Grammar nerd interlude: embarrassing comma splices, also UVI criteria

Mary spotted a comma splice in one of our taglines today. Embarrassing! That’s been there for probably the better part of a decade.

Except I can’t decide if I agree with that grammar rule. I mean, there are plenty of cases where violating it is totally jarring, it’s definitely not ok in this sentence! Shudder. But this sentence sounds pretty ok, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a stylistic thing – you can do it if it’s sufficiently intentional? Like goofy internet-misspellings, amirite? (Huh, TIL, “amirite” is in the actual dictionary. A couple at least, including Google’s, which I normally hate.)

Anyway, what about this tagline: “Track progress toward goals, pay if you go off track”. The fact that it’s jarring to Mary is plenty reason to just fix it but I’m curious what our fellow grammar nerds think…

  • Track progress toward goals, pay if you go off track
  • Track progress toward goals; pay if you go off track

0 voters

(Note you can vote for both if you think they’re both fine.)

I also can’t decide if it’s way too cheap to count fixing that as a UVI. There’s an argument that it’s totally in the original spirit of daily user-visible improvements where no improvement is too small and it’s all about just keeping up the momentum. But this one might just be too cheap, not to mention that I can’t totally decide if it’s an improvement even though I’m fixing it per @mary’s orders. (Was that another comma splice in the previous sentence? My confidence is suddenly shattered here!)

  • Typo fixes are legit UVIs!
  • Typo fixes are too cheap; we demand real change!

0 voters

PS: It’s fixed now and the more I look at it the more right Mary seems. Or at least that the semicolon is aesthetically better here, correctness aside. I still have no sense of when the comma splice rule is fine to ignore. My comma philosophy is that it’s all about how it sounds when read out loud. I think those are fighting words for @mary so maybe I can lure her in here and we can duke it out. :grin:

PPS: If you spot conceivable typos in any of our copy, we obviously really want to know! Also if you want to argue about unambiguously incorrect grammar rules (not ending sentences with prepositions, not splitting infinitives, not starting sentences with conjunctions, insisting on “fewer” instead of “less” for count-nouns, saying “an historic”) I’m alllll about that.

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No, “not to mention that” acts to connect those two clauses in a similar way that “but” or “and” would.

I think a tag line or slogan is not necessarily supposed to be a grammatically complete sentence, but in this instance, it’s an ugly comma splice that should be fixed. And it’s definitely a UVI.

I’d actually prefer a dash to a semicolon here.

Why is the fewer/less distinction unambiguously wrong?

Why is the file name “dicked” there? Lol. Interesting - Google’s definitions are definitely slimmed down and missing some nuance. I’m not sure I’d agree that you’d be using the words “wrong” if you went by their definitions, though.

Just curious - what do you think of the recent controversy over the term “quantum supremacy”?


Yeah, I might be gradually coming around to seeing it as ugly.

Maybe not “unambiguously”. But check out this excerpt from a Steven Pinker article:

The purists have botched the “less-fewer” distinction. “Less” is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in “one less car” and “one less thing to worry about”. It’s also natural when the entity being quantified is a continuous extent and the count noun refers to units of measurement, such as “21 years old” and “70 miles an hour”; like the 1-11 scale on Nigel Tufnel’s favourite amplifier in This Is Spinal Tap, the units are arbitrary. And “less” is idiomatic in certain expressions in which a quantity is being compared to a standard, such as “Describe yourself in 50 words or less.” Like many dubious rules of usage, the less-fewer distinction has a smidgen of validity as a pointer of style. In cases where “less” and “fewer” are both available, such as “Less/fewer than 20 of the students voted”, “fewer” is the better choice because it enhances vividness and concreteness. But that does not mean that “less” is a grammatical error.

“dict” for “dictionary”!

I will fight you! They’re super extra (by which I mean subtly but meaningfully) wrong. Did you see the part about Ruining English?

I have less than zero opinion on that. Actually I need an imaginary number to quantify how much opinion I have on that.

I have not wandered away! Fun fact: I had to get this extension to be able to see the full hover text on Firefox for Android.

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If anyone wants more info on “not to mention”:

Huh, how interesting! I actually find the semicolon quite odd in this instance, and prefer a comma. I also like a dash here. Is this because I expect taglines/slogans to follow newspaper headline grammar, rather than being complete sentences? Is it because this is one of the 8,000 quirky but valid uses of a comma, to list two actions in a sort of abbreviated implied conditional…? For example, this works for me: “Sow discord, reap discord.” Or even better: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Based on that example, I think I’ve talked myself into the viewpoint that, like newspaper headlines, taglines and slogans are given a greater latitude of asyndeton than most prose.

