Booklist Editor at Large Written English

Raise Your Hand If You Hate Emoticons

Emoticons: to use or not to use?

I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile– some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1969

Emoticons, those smiling/frowning/Homer Simpson faces that come out of the punctuation marks on your keyboard, are a different sort of written communication. They can add warmth to a chilly business e-mail, or liven up a chat in a more dignified fashion than that abominable LOL.

However much I disapprove of out-loud LOLs and OMGs, I did always love how ROTFLMAO reverberated in my brain after I would read it on screen. Something about it reminds me of Animal from the Muppets:


Emoticons and Impropriety
Just like this blog, emoticons tread a fine line between informality and professionalism. They give you more power over how your words will be interpreted. But when is it appropriate to insert one into electronic communication? Is their use ever required? What do they say about the writer? It’s been over ten years since e-mail came into common use: are there any hard-and-fast rules on when it’s okay to put a smiley face on that “nice to meet you?”

SEND, a 2007 book on e-mail by two publishing veterans, has some great suggestions. At the time of publication, the New Yorker even said they had “put themselves forward as the genre’s Strunk and White” (and you know how I feel about Strunk and White).

For David Shipley, deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed page editor of The New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, clarity goes hand-in-hand with e-mail etiquette.

If you don’t consciously insert tone into an email, a kind of universal default tone won’t automatically be conveyed. Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties.

Ergo, emoticons.

How Far Should You Emote?
Sometimes that insertion of tone is awkward, especially if it implies that your own words aren’t good enough to communicate your meaning. I agree with Shipley and Schwalbe, however, that a little awkwardness can be necessary. It’s certainly preferable to offending or otherwise alienating your reader. Indeed, after reading that Talk of the Town piece on their book, I started using far more exclamation points in my own e-mails, as they recommend, to illustrate enthusiasm for a project or emphasize my receptiveness to new ideas.

But I stopped short of using a Homer Simpson face ( ~(_8^(|) to soften up my blunders. Although Shipley and Schwalbe rubber-stamp their use, I am still chary with emoticons. You never know what your addressee might think.

When my boyfriend and I first courted over e-mail, I sent him long and literary letters lacking any parenthetical faces. Could I have been trying to keep him on his toes during those uncertain months of long distance? Or were we just doing our best to inject some old-fashioned epistolary romance into an electronic age?

Perhaps I just guessed early what I learned today: he hates emoticons.

Booklist Editor at Large

Patron Saint of Books?

Today is World Book (and Copyright) Day, as designated by UNESCO in 1995. It’s also St. George’s Day in Great Britain, a celebration of Englishness in the name of the saint who slew the dragon.

These holidays may sound disparate, but each actually depends upon the other.

Why April 23?

We get the importance of this date from Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain with its own language. The Catalans have been celebrating St. George’s Day as la diada de Sant Jordi since at least the 15th century with the giving of roses to represent the tradition of “courtly love.” The Catalan government has a good explanation of how the book first got involved:

In 1926 Spain established April 23rd as the ‘Dia del Llibre’ to commemorate the death of Cervantes, imitating England, where the same day was also celebrated because it coincided with the date of the death of Shakespeare. The celebration quickly became popular in Barcelona and spread to the rest of Catalonia, but the original idea lost importance as it coincided with the day of the Patron Saint. However, while the festival was celebrated very little and even disappeared in some areas, in Catalonia it has become one of the most celebrated festivals, and at the same time, it has promoted and extended the sale of books in Catalan.

That last sentence is very true: a large percentage of yearly book sales in Catalonia take place on this date (one site puts the number at “over half”).

Get Out There and Read!

Sant Jordi is a day to enjoy the spring, to enjoy love and life by buying books and roses for those most special to you. I have celebrated Sant Jordi several times in Barcelona and it’s like a citywide Valentine’s Day, more inclusive than our Anglo-Saxon holiday of cards and chocolate. The Catalans ascribe meaning to the color of the rose, just as the English did in the Victorian era, so that the flowers can represent many forms of love: yellow for friendship, red for romance, and more.

World Book Day takes some of that spirit beyond the Spanish border. While Catalan women spend the day today searching for the perfect book to buy for the men they love, UNESCO has ensured that we each take at least a moment to think about literature today.

