Prime Marks

A reader commenting on a recent post about the En Dash introduced me to a punctuation term that was unfamiliar to me: “the prime mark”:

Here’s one for you: teaching about the apostrophe versus the prime or foot mark. Same with the quote marks versus the inch marks.

I can only guess that this reader must teach students in specialized fields like mathematics, science, or linguistics, in which prime marks serve important purposes.

Like the apostrophe, the prime mark (or two or three) is placed at the upper right of a number or other symbol.

Unlike the apostrophe—which is vertical—the prime slants in the direction of the French accent aigu in the word élevé, but it doesn’t lean as far to the right.

Now that I know what a prime mark is and how it differs from an apostrophe, I plan to continue using apostrophes and quotation marks on the rare occasions I want to abbreviate feet, inches, hours, or minutes.

I can think of only two common uses of prime marks that one might see in a general publication:

1. To indicate feet and inches, as in this example from a feature in The Telegraph:

At 6’5” [sic] Gareth May is no stranger to the giant jibes. 

2. To note latitude and longitude, as in these coordinates for the city of San Francisco, California:

Latitude: 37°46′29″ N
Longitude: 122°25′09″ W

A third use that I am familiar with is to indicate hours and minutes. For example, when timing a speech, I use the notation 1’15” to indicate “one hour, fifteen minutes.” In this context, seconds don’t concern me.

Then there’s the ditto mark. Apparently it differs from the double prime in some way because Unicode defines them differently, but most people use quotation marks when they want to use ditto marks to repeat items in a list:

Item
1 ream paper red
”       ”       ”        blue
”       ”       ”       green

In specialized contexts, distinguishing between apostrophes, quotations marks, prime and double prime may be crucial. In general usage, however, apostrophes and quotation marks work just fine.

One concession a writer can is to use straight apostrophes and quotation marks instead of the curly ones.

For all you can possibly want to know about the significant uses of the prime mark, explore the Wikipedia article “Prime (symbol).”

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Daily Writing Tips

Contrast and Stand in Contrast To

The other morning I read an article about a man who has built a wonderfully detailed scale model of the Sultana, the steamboat that was the object of the greatest maritime disaster in US history.

Note: On April 27, 1865, three of the Sultana’s four boilers exploded, killing nearly 2,000 people. Horrible as it was, the event received very little coverage because it occurred while the national press was occupied with the assassination of Lincoln (April 14) and the search for his assassin. (Booth was captured and killed on April 26.)

Here’s the odd usage that caught my attention:

His [the model-maker’s] attention to the details falls in contrast to the relatively little coverage that newspapers gave the Sultana’s explosion when it happened 150 years ago.

It was the first time I’d encountered the phrase “to fall in contrast to.”

The idiom “to stand in contrast to” is quite common. It means, “is strikingly different from.” For example:

Struggling world economy stands in contrast to U.S.

Detroit tent city stands in stark contrast to resurgent downtown

The expression “stands in contrast to” is well represented on the Google Ngram Viewer, but “falls in contrast” makes no showing at all.

I looked online to see if anyone else was using the strange construction “falls in contrast to.” Sure enough, I found examples:

Clare’s ball dress is a classic example of non-habitual clothing; as she is not used to wearing it, it falls in contrast to her ordinary self through clothing. —2007 book on fashion.

The cheerful, hand-clapping sing-along falls in contrast to the more aggressive new singles from the band…—Music review.

This [humility of the matriarch] falls in contrast to the typical image of the patriarch, whose tool for survival is to consistently appear aggressive and dominating. —Review of True Blood.

I found more examples in a variety of contexts that included fine dining, public transportation, golf equipment, and religious doctrine.

Writers who wish to convey the information that one thing is extremely different from another can do it without using a noun phrase at all. They can use contrast as a verb:

The commissioner’s latest observation that New York needs to hire at least 1,000 more cops contrasts with his earlier statements that 35,000 were enough.

Orange contrasts with blue and harmonizes with red.

Note: The word contrast is pronounced differently according whether it is used as a noun or as a verb. The noun is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: /KON-trast/. The verb is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: /kon-TRAST/.

Some of the sentences above can be improved by replacing the “falls in contrast to” with “stands in contrast to” or by using contrast as a verb:

Clare’s ball dress is a classic example of non-habitual clothing; as she is not used to wearing it, it contrasts with her ordinary self through clothing. —2007 book on fashion.

The cheerful, hand-clapping sing-along stands in contrast to the more aggressive new singles from the band…—Music review.

This [humility of the matriarch] contrasts with the typical image of the patriarch, whose tool for survival is to consistently appear aggressive and dominating.

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Daily Writing Tips

Fitting Quotations

Incorporating direct quotations effectively is an important writing skill.

Here is an example of an ill-fitting quotation in an article about media doctor Mehmet Oz who was recently the subject of a Senate hearing. It’s from an article by Terrence McCoy in The Washington Post (print and digital):

“I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact,” Oz said at a U.S. Senate hearing, adding that he “personally believes in the items I talk about in my show.”

One obvious problem with this example is the use of pronouns that don’t go together. Not so obvious is the fact that the quotation differs from what Oz actually said.

Quotation marks represent a covenant between writer and reader, a promise that the words enclosed by them are exactly what the person being quoted said.

Here’s the original response to Senator McCaskill’s question:

I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about in the show.

In quoting Oz’s original statement, the writer has fallen into a crack between direct and indirect quotation. The word he is outside the quoted material, but the writer (or editor) has added an -s to believe to make it agree with he. Without noticing that the pronoun I does not fit with the preceding he, the writer adds a my that was not in the original quotation.

The writer could have reported the words as an indirect quotation, putting only part of it in quotation marks:

he “personally believes” in the products he talks about in his show.

