Colon: To Begin With.

Kathryn Schulz has a post “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” which is worth a look; the examples are mostly well known (Nabokov, Eliot…), but it’s nice to see them pointed out in this context. I’m curious about the Dickens one, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” I haven’t read enough Dickens, or Victorian literature in general, to know how anomalous that colon is; would it have struck the 1840s reader as oddly as it does us?

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    It’s a “count four” pause, a rather dramatic example of rhetorical punctuation, but the situation is a dramatic one. By the same token, Dickens’s periods are “count three”, his semicolons are “count two”, and his commas are “count one”.

    A modern use of rhetorical punctuation is the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, which are set during the Napoleonic Wars (with dragons). It’s incredibly convenient for books being read out loud.

  2. Marley was dead — to begin with

     
    Indian newspapers have a particular way of using the colon: they put it at the end of the headline to tell the name of the person who spoke thus, for example:

    The Hindu:
    AAP victory good for democracy: Amartya Sen
    Congress MPs will choose PM after polls: Rahul

    Times of India:
    Wanted my hubby to reject me: Sunny Leone
    Learn from Sheila: Digvijaya to Kejriwal

    The Hindustan Times:
    Modi can’t be PM, can sell tea: Mani Shankar Aiyar
    African woman forced to give urine sample in public during Bharti’s raid: Harish Salve

     
    Now, would it be better to have a space after the colon or not?

  3. Amartya Sen

    For those who don’t know (which is probably everyone who isn’t Bengali), that’s properly (i.e., in Bengali) pronounced /’ɔmortto ʃen/, or (anglicized) “AW-more-toe SHAYN.” I learned this from a Bengali woman I dated briefly.

  4. “I learned this from a Bengali woman I dated briefly.”

    We want more of this : Language Hat love life.

  5. Indian newspapers have a particular way of using the colon

    That’s perfectly standard, at least in Canadian usage. Today’s Toronto Star has such a headline. See Star survey reveals Toronto’s leadership void: Hume

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I learned this from a Bengali woman I dated briefly.

    It’s outdated, you mean?

  7. “That’s perfectly standard, at least in Canadian usage.”

    Is it? I haven’t really noticed it elsewhere than in the Indian papers, or not to that extent. But you do have Indians in Canada, still, no?

    Incidentally, there is a colon after “languagehat.com” in my (Chrome) browser. It appears as “languagehat.com :” — and there’s a space between .com and the colon.
    http://mauricianismes.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/languagehat_internet.jpg

  8. I have often wanted a list of this type, but longer, ever since reading the mounting hilarity of Borges’ catalogue of the works of Pierre Menard, which culminates in the description of such a list:
    p) Una invectiva contra Paul Valéry, en las Hojas para la supresión de la realidad de Jacques Reboul. (Esa invectiva, dicho sea entre paréntesis, es el reverso exacto de su verdadera opinión sobre Valéry. Éste así lo entendió y la amistad antigua de los dos no corrió peligro.)
    q) Una “definición” de la condesa de Bagnoregio, en el “victorioso volumen” ­la locución es de otro colaborador, Gabriele d’Annunzio­ que anualmente publica esta dama para rectificar los inevitables falseos del periodismo y presentar “al mundo y a Italia” una auténtica efigie de su persona, tan expuesta (en razón misma de su belleza y de su actuación) a interpretaciones erróneas o apresuradas.
    r) Un ciclo de admirables sonetos para la baronesa de Bacourt (1934).
    s) Una lista manuscrita de versos que deben su eficacia a la puntuación.

  9. No, I don’t think it would have seemed odd in the 1840s, but from my memories of the more canonical novelists Dickens is by far the most striking exploiter of “rhetorical punctuation”.

    >It’s a “count four” pause, a rather dramatic example of rhetorical punctuation, but the situation is a dramatic one. By the same token, Dickens’s periods are “count three”, his semicolons are “count two”, and his commas are “count one”.

    John Cowan, are you aware of any Victorian (or older) documentation that actually talks about rhetorical punctuation and how to use it, or is the category something that we’ve constructed retrospectively to account for the wonderfully creative punctuation of Dickens and others?

  10. J. W. Brewer says:

    I think I have seen that headlinese use of the colon in N.Y. tabloids and thought it unremarkable in context, although the only two examples I can find on a quick scan of yesterday’s Post are the other way round (“Feds: Walmart unfair” and “Coach: Melo won’t leave”).