When you do, dear reader, I hope you’ll remember us translators, too: the life behind the books.

Happy reading! Happy spring!

Booklist Editor at Large Subject-Specific

World Atlas of Language Structures

Today I’m making an exception to the usual anglo-centrism of my blog, for a very good reason:

The World Atlas of Language Structures is now online.

Think about it. Over 2,500 languages with over 6,500 references, and all of them treated equally. Thanks to the Max Planck Digital Library and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, both in Germany, you can browse through as many languages as you like for free.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll find at

number of consonants (from 6 to 122), presence of rare sounds like ö and ü, tone systems, gender categories, plural formation, number of cases, verbal future and past forms, imperatives, word order, passives, numerals, colour terms, writing systems, and more

I predict that linguaphiles everywhere will be jumping on this one. Paging languagehat!

The full press release is here.

Booklist Editor at Large Written English

The One Book You Need to Become a Great Writer…

…is this one:

Seriously, that’s it.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was given to me for Christmas when I was thirteen years old. This book is practical, straightforward, and indispensable. I internalized its contents, and by the time I was in college the simple rules in this book had become intuitive standards I applied to my writing by pure habit.

You can devour The Elements of Style in two hours, and that’s the expanded fourth edition. I got a skinnier one in my stocking in 1993 and was through with it in an hour. Then I read it again.

BUY THIS BOOK. You’ll like it. You’ll use it. You’ll treasure this tiny gem of a book, and you won’t pay more than ten dollars if you buy it through the links in this post. This edition is less than five, but lacks the modern updates that you’ll find from Roger Angell in the edition pictured above.

Housekeeping stuff:
Since Friday and Monday are both public holidays here in Germany, the next new Belletra post will be coming on Tuesday of next week.

Why not curl up with some Strunk and White in the meantime?

Booklist Spoken English Written English

How I Supercharged My Vocabulary with a Picture Book

I confess: I had never heard the word “eristic” before I wrote yesterday’s post. But its meaning was easy for me to guess.

Even though it has probably been twenty years since I read them, the first four letters are ingrained in my memory.

Eris, the goddess of strife. Eris, who threw an apple inscribed “for the fairest” among three Greek goddesses just to watch the sparks fly. Eris, whose fiendish whim brought on the Trojan War.

Guessed yet? The word “eristic” describes argument for argument’s sake.

It’s all in here:

(pic links to Amazon)

The legends in this book and the graphic illustrations–Argos and his hundred eyes, Cronus eating babies–have stuck in my brain and made language come alive for me. Here’s what it could do for you:


  1. Pour cereal
  2. Pour milk
  3. Eat cereal, dread work, contemplate sick day


  1. Pour cereal
  2. OMG CEREAL, that must come from CERES, goddess of the harvest and Persephone’s mom! And mean Hades in the underworld with all the dead people kidnapped Persephone and then her mom Ceres was so sad without Persephone that she wouldn’t let any plants grow!
  3. And then Hades would have let Persephone go but Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds so Hades only let her go half the year. So when Persephone’s down in the underworld away from her mom Ceres gets so sad that she won’t let anything grow again and that’s why we have fall and winter!
  4. Quit work, use Persephone’s story as inspiration for next novel.

Rinse and repeat for words like narcissistic, mercurial, arachnid, bacchanal, saturnine, aphrodisiac…well, you get the point.

If you don’t have D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths already, YOU NEED IT.

I was reading this book long before I had any inkling of how to pronounce the last names of its authors (dee-awl-YAIR? dull air?). Coming across words like “eristic” so many years later, and feeling the stories flood back, has reminded me of how much one book can make a difference when it comes to good writing. That’s why I’m going to be posting more of the ones that I consider to have had a direct impact on my skills today.

This is the first post in an occasional series of book recommendations to improve your writing, your style, your vocabulary or a combination of all three. All posts will be tagged as “booklist,” in case you want to blitz through and start your library with more than one. I’ve also signed up as an Amazon Associate, so not only will you be doing yourself a favor if you click through the image and make a purchase, you’ll also be helping me to keep this blog going.

Now get offline and get reading!