third person pronoun English needs but does not have (though he includes a tasteless picture of a family member in distress).   But he wants to make it clear that I am 20 years late in joining the revolution.  So be it.   I will add that I am also on board with putting punctuation outside of "quotation marks".  For anyone who has done a lick of computer programming, in which resolution order of mathematical symbols is a key part of early training, putting sentence punctuation inside of quotation marks makes no sense.  Quotation marks are like parentheses in math, holding together one coherent expression, and so putting sentence punctuation inside them (as I did in the title) is, to me, the equivalent of this:   (2 + 4 x) 8 = 48

There was a great little book a while back called the Professor and the Madman, discussing the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary.  While the French dictionary is constructed top-down by a few folks to describe what French should be, the OED was constructed bottom-up from actual examples of usage, describing English as it is actually used.

By the way, for those of you who are horrified by the grammatical mistakes on this site (I know my friend Tom in Seattle pulls his hair out over this), they come mainly from my inability to proof, not lack of knowledge or concern.  I have some sort of mental dyslexia that can read right over horrible typos and gaffes, even four or five times, without spotting them.

PS:  Looking back at my title, I suppose we could even get into an Oxford comma argument too.

English as an Open Source Language

One of the great things about modern English is that it is bottom-up and open-source.  Years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary took the approach of documenting what English is, rather than the French approach of dictating what the language should be.  As a result, the language evolves based on how ordinary people are using it.  Which is perhaps why the word in many languages for new trends and technologies is often the English word (much to the consternation of the French). 

I tend to agree with Eugene Volokh's definition of "what is a word."  Then think how different this might be in statist cultures, where a word is only a word when the government says it is.

PS-  I acknowledge that this makes English harder to learn for people whose first language is less idiomatic.

Update: Much more here