Perspectives and Punctuations

“So what I said was true,” says Obi-Wan to Luke, “from a certain point of view.”

A friend of mine is making a whole bunch of hats to sell. She has her sewing machine humming away, and every day she adds to the mound of hats, each one a unique design. It’s looking very Bartholomew Cubbins-like around her place.

Well, the  other day when I stopped by, she asked, “Kyou no mitai?” — meaning, in Japanese, “Do you want to see today’s?” — that is, did I want to see the hats she’d made that day?

But here’s the way my mind made the word-breaks: “Kyou nomitai?” — “Do you want to drink [alcohol] today?” To which my response was, “Huh?!” (That’s not the sort of question she would typically ask!) We eventually had a good laugh over it. Or at least I did. Her reaction was more a rolling of the eyes. But it all ended well as I admired the day’s hats.

The experience reminded me of something I heard last week. Supposedly a scientific study was done (though it wasn’t verifiably cited — I suspect maybe someone made up the part about its being an actual study) in which a teacher wrote the following sentence on the chalkboard and asked students to punctuate it:

A woman without her man is nothing

According to this tale I heard, the male students mostly did it this way:

A woman without her man is nothing.

And the female students rendered it as:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.


Next story: my dad used to tell me about a prisoner in the old Soviet Union who was set free because the jailer in charge of him received orders without punctuation. The commander sent this telegram:


The commander had intended: “Release impossible. To be sent to Siberia.”

The jailer understood: “Release. Impossible to be sent to Siberia.”

Again, as the old Italian proverb goes: “It may not be true, but it makes a good story.”


Finally, another story of my dad’s: A traveler wandered into town and got along pretty well there, but one feature of the antique setting always mystified him, and no one seemed inclined to say much about the subject. In the center of the ramshackle town where the dusty streets converged, visible to all like some icon of a long-forgotten religion, was a weathered standing stone, tall and narrow, its surface pitted with untold years of sun and rain, freezings and thaws. And still clearly visible, these letters etched into it:




Some travelers who came into the town seemed to understand the signficance of the inscription and would nod or even walk away chuckling, perhaps at some esoteric spiritual enlightenment. Others, like the first traveler, could only scratch their heads and go look for clues in Leonardo’s paintings.

The message for us as writers in all this: have fun with words. Be aware that what you take for granted about a sentence you’ve written may be understood in a nearly opposite way by your readers — do all you can to cover all bases, which normally means bouncing your stories off lots of test readers. And finally, as an editor’s rejection letter once brusquely advised me: “Learn standard punctuation.”

Oh! One more somewhat related note: In “The Star Shard,” now appearing monthly in Cricket Magazine, the main character’s name is Cymbril. I know how I pronounce the name, and I never imagined anyone would think to pronounce it any differently. But during the editing process, the editor asked me whether the C was hard or soft — was it “SYMbril” or “KYMbril”? (The editor, by the way, was pronouncing it the opposite of how I was.) I told her my way, but I suggested the Bugs in the margins of Cricket not tell the readers how to pronounce it. The editor agreed.

So then, on Cricket‘s Web site where readers are writing in with questions (, I put the same question to readers: How do you pronounce Cymbril’s name? So far, the results are 50/50 — the Symbril school and the Kymbril school! What do you think?


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14 Responses to “Perspectives and Punctuations”

  1. Daylily Says:

    I vote for Symbril. As a musician, I naturally think of the word “cymbal.” Some less pleasant words also come to mind, such as “cynic” and “cyanide.”

  2. Eunice Says:

    My dad used to tell me about a punctuation exercise he remembered from grade school:

    Put Mother said the flowers on the table

    Is it: “Put,” Mother said, “the flowers on the table.”

    Or: “Put Mother,” said the flowers, “on the table.”

  3. Tandemcat Says:

    Yes–Symbril Symbal. The same thing happened to me and my class when we were working through part of Fred’s first novel, _Threshold of Twilight_ (I did that two or three times with various classes). I think it was the last time we did it that Fred happened to be in the States, and we used a speaker phone and had him “join the class.” I had always assumed that the ogre’s name (Geryon) was to be pronounced like “can-yon,” with a hard “G”–“Ger-yon.” But his way was with a soft “G” and three syllables–“Jer-ry-on”!