In general I struggle to work up a lot of animus about these things, though. Hardly any grammar rules strike me as genuinely universal; rather, they are tied to rhetorical register. When I’m marking student papers, there are a lot of conventions of academic prose that they need to follow, to conform to the requirements of the genre, but in other modes of communication their writing can be more effective if they violate those same rules. Rather than trying to boil things down to abstract principles, the best approach is to find successful examples of similar writing, and follow their cues.


Holy cow, I think you just totally changed my mind! That was (fittingly) incredibly well said.

PS: Now I’m kind of dying to hear your assessment of my dictionary screed!

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PS: Now I’m kind of dying to hear your assessment of my dictionary screed !

Haha, I sympathize somewhat with your dictionary screed! In the framework of “respond to the rhetorical horizon of expectations, don’t follow absolute laws,” I think what you’re encountering is that most of the time, you have to write to an audience of people who don’t know some of the words you’re using and will, at best, google them to find inferior definitions, so you are rhetorically constrained to their existing vocabulary. This is why businesslike writing is boring and terrible to write. I’m sorry. I think the only solution is to write different kinds of things, like scholarly treatises and poetry, where you can instead expect your audience to be delighted by esoteric vocabulary, and to head directly to the OED if they hit something new, as I myself do. Relatedly, personal correspondence with friends is a perfectly cromulent venue for abstruse circumlocutions.


Oh my goodness. fans self

But why are we ok with that? What if they googled to find superior definitions?

As is Beeminder webcopy (is a hill I will absolutely die on)!

PS, did I mention :heart_eyes:


I agree with a lot of this, oulfis - of course with the exception of needing to struggle in order to work up animus over grammar! It doesn’t take much for me.

like newspaper headlines, taglines and slogans are given a greater latitude of asyndeton than most prose

the best approach is to find successful examples of similar writing, and follow their cues

That seems completely correct.

Thanks for teaching me about asyndeton. I found this gem:

When it works, people tend to call it asyndeton. When it doesn’t work, they tend to call it a comma splice.

But here, the example is:

Track progress toward goals, pay if you go off track

And it’s jarringly ugly. It just doesn’t work.
So it’s a comma splice, not asyndeton. :smiley:

There are a couple reasons it doesn’t work: for one thing, it’s not a parallel construction. For another, the clauses are too long and the second one even has a subordinate clause in it (do this IF you do that).

Here’s Grammar Girl on the difference between asyndeton and comma splices:

For example, The Elements of Style says, “A comma is preferable when the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational.” Their example is

Man proposes, God disposes.

This rule would also cover the famous sentence “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Wallraff, in her book Word Court, adds the less commonly seen, but I think reasonable suggestion that a comma can be used to join independent clauses when “the whole point of two clauses is to contrast negative and affirmative assertions.” To me, this is consistent with other instances in which you’re allowed to use a comma to show contrast. Her example is the sentence “It’s not a comet, it’s a meteor,” and it made me feel better about one of the sentences @cbee submitted as an example of a comma splice she had seen online:

The Editor and I don’t argue, we discuss.

It didn’t annoy me, and I felt like it was an appropriate use of a comma, but at first I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized that it fit the comma-for-contrast rule. If I came across this sentence, I wouldn’t mark it wrong. But @cbee would, and it does fit the simple definition of a comma splice.

Here are some other good examples:


So if the real axis is your view on renaming things to avoid possibly politically controversial terms, what’s the imaginary axis you’d tug on?

Ok let’s fight!

Let me start by talking a little about how language works. It’s based on metaphor. Linguists like Lakoff in Metaphors We Live By - (pdf) have discussed how metaphors aren’t some extra technique used in addition to normal language, but inherent to and intrinsic in language. They determined that the average English sentence contains one metaphor.

For example, in “the average English sentence contains one metaphor,” the metaphor there is called “language as a container” - we talk about language as if it were a physical container you could put things into or take things out of, and it’s perfectly normal.

So, basically, almost every word has many different possible shades of meaning, many different ways that the meaning could be slightly changed to include a metaphorical meaning, and that’s a normal and common part of language. It’s therefore impossible for any dictionary to list every possible meaning, since part of how language works normally is that we adapt and create new meanings and variations on the fly.

Basically every objection you have is that Google’s definitions omit some shade of meaning or some variation on how a word can be used. Which is what happens with a smaller dictionary. And if you went with the full OED you’d have even more senses of the word, but you still wouldn’t have everything. So a smaller dictionary, which by its nature lists only limited definitions, isn’t “wrong” - it’s just smaller.

Let’s take your first example, mitzvah. Google says “a precept or commandment” and “a good deed done from religious duty.” These are completely correct definitions. MW adds “a meritorious or charitable act,” which is an alternate, metaphorical use of the word. Wikipedia explains “the term mitzvah has also come to express an individual act of human kindness in keeping with the law. The expression includes a sense of heartfelt sentiment beyond mere legal duty.” This is a logical extension of the term, but Google isn’t “wrong” for omitting it - its definitions are still correct, and you could come up with this just from Google’s definitions, using the term metaphorically.

