LE TIRET D’EDGAR POE.

From Edgar Allan Poe’s Marginalia (Part XI, Graham’s Magazine, February 1848; the reader should be warned that he is using, and punning on, the now obsolete point ‘punctuation mark’):

That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood — this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance. It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force — its spirit — its point — by improper punctuations. For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.
There is no treatise on the topic — and there is no topic on which a treatise is more needed. There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality, and cannot be brought within the limits of intelligible and consistent rule. And yet, if fairly looked in the face, the whole matter is so plain that its rationale may be read as we run. If not anticipated, I shall, hereafter, make an attempt at a magazine paper on “The Philosophy of Point.”

In the meantime let me say a word or two of the dash. Every writer for the press, who has any sense of the accurate, must have been frequently mortified and vexed at the distortion of his sentences by the printer’s now general substitution of a semicolon, or comma, for the dash of the MS. The total or nearly total disuse of the latter point, has been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon its excessive employment about twenty years ago. The Byronic poets were all dash. John Neal, in his earlier novels, exaggerated its use into the grossest abuse — although his very error arose from the philosophical and self-dependent spirit which has always distinguished him, and which will even yet lead him, if I am not greatly mistaken in the man, to do something for the literature of the country which the country “will not willingly,” and cannot possibly, “let die.”
Without entering now into the why, let me observe that the printer may always ascertain when the dash of the MS. is properly and when improperly employed, by bearing in mind that this point represents a second thought — an emendation. In using it just above I have exemplified its use. The words “an emendation” are, speaking with reference to grammatical construction, put in apposition with the words “a second thought.” Having written these latter words, I reflected whether it would not be possible to render their meaning more distinct by certain other words. Now, instead of erasing the phrase “a second thought,” which is of some use — which partially conveys the idea intended — which advances me a step toward my full purpose — I suffer it to remain, and merely put a dash between it and the phrase “an emendation.” The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words — “or, to make my meaning more distinct.” This force it has — and this force no other point can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with.
It has its phases — its variation of the force described; but the one principle — that of second thought or emendation — will be found at the bottom of all.

(Via The Daily Growler.)
A few points: Presumably he pronounced rationale the old-fashioned four-syllable way (rash-ə-NAIL-ee), reflecting its status as the neuter form of the Latin adjective rationalis; this is the pronunciation given in the first edition of the OED, and Fowler, writing in the early 1920s, still gives it as preferable, saying “confusion with such French words as morale & locale (there is no French rationale) leads to its being sometimes mispronounced.” (I love that “sometimes”! Surely by then he was constantly assaulted by the vile new pronunciation, which of course all the defenders of proper English now accept without cavil.)
Also, note the ital quote in “or, to make my meaning more distinct“; a French equivalent was just remarked on in this post.
Finally, I’m curious about the quotation he’s alluding to in “which the country ‘will not willingly,’ and cannot possibly, ‘let die.’” If you google “will not willingly let die,” you get a whole bunch of hits referring to the meteorologist Cleveland Abbe‘s statement, in an 1869 letter to his father discussing his creation of the scientific weather forecast, “I have started that which the country will not willingly let die” (or, in some accounts, “We have begun work that the country will not willingly let die”). The problem is that Poe’s piece appeared in early 1848, when Abbe was nine years old. Poe must be referring to some earlier piece of rhetoric; does anyone have any idea what it might be?
Oh, and my title is a pun on Mallarmé’s sonnet “Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe” (with its famous line “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”); tiret is the French word for ‘dash’ (the punctuation mark).

Comments

  1. I believe the stock phrase “which the world” will/would/should/etc. “not willingly let die” is from Milton. See here.

  2. Ironically enough, the RSS feed of your blog, at least as delivered by NetNewsWire, persistently omits dashes from your posts, substituting extra spaces where they would go. I’ve often found myself wondering at some peculiar turn of languagehat sentence that becomes clear when I turn to my browser and find — ahah! — a dash!

  3. I’ve always thought that punctuation was the colostomy bag of syntax, for langauges so poorly evolved as to lack final particles to make the tone of their sentences clear.

  4. What, is that the point–the dash he’s using? I had no idea it was obsolete–I use it all the time! Could there be a more useful sentence-lengthener than that favorite tool of the scholar–the Gedankenstrich?
    (PS. “E-x-t-e-n-d-e-r” counts as questionable content now? Truly Orwellian!)

  5. Oh, I’m stupid. I read “point ‘punctuation mark’” as “French word that’s not quite a distinct punctuation mark” rather than “this word ‘has this meaning.’” Not too much Gedanken going on there.

  6. I believe the stock phrase “which the world” will/would/should/etc. “not willingly let die” is from Milton.
    That must be it! Please accept the usual awed gratitude.

  7. There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality
    Call me vulgar, but I don’t know what other kind of subject it could be (even if someone did succeed advancing a rule, that’s still just a forced a convention); and, pace Poe’s “one principle,” whatever the differences of a comma, semicolon, colon, or even a period, all can be used to amplify through apposition.

  8. Anyone here know who came up with the idea of using em dashes without quotation marks to introduce dialogue? Gaddis uses this in A Frolic of His Own and that is the book I always think of when I see it; I was surprised this weekend when I picked up A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to see Joyce using it 80 years before Gaddis.

  9. I find a bunch of places where Milton is actually quoted as saying “the world will not willingly let die”, but in fact the phrase the world does not appear in the quotation to which MMcM links. We still need to know, therefore, who introduced the misquotation!
    I think that lawyers were the last surviving users of the four-syllable pronunciation of rationale; it remained for them a Latin expression among the many others in common legal use.
    Slawkenbergius: ext3nder is probably banned because of its frequent use in the phrase “p3nis ext3nder”.

