Posts Tagged 'english'

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVIII

Roman numerals are great for game titles, and that’s about it.

There are a few reasons I saved this one for last. First, I titled all my posts with Roman numerals knowing I would be ironically denouncing them at the end. Second, the number 28 uses more characters than the first 27, and it helps prove my point when I have to type six characters instead of two in the title. And finally, it’s been quite a month typing one entry per day on topics I can be pretty obsessed with, and I thought a lighter subject like this would be a good way to finish it off.

Roman numerals fell out of vogue several hundred years ago, replaced primarily by the Arabic numbers we use today. The advantages of Arabic numerals over Roman are many. For one, Roman numerals use only three characters to depict every number until 40 (the added character, L, means 50, but the character itself is used in the number 40), and then a new character is added only a handful of times until reaching the largest character, M, representing one thousand (although, as with L, M is used in writing 900, which is 100 less than M represents). So, writing each number from 1 to 899, a scant six characters are used, resulting in long strings of characters to express numbers often less daunting than their characters make them out to be.

Another disadvantage to Roman numerals is the inconsistency with which increasing numbers are portrayed. While our Arabic numbers get longer as the value goes up, some simple additions with Roman characters, such as 98 to 100, seem to shrink considerably in size: from XCVIII to XCIX to C. This inconsistent correlation of numbers to characters makes it difficult to judge the size of a number by its length.

Because the largest number assigned a character in the Roman numbering system is 1,000, it would be difficult to show numbers used when discussing scientific matters, such as the age of the earth, the distance from here to Neptune, or the number of molecules in a cheese sandwich. Because Roman numerals add to themselves rather than multiply, the way our current numeric system works, a row of eight Ms would equal 8,000, while a one followed by just as many zeros would equal one hundred million. This also means scientific notation, our system for representing gigantic numbers with superscript exponents, is out of the question with Roman numerals.

And on top of all that, the Roman numeral system had no zero. So while there was no way to give an accurate depiction of the size of a piece of sand, there was also no number that would describe it to be essentially nothing.

Why am I even talking about all this? Are we in danger of an uprising of this archaic numbering system? Probably not, but there are times where Roman numerals are used in the interest of artistic license, despite their awkward and inadequate ways. Probably the few most common uses still employed today are in series of movies, books and video games, as long as the series doesn’t go much further than a dozen installments, and clock faces, most notably Big Ben.

Not only are these numerals foreign enough to hinder recognition in the first place, but here they’ve been further designed into obscurity as to render the numbers completely unreadable. The V appears to be II, and the X looks like I with a small line through the middle. Clocks like this are found in many places–there was one on my living room wall when I was a kid–and most aren’t much easier to read, even close up. But since most people are familiar with the placement of these numbers without having to read them–and, as Swatch proved in the ’80s, the numbers don’t even really have to be there at all–it’s not necessary to read the numbers, just the position of the hands relative to the top of the clock. Apparently using more legible Arabic numerals, while expediting the whole point of having a clock in the first place, just wouldn’t be as beautiful.

Many video game series use Roman numerals for each sequel beyond the first release. Because the need to quickly identify a game’s place in a series based on its cover rarely becomes an ordeal, this usage presents much less of a problem than when used on clock faces. And because most game series usually come to an end before getting into the teens, large lines of Roman characters hardly overwhelm the title. One series quickly approaching that threshold is Square Enix’s most popular franchise. Final Fantasy VI is a succinct title for a video game, while Final Fantasy XVIII (scheduled for release in 2016) is going to start feeling a little number-heavy. The Super Bowl, already well beyond the point at which most people can easily identify its title (this month marked number XLIII, or 43), shows how out of hand this usage can quickly become.

The same way sans serif typefaces are typically used as display fonts, Roman numerals serve, if anywhere at all, as display numbers. Trying to parse a string of Roman characters greatly impedes legibility in a block of text, but in small doses–and in small numbers–they’re acceptable as the titles of series, and very little else. Otherwise, they come across as pretentious and self-important, further detaching the writer from the reader.


28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVI

Punctuation should be used sparingly for efficient reading.

A lot of thought is often put into interaction design, from information hierarchy to iconography to computer feedback. Experts are hired to check every last detail of the user experience, making sure those who use a product, visit a website or subscribe to a service encounter the fewest possible problems. But all too often, one overlooked aspect lies in the content itself–not in the way information is typeset or presented on a page, but the way the copy is structured.

One reason for this oversight is the idea that textual information, although commonly the primary reason behind a design, is still thought to be separate from the design itself, akin to a beautifully garnished and decorated platter used to present a meal still in the shape of the can from which it was removed. Poorly written text will look bad no matter how much thought is given to placement, spacing and choice of typeface.

I discussed quotation marks in a previous entry, but other forms of punctuation, when used judiciously and in the proper context, can also give the viewer an immediate feeling of professionalism, subconscious as it may be. At the same time, sloppy and unnecessary punctuation can portray a more amateur feeling.

Every punctuation mark has its place within a passage of text, calling from the viewer a unique reaction based on the understanding of how that punctuation has been used in the past. Because our language is still evolving, guidelines need to be reconsidered every so often; standards that held true just a few decades ago may be considered out of date–and therefore out of touch with the audience–in today’s practices. To explain what makes one idea acceptable and another obsolete, a few real-world metaphors can be applied to punctuation.

The colon is, loosely speaking, the literary equivalent of the equal sign; what comes after the colon should equal what came before. For instance:

Pear: the greatest fruit in the world.

It was then I learned the truth: my father was a ninja.