  11. My local newspaper is fond of headlines in a format something like Recent newsworthy event: “Quote from bystander”. Only sometimes the event is a death, and the quote is in the first person. A few months ago we got, “Man killed on birthday by speeding driver: ‘I’m still in shock.’” and it’s really hard not to read it as a statement from his ghost.

  12. C. S. Lewis said, when asked about Tolkien’s “influences”, that “you might as well speak of influencing a Bandersnatch”, but that em-dash from Middlemarch looks like a direct progenitor of a to-me-far-better-known one: “The mother of our particular hobbit—what is a hobbit?”

    (What on earth made Kathryn Schulz think that there’s a dangling participle in Marley was dead: to begin with? I suppose she means “final preposition”. Obviously Dickens should have written Marley was dead: with which to begin.)

  13. John Cowan says:

    Siganus: That’s the way that WordPress generates the HTML title element, which Chrome is faithfully reproducing.

    Hat: Bengali does not have distinct /s/ and /ʃ/ (the three letters s, , and the pronunciation is closer to [ʃ], as in Finnish. The first vowel in Amartya (which is a Sanskritizing transliteration) is /ɔ/, not /o/; it’s the descendent of short /a/, in this case alpha privative, and so you can see the name means ‘immortal’.

  14. Thanks, I’ve changed the transcriptions accordingly. (I knew that Bengali does not have distinct /s/ and /ʃ/, but I wasn’t about to use s just because it wasn’t distinctive; I’m not sure what difference š vs ʃ makes, but I changed it to make you happy.)

  15. actually talks about rhetorical punctuation

    John Walker’s Elements of Elocution. (Better bio than Wikipedia.)

  16. Today’s The Scotsman, out of Edinburgh, has the headline Stephen Jardine: Sugar is perfectly safe.

    In this case, the author of the article is Stephen Jardine. I see this formulation regularly on the Internet.

    But as JWB says above, the use of a colon in such formulations is just an aspect of newspaper headlinese.

  17. “Amartya Sen … properly … pronounced …”: a friend of mine used to pronounce it “that trying man”. I don’t know what punctuation would imply the eye-rolling with which he accompanied it.

  18. It sounds like your friend didn’t care for Sen. Pity; I think he’s a fine writer and thinker with a truly humane approach to the world.

  19. John Cowan says:

    š or ʃ, as you will; I’m an IPA guy so tend to prefer the latter. The business about the three letters should have said that the three (transliterated) letters s, ṣ, ś, which are distinct in Sanskrit, all sound the same in Bengali.

    I jumped to your comment just before this one, and read it as “It sounds like your friend didn’t care for Senator Pity”, and wondered who he might be.

  20. “It sounds like your friend didn’t care for Sen”: my friend was an extremely loyal college man, but Sen’s performance as Master of Trinity had him rolling his eyes, and expressing his dismay, even to an outsider like me. I had never before heard him mutter a word of criticism about anything to do with his college.

    On t’other hand, he also rolled his eyes about Sen’s successor, though he couldn’t bring himself to assent when I enquired “But he’s bonkers, isn’t he?”

  21. John Cowan says:

    The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has been “discouraging” (read: banning) names with ‘s since its founding in 1890. From their FAQ:

    Since its inception in 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of the possessive form—the genitive apostrophe and the “s”. The possessive form using an “s” is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed. The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy.

    However, there are many names in the GNIS database that do carry the genitive apostrophe, because the Board chooses not to apply its policies to some types of features. Although the legal authority of the Board includes all named entities except Federal Buildings, certain categories—broadly determined to be “administrative”—are best left to the organization that administers them. Examples include schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, airports, shopping centers, etc. The Board promulgates the names, but leaves issues such as the use of the genitive or possessive apostrophe to the data owners.

    Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of “stick–up type” for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion. The probable explanation is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features because, “ownership of a feature is not in and of itself a reason to name a feature or change its name.”

    Since 1890, only five Board decisions have allowed the genitive apostrophe for natural features. These are: Martha’s Vineyard (1933) after an extensive local campaign; Ike’s Point in New Jersey (1944) because “it would be unrecognizable otherwise”; John E’s Pond in Rhode Island (1963) because otherwise it would be confused as John S Pond (note the lack of the use of a period, which is also discouraged); and Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (1995 at the specific request of the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names because, “otherwise three apparently given names in succession would dilute the meaning,” that is, Joshua refers to a stand of trees. Clark’s Mountain in Oregon (2002) was approved at the request of the Oregon Board to correspond with the personal references of Lewis and Clark.

