December 10, 2006


Yesterday, as the sherry decanter was set out on the sideboard in the Senior Writers' Lounge at Language Log Plaza, Arnold Zwicky brought up the topic of appositives and the use of commas to set them off. Or not. William Safire came into it, somehow. I'm a bit vague on the details, frankly. That's because I got distracted when someone (Poser, was it?) suggested that we should design a notation for English as if it were a computer language, and wrote a sample on the blackboard in colored chalks:

(I packed ((a cookbook)((the novel)=(Dracula)) and (a good dictionary)))
where = is the infixed apposition operator

I began to imagine what might have happened if some Enlightenment sage -- Leibnitz? Descartes? -- had come up with this same idea, won over the European intelligentsia, and with their help persuaded the crowned heads of Europe to enforce a logical syntax of punctuation on the writing systems of their time, and therefore of ours. And then I thought of this cartoon:

It's true, as J.S. Mill said, that "[t]he structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic." But there's also William Blake's warning: "They became what they beheld."

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 10, 2006 07:37 AM