This shows that the word or phrase on the left (pear or truth) is equal to the definition or explanation on the right, that the two mean the same thing. However, the colon should not be used in the context of a full sentence:

The pear is the greatest fruit in the world.

It was then I learned my father was a ninja.

In other cases, the colon is usually reserved for when the author has something of great importance, such as a revelation, or a list of items or names that probably wouldn’t be spoken in a casual conversation.

Think of the colon as a spotlight on stage–the really bright kind used to suddenly reveal the face of the murderer or highlight the fact that the priceless vase has been stolen. It’s something you’d take a, extra breath before continuing, either for dramatic effect or because you’ve got a lot to say. Most people wouldn’t write, “In my bag, I’ve got: a banana.” (You might if you were preparing your audience for a list of items for comic effect.) But if your bag was packed with a long list of goods, you’d be more prone to taking that breath in the middle. “In my bag, I’ve got: (breath) a banana, some rope, a lunchbox full of dog food, a protractor, some sidewalk chalk, half a peanut butter cookie and a yo-yo.” This would be the perfect time to use a colon, which tells the reader to prepare for a substantial list of items.

My friend TJ designed this college catalog, and put his name on the final page. Because he’s the only one who worked on it, his name was all alone, and the sentence didn’t need that colon, which breaks the flow of a complete sentence. Now, if he’d dropped the word by, the colon would be a more natural fit for that context (Catalog design: TJ Barlow).

If the colon is like a spotlight, the ellipsis is like a drum roll, preparing the reader to expect something important and worth waiting for. Ellipses are used to signify a pause in one’s speech, and readers will most likely imagine a dramatic pause when a series of dots is encountered. There are a few places ellipses might be called for, but because of the gap they place within a line of speech, they are often more typographically bothersome than useful. Physically three times wider than the space a period occupies, an ellipsis can interrupt the flow of text more than a writer might expect.

Another problem with ellipses is a sense of forced excitement they present, much like placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that doesn’t carry the giddy exuberance of a kid with a new pair of roller skates. This type of punctuation seems awkward and out of place when teamed up with sentences that just don’t call for them.

This sign warns drivers of the possibility of having their cars towed, and explicitly states who will be paying the bill, but ending the sentence with an ellipsis implies a deeper connotation or serious consequence. It’s meant to force an air of authority, the kind of threat a mother ends with “or else,” without actually saying what that else will be. But it’s stated pretty clearly here, and I can’t think of anything else that needs to be . The sentence is fairly complete (although it could use an article and an apostrophe), and nothing else really needs to be said.

There’s another punctuation mark that is slowly fading out of fashion, but it still appears from time to time: periods used in contractions and initials. My friend TJ uses periods in his own name above, and the extra dots are little more than stumbling blocks for the reader’s eyes. Many abbreviations, such as Mr, Mrs, Jr, Sr, etc (especially etc) have outgrown the need for periods; we all know what they mean without the help of added punctuation, and they often get in the way when ending a sentence with an abbreviated word–does that sentence end with the word etc. or does the dot indicate that it’s a truncated word? In the spotlight / drum roll analogy, the period used in places other than the end of a sentence could be thought of as a skipped beat during a music performance. Not jazz or improvisational music, either, a performance otherwise devoid of skipped beats.

Years ago, we stopped writing to-day and placing an apostrophe in the word ‘phone, because those words became common enough to understand without the help of added marks telling use how to interpret them. Type is meant to emulate the flow of speech, but also to present that speech in a more polished manner than we are expected to deliver in casual conversation. If anything calls for a polished, professional voice, it’s the text we provide to our customers, our market groups and our users. Any amount of text cluttered with unnecessary punctuation will lower the chance that it will be read and taken seriously.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part V

Quotation marks are for quotations, not slogans.

It took quite a long time for the English language to evolve into its present state. Hopefully, it’s still in the process. There are rules I’d love to see thrown out or changed, such as the proper spelling of judgement (that isn’t it) or the particularly nitpicky one about not beginning sentences with conjunctions. But this is about something different–where quotation marks do and do not belong.

We use quotation marks for several reasons: to show that we are citing exactly what someone has said, to declare ironic usage of a word or phrase, to signify nicknames, and to indicate song and chapter titles in albums and books.

Where do quotes not belong? First and foremost, company mottos and mantras. The reason isn’t so much that they’re unnecessary (although they are) but because, as stated above, one usage of quotes is to show irony, or inform others that you’re joking.

“It was my friend’s birthday, so I had to get him a card. But I was mad at him, so I put quotes around the word happy.”

This was a line from Demetri Martin’s These Are Jokes. It illustrates the very reason why we don’t use them in company slogans. To do so says, effectively, “I’m joking about this part.” Basically, you’re saying the opposite.

I saw this on a high seat in a restaurant. I’ll ignore its selective use of capitals, complete lack of punctuation, awkward balance and inconsistent linespacing, but the quotes serve absolutely no purpose. It took slightly more effort to add them for no improvement in clarity or impact. I think the reason we see this sort of thing so often is because the quotes, in this case, don’t hinder the message either. They’re just there.

I wish I could have grabbed a picture of the sign that used to be up at the convenience store near my house:



Quotation marks misused in company slogans are not only a source of humor and slight irritation, but they’re a often good way of distinguishing the more professional companies from those that don’t read into how users will take to their message. Nike, McDonald’s, Microsoft . . . we’ve seen them and their mantras a thousand times in a thousand places, but never do we see them in quotes–because nobody is literally saying it. It’s more of an attitude than something that must be voiced.

Like I said earlier, our language is always shifting. A hundred, even fifty years ago, you would have found quotes all over advertisements. Like the idea of dangling prepositions, it’s just something you have to let go of.



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