or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, June 25, 2005


An interesting error in punctuation from a recent story on Slate.com:

"Today, the closest thing Randi has to successors are the magician-debunkers Penn & Teller (whose half-hour TV show, Bullshit , tries to avoid legal liability by calling con-men "assholes" instead of "fakes")."

The writer has confused one punctuation mark, the hyphen, with another, the solidus, otherwise known as the virgule or the slash. (I prefer "solidus" because it's the typographic name for the mark and because "virgule" is, confusingly, the French word for "comma". I use "slash" when I'm speaking a Web address, though; that's the convention.)

Because the hyphen joins words into a compound, "magician-debunkers" ought to mean those who debunk magicians. The solidus is used to connect words and yet keep them separate, to relate them without altering their meanings; it's become such a commonplace that we actually say it out loud, as in "writer slash director". What was clearly meant in this case was "magician/debunkers".

You want to know how "solidus" could mean an insubstantial little diagonal line, don't you, as the word is plainly related to "solid"? It orginally denoted a gold Roman coin: eventually in England it came to mean "a shilling", and then, in pre-decimalisation England, to refer to that little line that separates shillings from pence in prices such as 4/6 ("four-and-sixpence" or "four-and-six").

You want to know what 4/6 means, don't you? The old monetary system ran as follows: four farthings to the penny, twelve pence (the plural of penny) to the shilling, five shillings to the crown, four crowns to the pound, twenty-one pounds to the guinea. 4/6 was, therefore, 54 pence. It took a bit of mental agility to manage such a system, particularly when making change, but this is, after all, the country that devised such measures as the stone (14 pounds) and the foolscap page (13 x 17 inches). No doubt it all made perfect sense at the time.


Blogger Joe Clark said...

I'd have used an en dash.

Saturday, June 25, 2005 1:33:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I can see three problems with that: 1) Keyboards don't have an en-dash* (or an em-dash, either), though, yes, they can still be had with the correct key sequence in most fonts; 2) Most people couldn't tell an en-dash from a hyphen anyway; and 3) The solidus is the standard punctuation mark for joining-while-separating: a writer/doctor is not the same thing as a writer-doctor. I mean, if such a thing existed.

* An en-dash, for anyone reading this who might not know, is a dash that's the width of the lower-case letter "n" in a particular font**. An em-dash, therefore, is one which is the width of a lower-case "m".

** A font, for anyone reading this who might not know, is not the same as a typeface. A font is a member of a typeface family: Souvenir Italic and Souvenir Demi, for instance, are two different fonts belonging to the typeface Souvenir. An em-dash in the elegant, so-British Gill Sans would be a different width than the em-dash in Gill Sans Shadow, and that's why I used "font" and not "typeface" before the doubled asterisk up there.

Sunday, June 26, 2005 4:47:00 AM  

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