    This creates some horrors I meet personally, like the nearby hamlets of Purdys and Goldens Bridge, NY (historically Purdy’s and Golden’s Bridge). Note that town names aren’t natural features, so the explanation-such-as-it-is doesn’t meet their case. (In New York State a hamlet is a community with a name but without a legal existence: it is part of some town or village legally.)

  22. On Indian newspaper headlines, e.g. “Wanted my hubby to reject me: Sunny Leone”, the use of the colon makes me think of Sanskrit ‘iti’, which is used as this sort of “closing quotation mark”. Probably a coincidence, though a number of Indian languages (though not Hindi/Urdu) still use these sorts of (post-quote) quotative markers, so it’s suggestive.

  23. There are villages in County Clare called O’Callaghansmills and O’Brien’s Bridge, which suggests some apostrophes are more dispensable than others.

  24. J. W. Brewer : I think I have seen that headlinese use of the colon in N.Y. tabloids and thought it unremarkable in context, although the only two examples I can find on a quick scan of yesterday’s Post are the other way round (“Feds: Walmart unfair” and “Coach: Melo won’t leave”).

    I’d say the other way around is more common by far. See for instance the quote above : J. W. Brewer said “I think I have seen that headlinese use (…)”. It is common usage on the internet to do it this way, with a colon followed by quotation marks or italicised text. And I think it is the case too in the media. However, I would imagine it would work as well if you write it like this:

    I think I have seen that headlinese use of the colon in N.Y. tabloids and thought it unremarkable in context, although the only two examples I can find on a quick scan of yesterday’s Post are the other way round (“Feds: Walmart unfair” and “Coach: Melo won’t leave”).: J. W. Brewer

    The only problem, though, would be the double punctuation mark between the quote and the quoted person. This isn’t a problem for a headline (short, direct) but could be one for longer quotations, especially those containing several sentences.

     

    Beslayed : the use of the colon makes me think of Sanskrit ‘iti’, which is used as this sort of “closing quotation mark”

    Do you have an example of how this iti works, and what it looks like? By googling “sanskrit iti” I see that it may mean “thus”, “like this”. In this sense it would be very close to the Latin word ita, thus (ainsi, de la sorte in French), which could bring smiles on the lips of some Indo-Europeanists. However, I am not aware that ita is used for quotations, the expression “(sic)”, placed after the citation, being the one used in that respect.

  25. John Cowan says:

    I note that the Irish form of O’Callaghansmills is the boring Muileann Uí Cheallacháin rather than O Ceallachánmuileannan or something equally adventurous.

  26. MMcM, this is great! (Especially footnote 1 mentioning ita in relation to इति.)

    Thanks.

  27. MMcM always comes through.

  28. Siganus Sutor says:

    Yes, in fact his name is MacGyver.

  29. Always best to read Dickens with the spoken human voice in mind.

    That’s how he heard it, I believe.

  30. J. W. Brewer says:

    Is it really the parentheses that make “(picnic, lightning)” so impressive (I first wrote “striking” but thought that might not go well in context . . .) or is it the comma? I note that when Billy Collins borrowed the quote for a collection of poems (which sold extremely well for the genre) he lost the parentheses but kept the comma: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picnic,_Lightning.

  31. It’s the parentheses, but of course they only work in context. If you use the two words as a title, of course you’re going to lose the parens. (I can’t help remarking that Nabokov would doubtless have considered this use of his brilliant parenthetical pair by the ubiquitous Collins as an example of poshlost, or “poshlust” as fun-loving Vlad preferred to spell it.)

  32. When I was young, I heard A Christmas Carol (on the CBC) begin: ‘ To begin with, Marley was dead. As dead as a doornail.’ A couple of years ago I heard (again on the CBC) ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’ I anguished over this: ‘They ruined it, they ruined it!’ until someone explained to me that the second way was a rewriting of the story by Dickens in a short form for reading to a large audience. But I swear there was no ‘count four’ pause, as JC explains, ‘a rather dramatic example of rhetorical punctuation’, which would have been more apropriate.

  33. John Cowan says:

    Well, you can’t expect a radio script to match the printed text exactly. The actual 1843 text is “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” But it’s not really a problem to skip from the first sentence to the last.

  34. There are a few differences in punctuation and capitalization between those early printed editions and the manuscript. For instance in the fourth sentence.

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