The Laziest Language on Earth—An Anthropological Linguistic Study of the Perry So-so—Claude Searsplainpockets SpecGram Vol CLIII, No 2 Contents Cartoon Theories of Linguistics—Part ζ—Physics vs. Physics Envy—Phineas Q. Phlogiston, Ph.D.

Inside SpecGram: A view from the front lines

by Skip Tacular, Junior Editorial Associate

[After Skip’s fabulous performance pinch hitting for the senior editors in “How It Is HangingA Letter from a Junior Editorial Associate”, we promoted him from Intern to an actual Junior Associate. In recognition of his continued stellar service, we have invited Skip to write about his experience over the last year and a half. —Eds.]

The last eighteen months have been a real eye-opener for me. As an Intern, my primary duties in the SpecGram offices consisted of getting coffee, tea, or maté; fetching lunch, dry-cleaning, or Dead Sea scrolls; making copies, sandwiches,1 and off-the-cuff grammaticality judgmentsall for everyone above me in the hierarchy (which was everyone). I also sat in the back corner in editorial board meetings, acting as a sort of editorial ball-boy, retrieving stray papers and red pens that would fly off the table from time to time when the discussion got too heated.

Now, though, as a Junior Editorial Associate, the new Intern gets me coffee, makes my copies, and would fetch Dead Sea scrolls for me if only I had something useful to do with them. I still have to do all my old chores for the senior editors, and now they expect me to do something new called “Documentary Linguistics,” though no one tells me what that is. They just laugh when they say it.

The big change, though, is that I now sit in the front corner of editorial board meetings. I still have to pick up stray papers and pens, but I can hear well enough to take notes.

Oh, that reminds me. Look at the comma and the quotes after Documentary Linguistics up there. Someone is going to have a coronary about that between the time I write this and it gets published.2

Here are my notes from a protracted and to my mind ultimately pointless discussion on commas and quotes from a recent editorial board meeting. The names have been changed to protect the useless:

Editor B: Using the most draconian interpretation of American quotation rules, in the first sentence of “A letter from the managing editor,” the expression, “The Volume of the Series” clearly must have the period inside it, rather than outside itat least if we are to maintain our prestigious position in Linguisticdom.

Editor T: Let me quote this august body’s previously published opinion on this matter from “The Quotta and the Quottiod”:

SpecGram uses a linguist-friendly style sheet that allows authors to simply use the obvious, logical, and sensible punctuation. —Eds.”

The title of the facetiously proposed volume is “The Volume of the Series”, (sans period) not “The Volume of the Series-period”. Whenever I wear my linguistics hat, I try to be consistent in putting punctuation inside quotations only if it is part of what is being quoted. (The exception, of course, is in quoted speech, where the arbitrary prescriptivist conventions make sense as a message to the indolent or incautious reader rather than as a faithful rendering of what the speaker has presumably said.) When I wear my SpecGram hat, though, I push our official linguist-friendly convention as far as I can logically or, in the case of less astute interlocutors, rhetorically, defend it, even though it does not actually matter in any significant way in a case like this.

Nonetheless, if others find it truly offensive we can change it, as long as someone else is willing to explain the deviation to the Grammar Entelechy.

Editor D: I, for one, as a linguist, English major, writer, editor, and English professor, would like to say that I whole-heartedly approve of putting punctuation outside quotation marks except in the specific instances Editor T mentioned. It brings joy to my heart to read a sentence like, “And, for the first time in history, I can say with confidence that we have, once and for all, defeated all those who would refer to themselves haughtily as ‘punctuators’.”

Of course, I would like to add that as a published writer, I do whatever the publisher says when it comes to punctuation. Dangle a check in front of me, and I fold faster than a poker player with a two of hearts, three of spades, four of clubs, and a seven and nine of diamonds.

Editor P: I also much prefer putting punctuation marks inside or outside quotes based on whether they are part of the actual quote. That is the style I use in my own writings.

Editor T: Fine. I will say I was infected with this rabid anti-punctuation-prescriptivist idea by Editor P. It does seem naturally and properly contagious, at least among those who are not intellectually incapacitated.

Editor P: In other words, another vote in favor of Editor T and his functional approach of letting meaning guide form, and against Editor B’s belief that language is organized according to arbitrary formal requirements that are not functionally determined.

Editor T: Now, gentlemen, maintain your composure! Editor B said he was being “draconian”, not expressing his own belief in what is right and best and true. Mayhap he simply does not want to take a chance that one day our arch-foe, William Safire, will discover SpecGram and love it and want to review it favorably in his columnonly to realize that we cannot punctuate quotes properly. Mayhap that has already happened! Mayhap not.

Editor B: Dare not push me, Editor P! Need I point out that punctuation is not language? Punctuation rules are like those involving cultural subgroups’ notions of proper dress; the functional utility of a tieor even worse, a toga (why the damn Romans could not have stuck with a perfectly good chiton is beyond me)is not what occasions its use. Prescriptivism is the coffin of language but the amniotic fluid of punctuation. Besides, as Editor T points out, très apropos, I was not demanding a change. I was just explicating for your general edification. I cast virgules in your general direction! /!, /! and /!