A couple of yours involve technical or mathematical uses of a term, like (11) orthogonal, (18) comport, and (26) vacuous. It’s true that Google isn’t listing technical definitions, or for the last two, is weirdly calling them archaic. But that just makes Google a smaller, less complete dictionary, which does have its uses. It’s not like it defines “orthogonal” as “at an angle of 1 radian” or “mitzvah” as “the track marks left by a goat,” which would just be wrong.

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Brilliant point about how practically everything is a metaphor. In fact, funny story: When I was a new grad student at the University of Michigan in the 90s was the first time I heard someone (an AI professor) use the word “orthogonal” in a non-literal sense and I assumed they were just making that up as a metaphor on the spot and I thought they were a genius. Which kind of makes your point: if Google’s crappy dictionary omits some definitions, that needn’t hold you back from using them. People might even think you’re extremely clever and creative.

But I think that only applies to some of Google’s (not actually Google’s, I’m just blaming them for using them) definitions. Others are the opposite, which is much worse, where the simple literal or broader meaning is missing and only a particular metaphorical meaning is included.

Here are my cursory classifications, where “mmm” is “metaphorical meaning missing” and “OOPS” is “only one particular (meaning) supplied”:

  1. mitzvah: mmm
  2. mercenary: OOPS
  3. bemused: OOPS
  4. waif: I wouldn’t call it a metaphorical meaning that’s missing but this one is quite minor.
  5. ancillary: mmm
  6. hinky: OOPS
  7. quiescent: mmm
  8. commentariat: mmm
  9. refractory: mmm
  10. poignant: Maybe has the flavor of mmm but actively misleading.
  11. orthogonal: mmm
  12. dibs: OOPS
  13. come out in the wash: mmm
  14. kibitz: mmm
  15. cull: mmm
  16. elide: mmm
  17. gird: mmm
  18. comport: mmm
  19. confabulate: mmm
  20. onomastics: mmm
  21. beleaguered: mmm
  22. pimp: mmm
  23. glib: mmm
  24. side-eye: OOPS
  25. imputation: OOPS
  26. vacuous: OOPS
  27. forensic: OOPS
  28. prophylactic: mmm
  29. ecumenical: mmm

I’d probably switch some of those if I thought about them more carefully, and some are quite ambiguous. But I stand by the general claim that those definitions are terrible! And, like @oulfis said, knowing that your audience will only use Google’s definitions constrains your writing in a sometimes unfortunate way. For example, maybe it’s not ok to say someone’s being mercenary if, in the reader’s eyes, I’ve thereby claimed they’re acting unethically.

So, yeah, for many of those words the definitions are just incomplete and that’s not doing much harm. But of course those are just the 29 examples I’ve personally encountered. Clearly that dictionary is garbage through and through, which, given the influence it has, gets my goat.

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Opinion was pretty evenly split on whether typo fixes should count as UVIs! I actually remembered that we have a long-established precedent on this. We call things like typo fixes and other trivial changes MINIs and our self-imposed rule is that we have to accumulate more than one of them before officially logging them as a single UVI.

So that’s what we did!

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I’d like to go through your 29 examples in more detail in a bit, but right now there are a few points I’d like to make:

  • I just want to speak up for the utility of small dictionaries. Sometimes people want a quick lookup that may be incomplete, and sometimes people want a longer description that takes more time to review but contains more information. We need both and both can be useful.

  • You don’t actually “know” that your audience will “only” use Google’s definitions. That seems fairly extreme to me. Most are probably going to glark the meaning of words from context, others will use a dead-tree dictionary, others will use an app on their phone, some will use Google, and some will use other internet ones.

  • The mercenary example is confusing the map for the territory - many people have the belief that being motivated by money is bad, or that it’s wrong to compare money with life or other sacred values for a variety of reasons (such as Philip Tetlock’s “taboo tradeoff” idea - some research about it - I know you’ve encountered this before; apparently some people think doing dishes is “sacred”!), and that’s not the fault of the dictionary - it’s their fault for being economically illiterate.


Fair, but Google’s built-in dictionary should at the very least give all the definitions if you click to expand or whatever. Or even just link to a more complete dictionary so you have some indication that you’re not getting the whole story when you google “define XYZ”. And, again, some words are defined wrong, not just incompletely.

Right, let me fix that statement: You know that if someone looks up the word there’s a good chance they’ll do it with the crappy dictionary that Google and others have built in.

Google says “mercenary” as an adjective means “caring about money at the expense of ethics”. I guess this is an example of the definition being incomplete, or overly specific. It gives you the wrong idea about uses of “mercenary” that aren’t meant to be derogatory.

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