LABELS: WORD CHOICE
I don’t know much about Shakespeare. Suffice it to say that there are some gaps in my education. So when I learn about an expression like “hoist with his own petard,” it’s usually from a “Simpsons” episode.
And it’s always fun to look up these new expressions.
Garner’s Modern American Usage has some interesting discussion on this term, which the guide describes as a Shakespearean phrase meaning “ruined by one’s own scheming against others.”
“The actual line in ‘Hamlet’ is ‘hoist with his own petar,” Garner’s says. “The form ‘petar’ is an archaic variant of ‘petard,’ meaning ‘an explosive device used in ancient warfare to blow open a gate or to breach a wall.’ Thus, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’ literally means to blow oneself into the air with one’s own bomb. In modern journalistic sources, ‘petard’ outnumbers ‘petar’ by a 66-to-1 margin. So almost every writer who uses the phrase updates Shakespeare by using ‘petard.’”
Garner’s adds that the verb "hoist" is normally “hoisted” in the past tense, but that Shakespeare used “hoist” as the past participle for the archaic verb “hoise” (to raise aloft). But by a 2-to-1 margin, modern writers update “hoist” and make it "hoisted.”
Also, there’s some controversy about whether the preposition is “with” or “by.” Shakespeare’s was “with,” “but ‘by’ now preponderates by a 4-to-1 margin,” Garner’s reports.
Summing up, Garner’s says, “Almost every contemporary writer who uses this popular phrase misquotes Shakespeare in some way and it would be pedantic to insist on ‘hoist with his own petar.’ The usual renderings are ‘hoist with his own petard’ and ‘hoisted by his own petard.’ Some preference might be given to the first of those. But because the second is nearly four times as common, it shouldn’t be labeled incorrect."
LABELS: WORD CHOICE, WORD USAGE
In the 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” George Clooney plays a 1930s Southern convict with a penchant for hair pomade and flowery language. His puffed-up vocabulary is intended to make him look silly, and it works, especially when in his striped prison PJs he says stuff like, “It does put me in a damn awkward position, vis-a-vis my progeny.”
Fancy talk just sounds silly sometimes, which is probably why simple language gets so much more respect in the professional publishing world. The ability to express something in simple everyday language demonstrates a mastery of the topic and of the language itself.
So vis-a-vis often sounds silly. But it sounds especially silly when used to mean “in regard to.”
“The literal meaning of vis-a-vis in French is ‘face to face,’ and it has had some use in English (as in French) as a preposition meaning 'face to face with,'” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “But vis-a-vis is far more familiar in its two extended senses, 'in relation to’ and ‘in comparison with,’ which it also has in French, and both of which have been in use in English since the 18th century.”
Merriam-Webster’s says that, in these senses, the term can impart “something of a continental tone” (uh, if you say so) and adds that these uses are pretty uncontroversial.
The controversial usage is the one from the movie quote above, where it’s used to mean “in regard to.” But, Merriam-Webster’s notes, “our evidence shows it to be relatively rare.”
My evidence disagrees. Pretty much the only time I hear vis-a-vis is in the meaning “in regard to,” which, to me, usually just sounds silly.
LABELS: GRAMMAR, WORD USAGE, WRITING BOOKS
There are a lot of different kinds of books you can use for language studies and editing. Style guides are indispensable. Dictionaries are more useful than many people realize, offering not just spellings but past participles and other inflected forms like superlatives plus variant spellings and more. A good “grammar” like The Oxford English Grammar offers a sort of scientific analysis of sentence mechanics, which can be extremely useful.
But my real secret weapon is a good usage guide. Usage guides look like dictionaries. One of them – probably the best one – even has the word “dictionary” in the title: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. This could be why most people don’t know about them: at a glance they look like they offer nothing you can’t find at dictionary.com. But a closer look reveals these books are goldmines. Yes, they’re voluminous tomes of alphabetized entries about language. But they’re not just definitions and pronunciations. Each entry contains everything you want to know about the usage and correctness of the term.
