Sunday, February 26, 2006

Led astray by artificial rules

It all started with an almost throwaway remark. Teaching two new S1 classes, I began their introduction to ICT with word processing, to ensure some familiarity with the Windows HCI. That was when I happened to recommend leaving two spaces after a full stop (or "period").

I thought it worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing the correct use of punctuation, but the classroom teacher (present in her role as observer) threw me a disapproving look. In my own defence, I was simply reading from the school's own teaching materials. But I ought to have investigated the background to a matter which I had taken to be self-evidently true.

In fact, on further reflection, I realised that the double-space rule has relevance only to the monospaced text of the typewriter. Publishers and typesetters have their own system; and word processed text has more in common with these than with the typewriter.

Searching around for advice, I turned to the style guides that I have always found fascinating. As a student, I was much taken by the Chicago Manual of Style, then in its 13th edition. But at £35.00, it has stiff competition from its on-line fellows, such as The Economist style guide. On the full stop, The Economist offers the following (economical) advice: "Use plenty. They keep sentences short. This helps the reader." Nothing on spacing.

Nor in the Guardian style guide, famous for such gems as "housewife: avoid", and "pi: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, as every schoolgirl knows". Incidentally, the paragraph on Latin (explaining, inter alia (!), the correct meaning of "decimate") ends with the delightful advice that, "as the Guardian is written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly".

The Times style guide is less entertaining, but just as authoritative. Its entry for decimate (with the advice to use sparingly) is matter-of-fact. But, again, nothing on full stops.

I have also been thickly embroiled with presentation software (i.e., PowerPoint), this time with Second Years (who roughly equate to the U.S. Eighth Graders). They were required to copy out the school's rules for presentation, which included (halfway down) the word "viz". Not a single soul had a clue what that meant, but all had dutifully copied it out regardless.

The Guardian style guide makes no mention of viz., but The Times offers the advice to "prefer namely, that is, or even ie". Quite so. In this Latin-less age, who can be expected to know what videlicet means, far less why it should be abbreviated with a z?


At Wed Mar 01, 09:06:00 pm GMT, Blogger David said...

So we don't know what viz stands for, but we're happy with i.e.!? :-)

At Wed Mar 01, 10:26:00 pm GMT, Blogger Mr McSwan said...

Hope your crit went well duncan

At Thu Mar 02, 04:02:00 pm GMT, Blogger Duncan__ said...

Thanks, Andy -- it went better than expected!
And very funny, David.
I was going to reply that most people have a vague idea that i.e. introduces an explanation and e.g. introduces an example, but now I'm not so sure. (Although the fact that some people actually articulate them in speech shows that they are living expressions as well as being useful abbreviations.)
On the other hand, I would argue that viz. doesn't have a lot going for it -- nobody actually says it, and it's almost as quick to type "namely".
Here endeth the punctuation rant! (Unless you're up for round two?)


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