Language Evolves

But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stinky-breathed Komodo dragons probably evolved from a perfectly nice little fish.

This packaging was clearly designed by someone who doesn’t speak English – or a LOLcat – as they’ve made the cardinal error of applying logic. Consequently they’ve come up with exactly the mistake that the native speaker doesn’t make. Mind you, they’ve probably just skipped a century or two of language development. If dice is accepted as the singular now, ‘dices’ is surely in the future.

Generally I think of myself as a linguistic conservative, on the grounds that language innovations will be different everywhere so older forms are going to be more widely understood. Also, it’s interesting when a word is a misfit. It tells you a lot about its origins – from the Latin ‘datum’ in this case, by way of mediaeval French.

Indeed English spelling tells you so much about the etymological origins of a word that it’s basically useless for telling you how they’re pronounced. But die/dice is just annoying. Following the usual pattern, you’d expect the singular to be douse. When a word needs a rule all for itself, you begin to wonder if you’re not overindulging it.

I think dice should be acceptable as the singular now. Die can be reserved for the technical phrase “twenty-sided die”.

Pause For Thought

So it is no more. From today forth, the editors of the Oxford University Press will no longer insist that you should put a comma before the conjunction when you’re listing things, for example: First, second, and third. We say a fond farewell to this venerable institution, a noble oddity now consigned to history’s scrapheap. Except in the US of course, where they will amused to find that the rule they use every day has been declared incorrect by some committee in England.

Alas, the story was apocryphal; the OUP has not changed its editorial rule. The misunderstanding arose because they have chosen not to use their own ‘Oxford comma’ in press releases. These conform instead to the usual rule in the UK, which is to use no comma there. They’ll keep using it in their books.

So no panic. Not that there should have been one anyway, but bad teaching can leave people stressed and anxious when they’re not sure if they’re being ‘correct’ or not.

What is correct? It’s simple. Use a comma when it feels right.

Yes that is a clear, disciplined rule. Note that I say “feels right”, not “at random”. Punctuation is used to convey the pacing of speech, the delivery, the emphasis. Punctuate just as you would pause in spoken language – to express feeling and to clarify meaning. Put in a comma when it helps avoid confusion. There is a notable difference between “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover and my best friend” and “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover, and my best friend”.

It must be admitted that the ‘Oxford’ comma is a tricky case – simply because some readers expect one there while others don’t. In Ireland, the UK, Australia, Canada, or just about anywhere else they speak English, putting one in seems like pausing before the last item for emphasis. Readers in America however expect it so its presence conveys nothing special and leaving it out just makes the list read oddly. So bear your audience in mind – as always.

With online media of course you have no idea where your audience is, so you might as well relax. If you really want a loose general rule, using a comma here is probably confusing less often than not using one. But whatever you do, don’t follow any rule to the point where it becomes madness – like this example which, I am assured, is actually from the Canadian Press Stylebook:

“Put commas between elements of a series but not before the final and, or or nor unless that avoids confusion.”

Seriously, someone did that for a bet.