Sunday, January 19, 2014

Et al., etc.: Why English is hard.

I wanted to let you know a couple of things before we get going here. First, today is the final day to enter the giveaway from the blog tour for Crosswind. Head on over to the Finishing Faeries website right now, before you forget, and enter the contest at the bottom of the page. Go on, click the link. I'll wait.

Back now? Cool. Because the other announcement is that the trailer for Undertow is live on YouTube, as of really late last night. Enjoy.

Now on with this week's post.

One of the things that bugs me about getting older is finding out that a whole lot of my cherished rules of English grammar are nothing but style choices.

Nic McPhee,
Take the rule about whether punctuation goes inside quotation marks or outside of them. Way back in grade school, I was taught that if the punctuation mark was a part of the quote, it went inside the quote marks; otherwise, it went outside.

This has always made sense to me. If something is an exact quote, then whatever's inside the quote marks ought not to have anything extraneous -- and if it does, then it ought to be clearly marked. So if you leave out a few words, you insert an ellipsis; if the quote didn't start with a capital letter and you're putting it at the front of your sentence, or if did but you aren't, then you put the letter that changed in brackets.

I've always treated periods and commas this way, too. If it was part of the original quotation, then I put the comma or period inside the quote marks. But if I'm just quoting a word or two and they happen to fall at the end of my sentence, then I would put the period outside the quotes.

Turns out that's UK style. The gods alone know how UK style got into 1960s-vintage textbooks in Michigan City, Indiana, in the good old U.S. of A., but there you have it.

The worst part is that I didn't realize I was "wrong" until an American friend ranted about it on her Facebook page awhile back. Fifty-odd years of writing, a fair bit of it professional, and only now am I discovering I'm wrong. (I'm trying to break myself of the habit, honest.)

But the truth is that English is a living language, and so stuff changes all the time. I suppose I should be grateful. It's just that sometimes it's hard to keep up.

So let's turn to a language that hasn't changed in thousands of years: Latin.

Not many indie authors use the abbreviations etc. and et al. -- but I do see them at work. Et al., particularly, is used in formal writing. But just so we're on the same page, punctuation-wise, I thought I'd explain a few things about them.

First, et al. means "and others." Et is the Latin word for "and." It's not an abbreviation. Okay? So it doesn't ever get a period after it. That would be like putting a period after "and" every time you use it in a sentence.

The al. part of et al. is, however, an abbreviation -- for alii (masculine plural), aliae (feminine plural), and/or alia (neuter plural). I'm not going to try to explain masculine/feminine/neuter nouns here; suffice it to say that Latin has 'em (as does Czech, by the way). As English speakers, all we really need to be concerned with is that al. is an abbreviation and et is not. So the proper way to punctuate the phrase is like so:
et al.
Clear so far? Okay.

So now, clever thing that you are, you have recognized that the first two letters of etc. are the same as good old et that we just talked about. And you're correct. In Latin, etc. is short for et cetera, which means "and the rest" or "and other things."

"So how come," you are now going to ask me, "etc. gets slammed together into one word and et al. doesn't?"

Good question, and the answer is probably similar to how, in English, "has not" turned into hasn't and "I am" turned into I'm. It's a contraction, sort of. Typesetters, who liked to save a space anywhere they could, dropped the space in et c. at some point, and etc. eventually became common usage.

Got that? Et al. is a two-word abbreviation with no period after et; etc. is a one-word abbreviation that gets a period. Good. Okay.

Now. There's one more sticky thing about these two, and it comes up when you stick them in the middle of a sentence. They take commas on both sides. If you have a phrase like "the rain, the park, and other things make me very happy," and you want to replace and other things with etc. to save space, you need a comma both before and after etc. Like so:

The rain, the park, etc., make me very happy.

Don't be tempted to forget that second comma. Just like with a quote or some parenthetical material, you need to mark off the end of the Latin you've just inserted. Hence, the closing comma.

Okay? Cool. Here's your reward for suffering through this post. As a bonus, it's approximately the same vintage as the textbook that taught me UK style. Have a great week, everyone.

This very happy bloggy moment was brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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