Jun 21, 2008

today's grammar links

1. I did not realize that the semicolon's demise has been so long lamented.
From the 1850s onward, it's virtually impossible to find anyone claiming a prevalence of semicolons in writing. We now lived, complained a critic in 1854, in a "fast era" that neglected punctuation; by 1895, the Times took it for granted that "[m]any writers have adopted the plan of punctuating as little as possible." What these writers intuited had an empirical basis: A 1995 study tallying punctuation in period texts found a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.
2. Someday, a search engine will understand semantics.
We should have sympathy for anyone who tries to improve the way humans communicate with computers. Years of trial and error have made people very skilled at constructing Google searches. Most Web users now have a stable of basic tricks—putting phrases in quotes, limiting searches to individual domains—and have learned to pick out quickly what they're looking for from a long page of results. Because we're so good at Googling, a natural-language search engine has a high bar. Sure, Powerset gives me the right answer when I ask, "Who wrote The Godfather?" But so long as I can Google "godfather author" and get CNN's obituary of Mario Puzo as the first result, I'm not about to become a Google apostate.

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