Drag is waste. Reduce it.


The Serial Comma, Part 2

An astute reader has pointed out that my blanket demand... er... recommendation that you use the serial comma at all times can sometimes lead to trouble. An example —

Bob, an ogre, and Tony went out to lunch yesterday.

The problem here is that the first (Bob) and second (an ogre) items in the list can also — grammatically correctly — be read as an apposition, wherein 'an ogre' is presenting additional information about Bob rather than being a list item in its own right.

So... setting aside the fact that what was actually meant should be fairly clear from the context, what the reader gets out of that sentence is going to depend greatly on whether he or she knows Bob.

Now, one could argue that the confusion is easily dismissed (provided, that is, that Bob and the ogre are distinct items) by simply removing the serial comma —

Bob, an ogre and Tony went out to lunch yesterday.

But don't you dare! Far better to rephrase as either

Bob, Tony, and an ogre went out to lunch yesterday.

or, alternatively, as

Tony and Bob, an ogre, went out to lunch yesterday.

depending on what, exactly, you're trying to say.

Don't let this occasional hiccup sour you on the serial comma; it's a relatively-rare and easily-correctable situation. And let's keep in mind that no matter what punctuation rules you choose to follow, the responsibility for your writing saying what you had intended lies with you. Don't blame the comma.

SO — use the serial comma at every chance you get, but use it wisely. No one appreciates being called an ogre, after all. Even accidentally.


Momentarily Confused

Here's an interesting one —

Both Dictionary.com and the Wiktionary offer two primary defintions for "momentarily". To quote from Dictionary.com:

1. For a moment or an instant.
2. In a moment; very soon.

To illustrate —

Example 1:

Person A: Blah blah blah...
Person B: I'm sorry, I was momentarily distracted by something completely unrelated; could you repeat that?

Example 2:

Impatient Customer: I've been waiting in this line for over 20 minutes!
Customer Service Representative: I apologize for the inconvenience; I'll be with you momentarily.

The interesting part? Both sources cite the second usage above, 'in a moment', as being controversial. The Wiktionary adds that anyone caught using momentarily in the second sense "may be subjected to correction in a formal or academic setting."

What's the big deal, you ask?

Well, there's nothing confusing or ambiguous about either of those examples — it's very clear from the context which definition was meant. Unfortunately, it's not always so simple.

The first usage is generally used to indicated that something happened 'for a moment' — past tense — whereas the second is generally used to indicated that something will happen 'in a moment' — future tense. But what happens when you want to say that something WILL happen FOR a moment? Complications arise:

Example 3:

Optometrist: I'm going to squirt some of this gunk into your eye momentarily; it will hurt.

Example 4:

Optometrist: I'm going to squirt some of this gunk into your eye; it will hurt momentarily.

So that's a little less clear. Is the squirting happening in a moment, or for a moment? Is it going to hurt for a moment, or in a moment? All of the above, perhaps?

Regardless of whether you or I think this is a big deal, though, the Authorities (Dictionary.com and the Wiktionary) are Not Happy.

Dictionary.com calls the second usage of 'momentarily' a "Usage Problem", and a Usage Note goes on to explain that 59% of the illustrious Usage Panel finds the second usage "unacceptable".

Honestly, unacceptable? That's strong language for something that, in their own words, "rarely leads to ambiguity". And this, coming from the same group that has turned a blind eye to the often-used-out-of-context, disaster-in-the-making that is bimonthly.

I do appreciate the mission and efforts of the Usage Panel, it's just that their priorities seem a bit out-of-wack. Let's quit wasting our time with formal votes on tid-bits like "momentarily" and do something meaningful, shall we? I'm pulling for an extensive advertising campaign — info-mercials, Super Bowl ads, and all the rest — promoting proper application of irony.


Pardon the Mess, Part 2

In response to my exciting news, I have been told that the new site design "doesn't look much different". Needless to say, I strenuously object — the layout is similar, but there are a substantial number of subtle and not-so-subtle changes.

So. For funzies, I've added an exciting new feature — by clicking on the links below, you can switch back and forth between the "old" and "new" site designs courtesy of an elegant little javascript written by Paul Sowden at A List Apart. Go clicky-click back and forth a few times, and note the differences!

Old  | New

What I've actually done is written my own blogger template and stylesheets from scratch, which, considering that I had no idea what I was doing at the outset, was quite a bit of work. The fact that the layout hasn't changed too much is far more indicative of the fact that I liked the old layout than that I was lazy or something.


Pardon the Mess

Well. The much anticipated blog makeover has finally happened, and just look at the mess! I will hopefully have everything squeaky clean and in working order again by tomorrow evening.

I'd love to hear your thoughts — as I am now in full control of the appearance of this page, I can adapt very easily to insightful comments and requests. Talk to me!


Bimonthly or Semimonthly?

The most recent issue of MIT's Technology Review arrived on my proverbial doorstep the other day. This issue happened to include a notice to subscribers kindly explaining that Technology Review is moving to a more web-focused publication regimen, and will therefore be reducing its hard-copy publication frequency to "bimonthly".

My first thought upon reading this, "Oh — how often did it come before?", was followed promptly by a second, "Er — how often is bimonthly?" Please, if you will, suspend your smug re-assessment of my intelligence and bear with me.

The prefix "bi-", from the Latin, means "two" — simple as that. Bimonthly, then, is either 'two-monthly', as in 'every two months', or 'two, monthly', as in 'twice each month'. But which?

This, friends, is one of the many instances where the English language, by flaunting logic and regularity with head held high, reminds one not to get too comfortable. And I quote:

1. Happening every two months.
2. Happening twice a month; semimonthly.

Whose brilliant idea was that? It's one thing for a word to be confusing because of widespread incorrect use (e.g. irony), but quite another for a word to be defined in a confusing manner.

Furthermore, you'll notice that the definition above cites the second meaning of bimonthly as being synonymous with "semimonthly".

The prefix "semi-" is, like "bi-", derived from the Latin, and means "one-half". If there were any fairness in the world, "semimonthly" would be defined in as confusing a manner as "bimonthly", but, alas, English once again gives us the finger:

Occurring or issued twice a month.

And the only thing worse than the ridiculousness of 'two-monthly' being synonymous with 'half-monthly' is, of course, that they only sometimes mean the same thing — it's not even consistent! Help!!

The Wiktionary entry on "bimonthly" features a similar definition, and also a usage note stating, in all seriousness, that:

"Because of the ambiguity of this word, it is best to avoid it."

This is clearly madness, and so, dear Reader, it's time for us to Fix It — ambiguity is just one more form of Drag, and you know how we feel about that around here. From now on, we are going to use "bimonthly" to mean exclusively "occurring every two months" (definition 1, above) and "semimonthly", well, we'll just use that correctly. If and when you come across either of these terms being used incorrectly in the wild, please go out of your way, if possible, to (gently!) correct the offending individual or publication.


  • Purpose: user-interface critique (ranting), among other things.
  • Justification: I use things; I have opinions; I have a blog.