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Staying On Track

Rosie Right

As those of us who work with words well know, trying to get punctuation correct is often discouraging. We begin to wonder: Who cares?

Rosie found a fine statement of why the task is important. It is in the introduction to Frederick Crews' Random House Handbook, second edition. Crews tells us:

"The ideal of correct punctuation may appear at first to be a very small matter. No one, after all, is likely to exclaim that you punctuate like an angel, or to single out your brackets and quotation marks for special praise. In writing, however, small matters count; that is, they count against you if you botch them. After you've decided just what to write and have gotten it down in pointed, well-formed phrases and clauses, one little comma or dash in the wrong place can sabotage your sentence. Punctuation marks are like railroad switches. Their job is the inconspicuous one of allowing sentences to go where a writer intends; if they're noticed at all, it's because something has just plunged off the track."

The good news is that this statement is encouraging to the copy editor. The bad news is that it was written in 1977.

Dreadful word

The Web site The Word Detective ( is a fine place to learn what is known about the origin of words. Recently, the Detective, Evan Morris, discussed the origin of the word hijack. One thing he said is that it is of relatively recent origin. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest reference comes from 1923. At first it was a slang term used by criminals, but how it was formed is unknown. The Word Detective concluded: "Nobody knows, and the theories that have been put forward so far strike me as pretty lame. One attempts to trace hijack to the exclamation 'Hi Jack!' — supposedly the standard greeting offered by a highwayman to his victim." Another theory has been that it refers to how the robber wanted his victim to hold his hands.

Neither theory satisfied the Detective nor does either satisfy us. It would be fine if there had never been a need for the word.

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825, ext. 322), letter (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, Va. 23230), or e-mail

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