  4. Shelley Says:

    Symbril. Definitely. Kymbril sounds like an umbrella or a very popular girl of the sort that frightened me in highschool. I don’t know why.
    But Symbril–probably because of cymbal, partly–sounds like a shimmering rush like spring rain, like April, like a sibilant breeze or breath. Sparkling bits showering down. Have you ever hit a cymbal and seen it shudder, throwing off shiny cascades of sound? Symbril, tendril, tremble, thimble, nimble, slender, timbre.

    And here is Coleridge on the subject:

    And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
    Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
    And here were forests ancient as the hills,
    Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

    So that’s my very biased opinion : )

  5. fsdthreshold Says:

    Actually, it was JEE-ree-on, and it came from some pronunciation guide I looked up the word in–although I just checked both Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary, and neither of them lists the name. I need to check my mythology dictionary, which I left over at a friend’s house. But as I told Tandemcat back then, I actually like his pronunciation better. There are times when it’s a good thing a piece of writing has its own life, quite apart from the author. In fact, that’s a good thing, period.

    About Mother and the flowers on the table, the old Germans on my mom’s side of the family were always making English sentences like “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.”

    I’m squirming to ring in on the Cymbril issue, but I’ll hold off for now.

    I was really shocked, when I watched a documentary on which Christopher Tolkien was talking, that he kept saying “mythology” with the first syllable having a long i, just like the word “my.” I’d never, ever heard it pronounced that way before! We Yanks all pronounce it with a short i, and I’d assumed the whole world did.

    And speaking of Tolkien, I’m positive I read as a kid from an authoritative source that the Tolkien family pronounces the name with three syllables, “TOL-key-en,” with the last syllable being more or less a schwa sound. But my experience is that most people, even Tolkien scholars, don’t pronounce it that way. (I have heard a few who must have read the same thing I did!) Even the Oxford dictionary says “TOL-keen”–and oughtn’t the Oxford dictionary KNOW? But I sincerely believe that, on this point, the Oxford dictionary is wrong. Heh, heh! [Historic law suit: Durbin v. the OED]

  6. fsdthreshold Says:

    Shelley, I’m sorry about the awful juxtaposition of these replies — when I was writing the one just above this one, yours hadn’t come in yet. I’m going to embarrass you here, but I just have to say to everyone reading this blog: remember this name — Shelley. It’s easy to remember, right? — same spelling as Percy Bysshe. Who we have here is the most awesome soon-to-be-published writer I’ve ever met. I’m serious. You WILL know her name within the next 10 years. And when you do, I want you all to remember that you met her first right here on MY blog.

  7. I rarely mapped myself Says:

    Tolkien (TOL-keen is how Rainer Unwin, son of the man who first published The Hobbit, pronounced it. He is probably a good source.
    Of course, the stiff-lipped Brits are always screwing up the English language! The differences between the written and spoken word can change syntax, too.
    For instance: What is this thing called love?
    A Yank may say: What is this thing called ‘love’? while Johnny Bull asks What is this thing called, love?
    Toklien based Sindarin on Welsh; Quenya on Finnish (reputedly THE most difficult second language to learn). In both cases proper nouns beginning with ‘C’ are prounced as a hard ‘K’.
    HOWEVER, Symbril is Symbril, whether Fred likes it or not 🙂
    And, dear Tandemcat, I sat at the Council of Wizards and struck up (amazingly, considering the circumstances) a respectful comradeship with one JEE-ree-on.

  8. John Says:

    Add another vote for SYM-bril. My reasoning is not as poetic as the rest of you. When I’m reading for fun, I’m too durn lazy to try and remember the pronunciation rules of other cultures.

  9. Eunice Says:

    When I was renting a room in a woman’s home, I took a call for her. The caller remarked, “Oh, you must be the roomer.”

    I’ve always wished I’d had the nerve to say, “No, I’m a fact!”

    I could probably think of roomers, Mother and flowers examples all day, but I guess the purpose here is to vote. I vote for SYM-bril. No reason. It’s just the way I read it!

  10. fsdthreshold Says:

    Very soon now I’m going to tell you how I pronounce Cymbril! But regarding Tolkien, let’s just keep watching documentaries: sooner or later, one of the living Tolkiens is going to say the family name, and it will sound like “TOLL-key-en.”

