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Yesterday’s whimsy about National Punctuation Day prompted a disappointed comment from our loyal reader Bucky that I had neglected to include the virgule. The sentiment is apparently shared at Language Log, which sprang to the defense of this humble slash.

I meant no disrespect. The virgule has a noble pedigree, appearing, for example, in the title of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. We use it to indicate line breaks when poetry is quoted in ordinary text. It has a number of specialized uses, including a function in Web addresses.

But, as yesterday’s post indicated, I was limiting myself to the standard punctuation marks. Had I included the more specialized ones, I would have labored to get in the ampersand (&), dollar sign ($), asterisk (*), octothorpe (#) and others, with predictable consequences for the intelligibility of the post. Editing — self-editing — is always a set of choices about what to include and what to exclude.

Still, I would be the last to deny the virgule its place in the sun.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (7)


Octothorpe. That's what it's called.

Thank you, again, Mr. McIntyre. I will be able to stop calling it "the little tic-tac-toe mark."

Rarely a day goes by that I fail to learn something on this blog. (Why is it called "octothorpe? Doesn't that indicate "eight"? There are nine little boxes...)

There are various accoutns of the origin of the word. Here's a comprehensive one:

There you go...I was counting the boxes; engineers count the points.

This explains so much about my life.

Octothorpe was new to me also. I find it a little odd that American voice mail systems call it a pound sign because who uses it for pounds? The more common uses are for sharps in music or the word number. Hash sign is the term used in UK voice mails, which is a descriptive rather than a functional term, but if I could have my way, it would be sharp or number sign. I wonder whether the mark was first used in music or somewhere else.

Aha, according to Wikipedia (caveat lector), both the sharp and the flat derive from the letter b:

That's good enough for me. There must have been a Frankish word in the 12th century for the square b that later became the so-called "pound sign."

Actually, as Copy Editor, you would be the one to deny the virgule its place in The Baltimore Sun.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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