Editor P: Prescriptivism is not at issueif you had listened to my original response, you would know that I referred merely to your “belief” in formalism, not to any desire on your part to impose your Draculan views on the rest of us. And I note that you have not explicitly denied said underlying commitment to formalist linguistics; I take this to mean that you have not yet given up your hope of becoming a high priest of Bloduwedda.

As an aside to Editor T and anyone else present who thinks we are getting overly vituperative: actually, we are maintaining our composure. Editor B and I know each other well enough that the ironical, non-serious nature of our discussion is clear to both of us, though perhaps not to any onlookers. However, those virgules did hurt, particularly the one that hit me in the eye. So, to avoid being virguled again, this will be my last comment on this contentious issue, except to say that I wish I had experienced Editor B’s blitz before watching Jeopardy last night. One of the answers was “The coffin of language but the amniotic fluid of punctuation”. The question, of course, was, “What is punctuation?” Neither I nor any of the contestants got it. Alex looked a little bit disappointed in the contestants.

Finally, I wonder how Safire would react if he discovered SpecGram. I suppose it is idle speculation, since I do not think he will ever discover it.

They do this kind of thing for every single issue. For hours at a time! Every one of them trying to outdo the other in their ability to make references to previous issues (Bloduwedda?), to flaunt their knowledge of obscure words (chiton? virgule?), or to make weak references to “popular” culture (Jeopardy? That show is so last century!). And the relentless cruelty to William Safire! I know he’s a prescriptivist, which makes him a bad guy, but the poor man submits two or three articles per month, just trying to get something, anything, published in SpecGram. They don’t even read his manuscripts anymore. Oh, the humanity! All this hullabaloo was over whether one period should be inside or outside a quotation (when they all know full well that in print the typesetters are just going to use a double quottiod anyway). So, I’m regularly shocked that they ever manage to get anything of consequence done. They are all just a bunch of crusty old tools. Man, I hate this job. If it weren’t for the fabulous pay, I’d be so outta here.


1 Even discussions of food result in near fist-fights. From a recent email discussion about where to send me to pick up lunch:

Editor D: ... send Skip for sandwhiches ...

Editor K: Editor D wrote “sandwhiches,” but I think he must have meant “sandwhats”.

Editor D: Ahem. The sandwich is the lunch of the nitwit. Back in upper crust Southern California, we pronounce (and spell) our sandwhiches with a proper voiceless labial-velar fricative. Pardon me for trying to inject an element of class into this lower class publication of ours. I suppose you also put things like mayonnaise, tomato, cheese, and mustard on your sandwiches. I should have you down to a high class, Southern Californian sandwhich shoppe, where instead of mayonnaise, we use caviar, and instead of your “fixin’s”, we use cordon bleu, kobe steak (flown in directly from Japan), or frog à la peche.

But by all means, if you prefer, do enjoy your sandwiches. I had hoped (wrongly, it would seem) that I was amongst peers, rather than peasants. What a world this is... (Oh, pardon me: Wat a world this is...)

Editor M: Sheesh. I can’t even say sandwhich, and I’ve been trying all day. (My family are muttering nervously among themselves.)

But I’ve learned something, by Jove: you can’t unvoice a ‘w’ unless it’s stressed. Rather an odd constraint.

Editor B: I can manage the “sandwhich,” although oddly enough, it’s largely by eliding the “d.” The trick is to try to sound very drunk (or like you’re trying to speak P.I.E. reconstructions; it’s hard to tell the difference really).

Editor K: I can say sandwhich, but the point of all this is, why would anyone want to? Even snooty Southern Californians (who, I might add, wouldn’t recognize real culture even if it managed to overtake them on the Golden State Freeway) don’t have any occasion to sound that affected. Editor D’s protestations notwithstanding.
Then Editor D ran out of his office and down the hall, apparently ready to engage in fisticuffs with Editor K. Luckily, Editor K was telecommuting from Tahiti that day.

2 Alas, Skip’s premonition was correct. Senior Junior Editor Arkhibuldinho Rasputinsky McFudgment, who had risen from the rank of Intern to the most senior of the Junior Editorial Associates after a short tenure at SpecGram of only sixty-four years, suffered a myocardial infarction while editing the text before you now. Arkhie is on permanent disability leave, and we miss him. The good news, though, is that the prescient Skip now picks our numbers for the weekly office SuperMegaPowerball lottery pool. We’ve won almost thirty-eight dollars in the last month. —Eds.

The Laziest Language on Earth—An Anthropological Linguistic Study of the Perry So-so—Claude Searsplainpockets
Cartoon Theories of Linguistics—Part ζ—Physics vs. Physics Envy—Phineas Q. Phlogiston, Ph.D.
SpecGram Vol CLIII, No 2 Contents