  11. Daylily Says:

    On punctuation, what about Ephesians 4:28? Is it “Let him that stole, steal no more; let him work with his hands” or “Let him that stole, steal; no more let him work with his hands”? 🙂

  12. I rarely mapped myself Says:

    There has been a massive faux pas on my part regarding JRR’s last name.
    I was insipired to watch two different documentaries on the famous author, and Rainer Unwin was misquoted by me. He actually pronounces it ‘TOLL-key-en’ and, to further cement that Fred would win his lawsuit with the OED (Webster’s is the ‘real’ dictionary, but I am biased!) Father John says his own name thus: TOLL-key-en. I watched it carefully thrice, and TOLL-key-en is how a living family member says it, which is good enough for me.
    BTW — anybody have the latest on The Hobbit? Last I heard it was to filmed in two parts, with a Christmas 2010 release date and that Ian McKellan was to be Gandalf and that WETA would provide all the effects again.
    One thing we can know for sure it this: John Rhys Davies will NOT be Thorin or any other dwarf!
    Now, if Mr. Durbin would be so kind — is is SYMbril or KYMbril?!?!?!?

  13. fsdthreshold Says:

    Daylily, that’s hilarious about the Ephesians verse!
    Oh, and Tandemcat — I checked my mythology dictionary, and it gives the pronunciation as either JEE-ri-on or GER-i-on — so, while the 3 syllables are present in both, the hard G is allowed in the second possibility. And your pronunciation does sound more like an ogre’s name. AND my mythology dictionary isn’t talking about my character, so it’s neither here nor there! Heh, heh!
    And “I rarely mapped,” THANK YOU for that confirmation of the Tolkien pronunciation! I KNEW it wasn’t just my imagination, and it mystifies me how almost NO ONE pronounces the name correctly. As a kid, I wasn’t tapped into any deep research or esoteric knowledge. Even today, I’ve read probably about 30% of what any self-respecting Tolkien enthusiast has read. But other than my circle of friends from high school (who all said “TOLL-key-en”), I’ve met only ONE literary professional who pronounces the name the way I do, a magazine editor I met at the last World Fantasy Convention.
    Speaking of Tolkien, on the _Cricket_ site, one of the kids was asking what _The Hobbit_ was about, since we were all talking about it, and no one answered her for several days, so I had the distinct pleasure of jumping in and doing so. I was about the age of the average _Cricket_ reader when I discovered _The Hobbit_, so it’s really exciting to be recommending this timeless book to them. (Will any of us ever forget our first forays into Middle-earth? Was reading ever so magical?)
    Also, “I rarely mapped”–I TOTALLY agree with you about Webster’s dictionary. It’s far and away my favorite. When I graduated from high school, my parents presented me with my own hardback copy to take to college. I have it right here with me now, inscribed to me in my mom’s handwriting on June 6, 1984. After my mom passed away, I also brought her newer, deluxe edition of Webster’s (which my dad gave her) with me to Japan, so those are side-by-side on my shelf. And completing the set is the Oxford, which a good friend over here gave me for my birthday one year. It’s nice to compare the three (which I often do), and I’m glad to have the British perspective on things, too–but Webster’s is the king of dictionaries. For one thing, it shows syllabic divisions, which the Oxford doesn’t do. But the best feature of Webster’s is that it includes pictures. For things like architectural structures, parts of a suit of armor, etc., pictures truly are worth a thousand words. Yes, if I were going to be marooned on a desert island and could take only one dictionary with me, it would be Webster’s.
    About _The Hobbit_’s movie version — the latest you’ve heard is the same as what I’ve heard. (Except I hadn’t heard that about John Rhys-Davies. The way they had him doubling as Gimli and Treebeard, I half-figured they’d have him playing all 13 Dwarves plus Beorn!) [That was a joke. :-)]

  14. fsdthreshold Says:

    And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Um…guys? Hello? Wake up, wake up! This is the BIG MOMENT!

    You are all absolutely . . . CORRECT! I pronounce Cymbril with a soft C — “SYMbril.” She’s a singer, and her name is based on “cymbal” and on “timbrel.” I never even dreamed anyone might think the C was hard. (I always strive, when creating character names, to make them absolutely clear as to how they should be pronounced. [Remember all the fuss about “Hermione”?–and that’s a real name–it’s not even as if J.K.R. made it up!]) But the _Cricket_ editor was thinking of the word “Celt.” And sure enough, when I asked the question to readers on the _Cricket_ site, two rang in right away with opposite pronunciations.

    It’s interesting that here on my blog, there was not even a single vote for the hard K. Further evidence that this is where all the COOL people gather. (Oops! I hope my editor doesn’t see this!–You’re very, very cool, too, D.V.! Every millionth cool person thinks it’s pronounced with a hard K, so you’re one in a million!)

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