  10. We still need to know, therefore, who introduced the misquotation!
    That may be harder, both because that’s the period that’s still spotty online (even with ECCO, which isn’t free), and because people were sometimes consciously paraphrasing it, down the centuries.
    For example, though Gabriel’s speech in the “The Dead” gives it in the usual Victorian form, “… still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die,” we know that Joyce had noted the original from Milton.
    Anyway, with that caveat, the earliest I can find in GB that claims a direct quotation is 1816.

  11. Siganus Sutor says:

    Monsieur l’Anglais, tiret le premier.

  12. Monsieur, l’Anglais, tiret le premier.

  13. Siganus Sutor says:
  14. Siganus "Grüne Punkt" Sutor says:

    After all, punctuation is all about points, isn’t it?

  15. This post reminds me of Isaac Babel’s phrase about the power of a well-placed period: Никакое железо не может войти в человеческое сердце так леденяще, как точка, поставленная вовремя.
    Two translations: from here, “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.”
    More accurately, from Peter Constantine’s translation: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”

  16. “I think that lawyers were the last surviving users of the four-syllable pronunciation of rationale”
    The lawyers, and me. I also pronounce “dilettante” the correct way.

  17. In Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Georgian, Romanian, Lithuanian and Hungarian, a second dash is added, if the main sentence continues after the end of the quote:
    ― Ай, ай, ай! ― вскрикнул Левин. ― Я ведь, кажется, уже лет девять не говел. Я и не подумал.
    …in French, a guillemet may be used to initiate running speech, with each change in speaker indicated by a dash, and a closing guillemet to mark the end of the quotation.
    So what do we (Joyce, etc) do? Like the French, but with inverted commas instead of guillemets?

  18. Damn. If that is confusing to read, that second bit I quoted from Wikipedia is supposed to be in italics too.

  19. I also pronounce “dilettante” the correct way.
    Me, too. My grandmother said ‘rationale’ the right way, but I don’t.

  20. Here is a punctuation-in-translation item that’s been bugging me for a couple of months — in translating a pair of sentences from Saramago’s “History of the Siege of Lisbon”, Giovanni Pontierro transposes a comma and a period and in so doing, alters the sense of the passage. Details at http://readin.com/blog/?id=1918

  21. Fixed the itals for ya, AJP. Note to would-be italicizers: if you’re doing more than one paragraph, the <i> has to go before each one. (A single </i> suffices at the end.)

  22. A Hattic magician should not reveal his secrets.

  23. So now I can add “rationale” and “dilettante” to that list of words that I know the “correct” (but, at least around here, almost forgotten) pronunciation of, along with “forte” (non-musical sense) and “dour” and perhaps “twat” (according to a recent posting on Language Log).
    I never know what to do with this kind of knowledge. Once I know the “right” pronunciation, neither it nor the prevalent one nor total abstinence from the word is an altogether satisfying option.
    P.S. Yesterday my son told me that he got into a joking argument with a friend about how to say “basil”, in which the other fellow, by talking fast, tricked him into switching sides in the argument. As he told the tale, he and I both thought of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. But this wasn’t pronoun trouble, it was pronouncing trouble.

  24. How is it that one should pronounce ‘dilettante’?

  25. I think you ought to pronounce it however you want to in English, especially since it’s a foreign word. Conrad & I (I in memory of my grandmother) pronounce the final E. Most people in the US don’t do that, in my experience, whereas in England it is not unheard of.

  26. bathrobe says:

    If Kiara Brighton had any concept of what Languagehat was about, she would not post such a ludicrous spam message.

  27. I think I like dilettante better with the final E pronounced. It reflects the meaning nicely.
    (But I probably won’t alter my pronounciation, lest I sound pretentious or – worse – daft.)

  28. I’ve sounded pretentious and daft all my life, there’s nothing wrong with that.

  29. I’ve sounded pretentious and daft all my life, there’s nothing wrong with that.

  30. I too am among the pretentious users of tetrasyllabic rationale (but not tetrasyllabic dilettante). However, in my case it is nothing but a pretension, and I revert to my native trisyllabic pronunciation at the least sign of stress.

  31. I would never have dreamed there were still people who used tetrasyllabic rationale—not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  32. Since learning yesterday that some people pronounce the final “e” of “dilletante”, I am wishing for a shaggy dog story which ends with somebody’s mother’s overly superficial sister being dubbed a dilletaunty.

  33. John Emerson says:

    “No steel can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place” seems better, regardless of the Russian word, since the English idiom is “cold steel”.
    “Now is steel ‘twixt gut and bladder interposed….”

  34. Oh, saucy Worcester, dost thou lie so still?

  35. Oh, saucy Worcester, dost thou lie so still?

  36. David Marjanović says:

    I think you ought to pronounce it however you want to in English, especially since it’s a foreign word. Conrad & I (I in memory of my grandmother) pronounce the final E. Most people in the US don’t do that, in my experience, whereas in England it is not unheard of.

    Funnily, in German, the final e isn’t even written…

  37. That’s because then you’d be forced to pronounce it.

  38. ToussianMuso says:

    I think that this Poe spiel is all that Lynn Truss was really trying to say in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, if I may dare to speak in her defense.

  39. jamessal says:

    If all I were trying to say is what Poe wrote and I ended up writing that preposterous book, I would never set pen to paper again!

  40. ToussianMuso says:

    Well, the “zero tolerance” subtitle is misleading. Her point, as I see it, was not about “correctness” for its own sake, but rather the importance of understanding standard use of punctuation for the sake of clarity.

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