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This is a forum to discuss the gray areas of the English language for which you would not find answers easily in dictionaries or other reference books. You can browse through the latest questions and comments below. If you have a question of your own, please submit it here.

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If our organization is called Help for Kids and we want to use the abbreviation HFK . . . is this correct usage in this sentence: HFK’ activities will start in the summer. With the K standing for Kids and Kids being plural, would this be correct use of the apostrophe at the end of HFK’?

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I have a sentence with which I am struggling because I am not sure if I can use both a colon and semi-colon in it. However, I want everything in one sentence and cannot figure out what other punctuation I should use. Here’s the sentence with names and details altered for anonymity.

“I am indebted to my family, especially my cousins: Jane Smith, my first teacher, without whom I would not be where I am today; and John Smith, my second teacher, who taught me more than he could have possibly imagined.”

The colon is setting up a list and the semi-colon is separating items in the list that contain commas. Thoughts? Thanks in advance.

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I recently gave a class of six year olds a spelling test and saw that many of the children were spelling words with the correct letters but had used capital letters at the beginning, middle or end of a word. Is a word that has the correct letters but some of them are in capitals still considered to be correctly spelled?

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“Do’s and Don’t's” is a popular phrase, but the punctuation of it seem to vary for “don’t's”. What should it be?




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While waiting for the subway to arrive, I noticed this mysterious symbol between “PRINCE” and “ST.” This is not a mistake of any kind. All of the signs at the station had this little triangle, and whoever created these signs put a significant amount of effort in inserting it. (Just look at how it is tiled.) Obviously this was something important for the artist who created this mosaic sign. What could it mean? It could not be a dash. Firstly, a dash would be inappropriate for this context. Secondly, if it were meant as a dash, it would have been much easier to draw a straight line out of these square tiles (instead of a triangle).

(FYI: This is New York City.)

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I constantly see apostrophes used in ways I believe are incorrect. I am wondering anyone can confirm for me, though. For example, I often see “Temperatures will reach the high 90′s today...”

Aren’t apostrophes only used to show possession or in contractions? For example, “This sweet ride isn’t (cont.) mine; it’s (cont) Jessica’s (poss).”

Also, how would I word something to the effect that everyone is coming to the house that my husband, Mike, and I own?

“Everyone is coming to Mike’s and my house.”?

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Let us say I received a box of apples from Joe Jones, Ltd.

Would I write:

“Joe Jones, Ltd., sent a box of apples.” or

“Joes Jones, Ltd. sent a box of apples.”?

Notice that the first example has one more comma.


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Is it proper to hyphenate percentages if they’re modifiers? Example - a 20 percent increase. I’m trying to determine this by Associated Press standards.

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Are common pet-names capitalized as per proper names i.e. when writing to a loved one, which of the two is the better option? -Hello darling- or -Hello Darling-

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When do you capitalize directions? ie) Uncle Henry flew south for the winter.

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age vs. aged

Which is correct? aged 45 years or over OR aged 45 years or more


Your apology is noted.


Although the addition of "got" may not follow the strictest syntax rules I believe it's use can be justified here because it serves as an intensifier that emphasizes the need to act is greater than the use of "have" alone connotes.
Also, when the contraction "I've" is used then the addition of "got" improves the word structure sonically by preserving the normal rhythm of a sentence because the contraction works as a single word that serves as the noun, or rather, pronoun of the sentence and leaves a need for another verb.

@WW Sorry, I assumed 'cacography' was just a made-up word - it's all Greek to me ;}

@jayles - OK, let's deal with cacography first. Yes, literally, in Greek, it means what you say, and that seems to be the standard dictionary definition, but it also seems to have taken on a new meaning, at least in linguistics:

"Cacography is deliberate comic misspelling, a type of humour similar to malapropism ... A common usage of cacography is to caricature illiterate speakers." Wikipedia.

Languages are creative like that, giving new meanings to adopted words, and so HS was perfectly correct.

You ask HS why he is resorting to Greek. But I could also ask why these (for me, at least) weird Anglish-inspired words have been noticeably creeping back into your own comments recently ("spider-dread" - come on, get real!). For me they have even less to do with natural English than Greek loan words, and I very much doubt that "normal people" have much time for them either.

English is a glorious mix - and I relish it. I have no objection to keeping things simple, but personally I hate this idea of language purism as much as I hate pedantry. Leave the language alone, it's just fine as it is!

I wouldn't have mentioned this if you hadn't brought the subject up :). And as for Stephen Fry, he has made one of the best commentaries on English I've ever seen:

mixing semicolon and em dash

Not an answer, but a comment on the use of dashes in British English. As far as I know BrE doesn't talk much about em-dashes, for example you won't often see -- (substituting for an em-dash) from British contributors to forums etc. We simply use a dash, in writing the same length as a en-dash, (but on a computer just using a single hyphen), and we put spaces either side - like that, for example. And they don't seem to be used nearly as much as in American English.

From one website on British grammar:

'The double dash encloses supplementary information in the same way as round brackets –
"Alaska – purchased from Russia in 1867 and granted statehood in 1959 – comprises some 586,000 square miles and 624,000 people."
But brackets are preferred in formal scripts.'

This is from the Chicago Manual of Style Online:

"note that it is also the common British practice to use an en dash with a word space on either side where American publishers would use an em dash closed up to the surrounding words"

But I've noticed that the Economist has recently started using M-dashes without gaps. In the online version they are obviously M-dashes, and there's no real problem, but in the print edition they don't seem to be as wide. This is really confusing my students (and me, to be honest), who think they are hyphens, reading the two separate words as one hyphenated word. It turns out that Polish, like British English always uses gaps. I'm beginning to wonder about other European languages. WW will have to investigate!

The exact origin of the continuous aspect in English is debatable. The theory that I find most useful is that it corresponds to the dialect German eg: "Sie war am Buegeln" = She was an-ironing. This exists in English in phrases like:
"A-hunting we wil go"; "The cocks were a-crowing"; and so on.
The "a-" prefix was, as I understand it, originally a preposition as in "asleep", "awake", "abed", and so forth. In time the prefix fell by the wayside to form the continuous aspect, but the meaning of being in the process/activity remained.
The reason I favor this explanation is that it makes sense of the so-called "present perfect continuous" - "What have you been doing? I've been hunting. (cf I've been a-hunting.) The root idea behind the continuous is still to this day about being engaged in an activity or process.
Thus if one could say:
"How's the burger, Rastus?" "I'm a-loving it"
then it would all make sense. That it does not quite - as "loving" is not really an activity unless it involves bodily movement - demonstrates the underlying meaning of the continuous.

The whole thrust of the original question is misguided. Why do we need "a word" for "intentionally incorrect spellling". Surely the "word" is "intentionally incorrect spelling" if that is what one means. Why bury the meaning in some obscure word that few know or understand? Where does this mentality come from? We seem to do it all the time; for example "arachnophobia"? Who are we kidding? It's just very Stephen Fry and snobby. What's so wrong with "fear of spiders" - or even "spider-dread" or something that a normal person would understand. After all, isn't language for communicating with normal people? Why make it so esoteric?

@HS Why are you resorting to Greek? Why do you think that we must find and borrow a Greek/Latin word in order to make up a "proper" word for something? Why not just use an English expression like "willful misspelling" or something?
BTW "cacography" would just mean "bad writing" IIRC - 'kakos' means 'bad' and 'graphein' is to write cf 'cacophony' = bad sound