Turn to the Ls and you’ll find a whole discussion on the difference between “less” and “fewer.” Turn to the Ps and you’ll find very a thorough discussion of pronouns and how to make them agree with their subjects (as well as other nuances of the pronoun). Under the I’s, you’ll learn the difference between “imply” and “infer.” Under the Ps there’s a discussion about the “possessive with gerund.” Under the Cs you can learn about “complement” and “compliment.” Under the U’s you’ll get an earful on whether sticklers are right to complain about the word “utilize” as well as some insights into the colloquial “used to could.”
Almost every question you could ever have about word usage is right at your fingertips in one of these guides. And if everyone knew about them, there’d be a lot less confusion about language, though there would be a lot more confusion about what I would do for a living.
The best-known usage guide is Fowler’s Modern English Usage, kind of the daddy of them all. But it’s from a British perspective and so is sometimes less useful to American English speakers.
Garner’s Modern American Usage is an antidote for this. It’s good, asking good questions, but sound a little prescriptive at times.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is written in the voice of someone exasperated with silly language myths, and the contrarian undertones can get tiresome. But this point of view forces the authors to rely exclusively on research to arrive at conclusions. As a journalist taught that sourcing of information is crucial, this appeals to me most of all. But really, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
LABELS: apostrophe, comma, COPY EDITING, PUNCTUATION
Let’s play pin the terminal punctuation on the sentence. In each of the examples below, decide where you’d put the period or question mark.
1. He said, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”
2. Did he say, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”
3. He asked, “Is that an activity to which you would apply the label ‘clandestine’”
4. He said, “Now that’s what I call dancin’”
5. He asked, “You call that dancin’”
6. Did he say, “That’s what I call dancin’”
Hard, isn’t it? It sure is for most writers and editors I see. In fact, in the stories I copy edit, sentences like these trip up even skilled editors I work with (point being: don’t feel bad if you find them tough).
The best way to find the answers is to go very slowly and carefully, applying the basic rules for quotation marks and apostrophes.
The rules state:
- A period or comma in American English always goes before a closing quotation mark, regardless of whether it applies to the whole sentence/clause or just the quoted portion.
- A question mark or exclamation point can go before or after a closing quotation mark, depending on whether it applies to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion.
- Single quotation marks are no different: a period or comma always comes before, a question mark or exclamation point can go before or after.
- Apostrophes are different. They're considered part of the word. So they're never separated from the rest of the word by another punctuation mark.
Applying those rules, you should arrive at the following answers.
1. He said, “I like the word ‘clandestine.’” (The period comes before both the single quotation mark and the double quotation mark.)
2. Did he say, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”? (The question mark goes outside both the single and double quotation marks because the whole sentence, and not just the quoted portion, is a question.)
3. He asked, “Is that an activity to which you would apply the label ‘clandestine’?” (Here, only the quoted portion is a question. The word being singled out by the single quote marks is not a question. So the question mark goes after the single quotation mark but before the double. And, yes, that ends the sentence without need for further punctuation.)
4. He said, “Now that’s what I call dancin’.” (The mark after the N in dancin’ is not a single quote mark. It’s an apostrophe. So the quotation mark rule doesn’t apply. Think of that apostrophe as the letter it’s standing in for, G, which you would never separate from the rest of the word with a period.)
5. He asked, “You call that dancin’?” (The question mark applies to just the quote, not the whole sentence. So it comes before the closing quotation mark. But it should not separate the apostrophe.)
6. Did he say, “That’s what I call dancin’”? (The whole sentence, not just the quoted part, is a question.)
Let’s do a really tough bonus question (one that doesn’t come up much in the real world).
7. Perry said, “Joe asked, ‘Will you please stop dancin’’”
Tough, right? There’s a contraction within a quotation within a quotation within a larger statement. So take it slowly.
Which part is the question? It’s the quote within the quote, right? So we want our question mark after the apostrophe in dancin’ but before the single quotation mark. So it’s:
7. Perry said, “Joe asked, ‘Will you please stop dancin’?’”
You can see why even professional editors stumble over stuff like this.