Category Archives: Language

Proud Little Englander

(Image from Shutterstock)

(Image from Shutterstock)

Ever wonder what a “Little Englander” is? See BK Marcus’s article on how “words from Victorian England continue to haunt advocates of freedom and peace” in today’s Freeman.

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Filed under History, Language, Libertarian Letters, Libertarian Theory

The Oxford comma: Kerouac vs. Burroughs


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by | July 22, 2013 · 8:00 am

the vagaries of eggcorns

Yesterday’s word of the day at was vaguery:


I’ve never seen this word before. My spell checkers all reject it. When I look it up in my dictionary app, it isn’t there; not only that, but the app tries to correct it to the word with which I’m much more familiar: vagary, for which it is apparently an "eggcorn."

eggcornI love the neologisms that language lovers come up with to categorize the creative mistakes people make. My personal favorite for a while has been mondegreen, but eggcorn may take its place.

The eggcorn, Wikipedia tells us, "is an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker’s dialect." Unlike a malapropism, however, the eggcorn

introduces a meaning that is different from the original, but plausible in the same context, such as “old-timers’ disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease."

The term comes from the substitution of "egg corn" for the word acorn. (You can find a huge list of eggcorns here.) But back to yesterday’s word of the day.

The vagaries of fate (and the vagueness of the Delphic oracle) replaced Croesus's throne with a pyre.

The vagaries of fate (and the vagueness of the Delphic oracle) took Croesus from a royal throne to the pyre of a condemned prisoner of war.

Vagaries (I always encounter the word in the plural) are unpredictable changes, as in the vagaries of fate or the vagaries of the economy. They are not vague. The vagaries of the stock market are ups and downs, profits and losses that we can’t see coming. But while we may not know what those changes will be, we have a very clear understanding of what the possibilities are.

I have often seen writers misuse the word, either to mean "vaguenesses" (or vagueries, if Wiktionary is to be trusted) or in a way that is ambiguous enough that I can’t tell if they intend the word to carry its unpredictable-change meaning.

When King Croesus of Lydia asked the oracle at Delphi whether or not he should confront Cyrus the Great on the battlefield, he was trying to avoid the vagaries (unpredictability) of fate. But what he got back from Delphi were the vagueries (equivocal predictions) of the oracle: if the Lydian king made war on the Persian king, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus took the ambiguous answer one way, and the battle went the other way, destroying Croesus’s own empire. Tricky oracle: either way, she got to keep her job.

So if a writer makes reference to "the vagaries of oracular prophecy," you know he or she probably means vagueries, not vagaries, but it’s probably best to do more than just correct the spelling. A better word choice is needed. And if instead the text you’re editing says, for example, "the vagueries of fate," well, that may or may not be spelled correctly, depending on what the writer means, but it’s probably still best to avoid the vaguery of the word vagueries. Go for something more precise.


Filed under Language, Tips and Tricks

The Power of the Comma

LetsEatGrandmaReuters editor, Tony Tharakan, sneaks a spurious comma into his post on how a comma allowed a Malaysian airline to sneak into the protectionist Indian market (h/t Grammar Girl).

He invites readers to identify his spurious punctuation mark.

Very clever.

I think I’ll follow his lead and invite you to find the (not one but) two (yes, 2!) false commas in this very post.

(Hint: they’re more than unnecessary; they change the meaning of what I’ve written to imply something that is false.)

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Filed under Language, Tips and Tricks

All Hands on Deck

Monday, March 4, was National Grammar Day, and to celebrate held a photo contest to capture the best (and most hilarious) grammar errors that litter our semantic landscape.

Here’s our favorite, slightly augmented:


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Filed under Language, News and Commentary

What Is a Style Sheet?

DigitalChicagoIn the world of digital publishing, style sheet is an ambiguous term.

It originated in the print-publishing industry. A style guide (or stylebook) is a book that lists the important rules of capitalization, punctuation, some basic grammar, some spelling issues, and the syntax of citations in footnotes and endnotes. At Invisible Order, our standard style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style. Other style guides you may have used or at least heard of include the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, the guide for the Modern Language Association (MLA) — even the venerable Strunk & White probably counts.

But there are various reasons a particular publication or company may want to diverge from the rules given in a style guide, while still wanting to remain consistent. If so, they maintain a document for their "house style." To avoid confusion, in IO we call this our house style guide, but the common term from the print world is "style sheet." As the name implies, it was not supposed to be longer than a single sheet of paper. It doesn’t have to be a list of differences from the main style guide; it can also be a list of the most important rules from the main style guide. You can see ours here.

Why would it cause confusion to use the term the way the print world does? Because at Invisible Order, we do both editorial and technological work. And on the technological side, "style sheet" means CSS (i.e., "cascading style sheets"): instructions to a web browser or ebook reader for the visual presentation of text and images.

I’ve worked on teams where someone would say "style sheet," and everyone thought they knew what the term meant, but the coders thought it referred to typeface, character size, and layout, while the writers and copyeditors thought it referred to commas, semicolons, and compound adjectives.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid the ambiguity. On the editorial side, we use the term "style guide" to cover both the Chicago Manual and our house style. We use "CSS" to be unambiguous on the tech side. And when someone talks about a style sheet, I smile and nod and look for an opportunity to make sure I know which kind they’re talking about.


Filed under Ebooks, Language, Publishing, Tips and Tricks

The Language of Learning

Social StudiesMike Reid of has written about the Orwellian manipulation of language in “The Voice of Tyranny.”

As libertarians in the language business, we have both an ideological and very practical attachment to this subject.

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Filed under Education, Language

Censorship Schmensorship

CensorshipButtonIs censorship illiberal?

As with so many simply worded questions, the answer depends on how we define our terms. I don’t say that as a dodge. I don’t consider this issue "merely semantic." I just notice with some annoyance that many people use the same term to mean different things where the difference in meaning is critically important.

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Filed under Language, Publishing