Or, he could have introduced the quotation with a colon:

“I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact,” Oz said at a U.S. Senate hearing, adding: “I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about in the show.”

A quotation should not be dropped into an essay or a news article without adequate introduction. It should agree grammatically with surrounding text, reproduce the exact words that were said, and it should not stand alone.

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Daily Writing Tips

Punctuation Review #2: Honorifics

A reader wonders,

Why on earth do we place a period after Ms? It’s not an abbreviation of anything I know of.

Americans place a period after Ms. because style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook tell us to. British speakers do not place a period (full stop) after Ms because their style guides tell them not to.

American Style Guides

The Chicago Manual of Style
Use periods with abbreviations that end in a lowercase letter: p. (page), vol., e.g., i.e., etc., a.k.a., a.m., p.m., Ms., Dr., et al.

AP Stylebook
Ms. This is the spelling and punctuation for all uses of the courtesy title, including direct quotations. There is no plural.

British Style Guides

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation
Abbreviations are very rarely used in formal writing. Almost the only ones which are frequently used are the abbreviations for certain common titles, when these are used with someone’s name: Mr Willis, Dr Livingstone, Mrs Thatcher, Ms Harmon, St Joan. (Note that the two items Mrs and Ms are conventionally treated as abbreviations, even though they can be written in no other way.)

Guardian and Observer Style Guide
Mr, Ms, Mrs, Miss

The reader who questions the period after Ms. also objects to the repeated use of honorifics throughout an article:

Unless there’s a possibility of confusion, I see the repeated use of Mr., Ms, and Mrs. as an unnecessary courtesy–and annoying or actually silly at times.

Both American and British newspaper guides agree with our reader that the repetition of honorifics throughout an article is unnecessary.

The Guardian/Observer guide discourages the repetition of honorifics after their first mention, but allows some variation according to context:

In news stories particularly we should use an honorific if it sounds jarring or insensitive not to do so – for example, a woman whose son has been killed on active duty in Iraq should be “Mrs Smith” and not “Smith”. We need to use our judgment and be guided by the tone of the piece.

The AP rejects courtesy titles altogether, unless they occur in a direct quotation:

Refer to both men and women by first and last name, without courtesy titles, on first reference: Susan Smith or Robert Smith. Refer to both men and women by last name, without courtesy titles, in subsequent references. Use the courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or after first reference when a woman specifically requests it; for example, where a woman prefers to be known as Mrs. Smith or Ms. Smith.

It’s futile to overthink arbitrary punctuation usage. Pick a relevant style guide and follow its recommendations.

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Daily Writing Tips

Addendum on Used To vs. Use To

It sometimes happens that I write a post that I think is beautifully focused on one point of usage, and then I receive a slew of emails faulting me for misrepresenting the topic.

That’s what happened with a post on the modal use of used and use to express habitual action in the past.

When an article receives this kind of response, I have to assume that my intended explanation wasn’t as clear as I thought it was. The post was based on the following question from a reader:

Which is correct – 
He USED to go to the game on Friday.
He USE to go to the game on Friday.

All I intended to point out in my answer was that used is the correct choice for the examples given, but that use is correct when it follows the negative didn’t.

What I said was,

When the statement is positive, as in the reader’s example, the expression is used to. In negative statements, the expression is use to. For example, “He didn’t use to go to the game on Friday.”

One reader correctly commented, “The distinction is not really about positivity/negativity,” and offered the following sentences as evidence:

He did use to go to the game on Friday.
He never used to go to the game on Friday.

The first example is correct as a contradictory statement. For example:

Person A: He didn’t use to go to the game on Friday.
Person B: He did use to go to the game on Friday.

The second example contains the negative adverb never, but used is still the correct form. Any adverb, negative or otherwise, may modify the modal used:

never used to go
always used to go
rarely used to go

I apologize for my sweeping statements about positive and negative.

Another reader asks,

Can we say “usedn’t to” instead of “didn’t use to”?

It depends.

If you live in the UK or some other place where this expression is common, go ahead and use it. If you say it to an American speaker, you’re likely to get a puzzled look.

For British speakers, here’s what it says about the different forms in The Penguin Writer’s Manual:

The strictly correct negative form of used to is used not to, which can be shortened to usedn’t to: “You used not to (or usedn’t to) mind if we came in a little late.” This often sounds rather formal, so that did not use to or didn’t use to (but not didn’t used to) are generally acceptable in informal speech or writing. Likewise, the traditionally correct negative question form used you not to..? or usedn’t you to..? is often replaced, more informally, by didn’t you use to..? If neither of these options seems acceptable, you used to…, didn’t you? can be used.

Another reader demands,

What is your authority for this?

My usual authorities are the OED, Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, and The Chicago Manual of Style. This time, however, I relied for the most part on British and American grammar sites that target English learners.

BBC: When talking about things that we did in the past but don’t do now we can use the expression used to. The negative form, to talk about things which we didn’t do in the past but do now, is didn’t use to

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries: Except in negatives and questions, the correct form is used to: “I used to go there every Saturday.” To form questions, use did: Did she use to have long hair? The negative form is usually didn’t use to, but in British English this is quite informal and is not usually used in writing.

English Stack Exchange: Except in negatives and questions, the correct form is used to: “we used to go to the movies all the time” (not we use to go to the movies). However, in negatives and questions using the auxiliary verb do, the correct form is use to: “I didn’t use to like mushrooms” (not I didn’t used to like mushrooms).

Finally, several readers wondered about the pronunciation of used to and use to.

You’ll find a thorough treatment of British and American pronunciation of these forms at the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site.

Thanks to all of you for your comments.

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Daily Writing Tips

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