A Very Questionable Mark
Posted by June on January 14, 2019

Ever question the question mark? I don’t recommend it. Inquire about this quirky little squiggle and you’ll end up with more questions than answers.

Its history is a mystery. And its use can be downright puzzling.

Some theorize that the question mark was inspired by the tail of a cat — a sort of hovering commentary on the mysteries of feline nature. The ancient Egyptians often get credit, since they worshipped kitties to an extent the world wouldn’t see again till Grumpy Cat took the internet by storm.

Some researchers say the cat in question belonged to a monk who represented its tail at the end of questions in a manuscript.

Another theory claims scholars in the Middle Ages put the Latin word “quaestio” (question) at the end of a sentence, then abbreviated it to “qo,” then started positioning the q above the o to create something that looks like our modern-day question mark.

But the most common theory has it that an adviser to Charlemagne named Alcuin of York created the “punctus interrogativus,” which 1,000 years later became known as the question mark.

Chances are, we’ll never know where this mark came from. Chances are, too, that we’ll never fully master how to use one. Yes, I know it’s pretty easy to use a question mark in most cases. But most cases aren’t all cases. In my recent column, I look at where to place question marks relative to quotation marks, when they can be used in the middle of a sentence and the rare cases when a question mark is immediately followed by a comma.

A Semicolon Firestorm and Some Practical Semicolon Advice
Posted by June on January 7, 2019
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An essay published online set off a social-media firestorm last week. The too-hot-to-touch topic wasn’t Syria or impeachment or even Stephen Miller’s new hair. It was about something far more incendiary: semicolons.

The title will tell you everything you need to know: “The semicolon is pointless and it’s ruining your writing,” the headline on the Writing Cooperative website proclaimed. If the author was looking for attention, mission accomplished.

“Idiotic,” author J. Robert Lennon tweeted.

“Rules about writing from someone who doesn’t understand writing,” a Twitter user named John replied.

“Time to remake those Worst Take of 2018 lists,” Slate editor Sam Adams tweeted.

The author gave his detractors plenty of fodder. For example, the essay asserts that prescriptivists, people who are sticklers for certain artificial language rules, are usually copy editors. Not true.

In fact, there were a lot of faulty premises in the piece. But it just so happens I agree with the central point: semicolons can be bad news. Here's my take and what you need to know.

6 Resolutions for Word Lovers
Posted by June on January 1, 2019


With the beginning of each new year, many people resolve to do something they didn't do the year before. Lose weight. Save money. Learn a foreign language. Land a leading role in a Broadway play.

By the end of the year, they're either rich, skinny, multilingual or famous — or they're not. Either way, it's probably time to try out some new resolutions. Here are six language, writing and media-related resolutions to consider, followed by a link to a complete explanation for each.

I will read the front matter in a dictionary.

I will flip through a usage guide.

I won't assume that "I" is better than "me" in compounds like "John and I." 

I will give myself permission to never use a semicolon.

I will dare to question a grammar prohibition I was taught.

I will reflect on the difference between news gatherers, correspondents and commentators.

Here's my column covering each of these ideas in depth.

Chow, Grub, Scarf, Meat: The Origins of Some Food Words
Posted by June on December 24, 2018


I’m not an etymology buff. Though I love many aspects of language, word histories don’t interest me much.

The plots are too formulaic: Scrappy young word starts out on a trek that winds through several countries before arriving in America, profoundly changed by the journey. The story gets repetitive.
So it was a surprise recently to find myself going down a rabbit hole of word-history research just for the fun of it.

What was different this time? The words I researched were about something that, all by itself, can hold my attention: food.

With the holidays in full swing, you may be as food-focused as I am. So here are a few word histories I found delicious.