@: The fulcrum of our digital identities

The Unlikely Evolution of  @ (@ Fast Company) 

Once a bookkeeper’s shorthand, @ has become the fulcrum of our digital identities. How did that happen?

“In Danish, the symbol is known as an “elephant’s trunk a”; the French call it an escargot. It’s a streudel in German, a monkey’s tail in Dutch, and a rose in Istanbul. In Italian, it’s named after a huge amphora of wine…

In 1971, a keyboard with a vestigial @ symbol inherited from its typewriter ancestors found itself hooked up to an ARPANET terminal manned by Ray Tomlinson…

“It’s difficult to imagine anyone in Tomlinson’s situation choosing anything other than the ‘@’ symbol, but his decision to do so at the time was inspired,” explains Houston on his blog. “Firstly, it was extremely unlikely to occur in any computer or user names; secondly, it had no other significant meaning for the operating system on which it would run, and lastly, it read intuitively–user ‘at’ host.”

READ THIS POST because it’s wonderful. I especially love the identification of @ as the fulcrum of an email address. Because it IS one!

And then if you can resist pre-ordering Keith Houston’s upcoming book you’re a stronger person than I. (Come on. It’s called Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation. How could I/you resist?) 

In defence of proofreading

I am a proofreader.

I would be even if it wasn’t on my business card. (It is.)

I wake up a proofreader. I go to sleep a proofreader. It’s possible my dreams are pedantic.

I adore abstract art, and messy hair, and long-form improvised jazz, and unplanned weekends. But the methodical neural sequences are always running — as subtle, pervasive and persistent as those that maintain subconscious respiration and the miraculous auto-focus of my blessedly functional human eyes. I don’t switch this part of me on and off as I approach and depart the office each day.

As a proofreader, that’s the way things work, and it’s the way I work (even when I’m not at work). Just as an artist sees the world through creative eyes even in the non-painting, non-sculpting, non-drawing moments. Just as the curiosity that drives a scientist, deep-sea explorer or astronomer isn’t silenced the moment they step away from the microscope, periscope or telescope.


{image via PowerScore}

People are afraid of the red pen.

They fear seeing their writing covered in proofreading glyphs, and they resent the person who made it so.

Some editors use green or purple ink because red is ‘too aggressive’.

But red is also the colour of love, and of passion.

I do not proofread in anger. I proofread with passion. When I scrawl all over the page, I am sharing the writer’s devotion to the words they have coaxed forth. It is with love that I — as gently as possible — nurture and nudge those words just a little bit more, hoping to make them as perfect as we both desire them to be.

So writers? Don’t hate the red pen. Your proofreader actually loves your writing.

Proofreaders, don’t be ashamed to be called a persnickety, pedantic perfectionist. Wear that badge with pride (especially if you couldn’t take it off if you wanted to).

And everyone: go to as many Sydney Writers’ Festival events as you can between now and Sunday (26 May 2013). Let your brain be caressed and your thoughts provoked.

#$*&^! = Grawlix

>> A word for that: Grawlix

Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlixn. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again.

%^&*@ing glorious!

Read the whole thing at Hoefler & Frere-Jones (via @GrammarMonkeys and @mental_floss)

The Oxford comma: dead at the hands of serial killers

I give a #%*^ about the Oxford comma.  I’m known for giving a #%*^ about the Oxford comma. But sadly, this sudden palaver over its threatened extinction (at the hands of its eponymous university, no less) is just a bureaucratic nail in an already-long-buried coffin. As a proofreader in Australia, I must (at least during working hours) adhere to the ‘current trends’ in Australian writing style, and that means NO SERIAL COMMAS EVER (except if absolutely needed for the sake of clarity, which isn’t any fun at all).

So as far as I’m (professionally) concerned, the Oxford comma has already been eradicated, or is at least seriously endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction. It lingers only as a ghost, destroyed by a gradual succession of serial killers*: style guides in ruthless pursuit of minimalist punctuation.

R, I, P.

Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams has already said almost everything else I would say on the topic. Most importantly, she a) clarifies the extent to which Oxford University is eliminating its eponymous comma (that is, no more than most institutions already have); and b) embedded the obvious Vampire Weekend video clip.

Now, two things about this video clip: Firstly, its total number of hits must have jumped phenomenally in the past 24 hours. Secondly, IT WAS DIRECTED BY THE WONDERFUL RICHARD AYOADE (of The IT Crowd, of course). And if that isn’t a joyful note on which to end a sombre post, I don’t know what is.

*Yes, I went there.

Em dashes and En dashes: A breadth of difference

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An em dash (—) can be used for almost anything: instead of a colon (such as the preceding), to replace parentheses (such as the preceding, and current), or just to represent a sudden change of direction in logic*.

An en dash (–) is somewhat more limited in its utility. Limited to two uses, in fact: firstly, as shorthand for “from” and “to”, à la 9am–5pm; and secondly, to hyphenate two words where one is actually part of another word pairing. As in “post–afternoon tea“, or”anti–Tony Abbott“.

On the other hand, ordinary single pairings like “long, dark tea-time” and “anti-troglodyte” (respectively) require nothing wider than a hyphen.

Based on Mental Floss (where knowledge junkies get their fix). ]

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{ via ilovetypography }

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So the next time someone tries to tell you there’s no difference between an em dash and an en dash, might I suggest you draw their attention to the difference between forMication and forNication?


And if they STILL insist that the difference doesn’t matter, why not offer to release a bucket of crawling, gnashing ants in their general direction.


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* But not all at once. Consider the absurdity of the following:

“Em dashes can be used for almost anything — instead of a colon — such as the preceding — to replace parentheses — such as the preceding, and current — or just to represent a sudden change of direction in logic.”

… THAT doesn’t work at all.

Love thine Word Nerd

Richard Glover’s column, Revenge of the Word Nerds, in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum section):

The language police have no interest in the content of what is being said; they don’t even have much interest in language itself, in all its slippery, transgressive glory. They just lie in wait, like cats before a mouse hole, waiting for an error to occur.

Then they pounce. And there is much delight in the pouncing…

Full article at  smh.com.au (because nobody actually buys the hulking Saturday paper nowadays).

Thank Gaia I know that Mr. Glover’s ire is all in good humour (he’s a very good-humoured sort of bloke). Of course everyone knows that Grammar Nazis never mean to offend, much less condescend. Sports fans will correct you for saying “points” instead of “goals”(or vice versa). Fashionistas love to commentate when people-watching. A tea lover will happily waffle on forever about Buddha’s Tears (if you let them). And likewise, we linguiphiles just can’t help ourselves when faced with something within our very trivial sphere of interest.


SO PLEASE REMEMBER TO KINDLY INDULGE YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD WORD NERD: She’s not pouncing, she’s just enjoying the small pleasures in a pedantic life.


(And besides, without a keen editor, every newspaper, magazine, book, journal, and other miscellaneous printed reading matter would have met that great pulp-mill in the sky long ago, condemned to death by the dire lack of media’s two most essential requirements: credibility and readability.)

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