Tag Archives: l’esprit de l’escalier

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge.”

Before I tell my current students about my blog, I have to share the newest addition to my collection.

When I read this sentence, I wondered what one needed to know about punctuality. Be there or be square; be there on time or be late. Was he going to talk about the techniques he knew for being on time, or lament that he knew no such techniques?

Or did he lack confidence in his ability to produce knowledge when required, such as on unannounced quizzes? Is he the type who thinks of the correct answer only after he’s handed in the paper, a phenomenon sort of like l’esprit de l’escalier?

No. What we have here is a fairly resourceful, if misleading, coinage, sort of a back formation. Here’s the rest:

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge. The daughnting task of placing commas and semicolons is a strategic one…”

Punctual and punctuation share the letter cluster “punct,” from punctus, which my old friend Webster’s says is the Latin past participle of pungere, to prick. (Pungent also comes from this root.) They part company with Latin’s evolution into Middle Latin.

Punctual comes from punctualisThe first definition Mr. W. gives for punctual is “relating to or having the nature of a point.” Follows: “being to the point: pointed.” Then, “punctilious.” Then “a. being on time; b. characterized by regular occurrence, as in ‘the punctual small drop of water dripping somewhere in the rear,’ from Thomas Wolfe.” I have actually never heard “punctual” used  in sense 1 or 2—”I like the punctual aspect of a pencil” or “his argument was effective because it was so punctual.” But I, and I suspect most of us, use “punctual” in its fourth Websterian sense; in fact, I can see that minute hand or hour hand touching the pip that marks the hour (etc.); I can see the second hand tripping its way around the outer circle of little pips. Are you punctual? That would mean that when the play begins at 8 p.m., you are in your seat and ready for the show when the little hand is on the 8 and the big hand becomes exactly vertical.

And when I mean “punctilious,” I say “punctilious.” I myself am fairly punctilious when it comes to, um, punctuation.

Webster’s gives a conceptual meaning to lead off its definition of punctuation: “the act of punctuating: the state of being punctuated.” The second definition emphasizes the “art or practice” of inserting punctuation marks. So we go to punctuate and find that its nearest root is the Middle Latin punctuatus, past participle of punctuare, to point, from Latin punctus. To punctuate is “to mark or divide (written matter) with punctuation marks.” Figuratively it can also mean “to break into or interrupt at intervals,” as in Edith Wharton’s “the steady click of her knitting needles punctuated the silence.”

My student didn’t know a word that would mean “punctuation-rules-related” knowledge, so, probably unwittingly, he went all the way to the root of the matter and put his adjectival ending on “punct.” And why not? I found it resourceful. The fact that it was also CONFUSING is the problem, of course.

I will not go on to speculate about the strategic nature of punctuation tasks, but while we’re on the subject of resourcefulness, I think we should take a look at that “daughnting.”

We all have speaking or listening vocabularies that are larger than, or in some ways different from, our writing vocabularies. He has heard the word “daunting,” I am sure. But when it comes to deploying it himself, he is unsure, and this was an in-class impromptu, no SpellCheck available with the click of a mouse. What to do?

He could have substituted a word he knew he could spell. But I like the word “daunting,” and I’ll bet he does too, at least in the sentence he wanted to write. So, my lad, Sound It Out.

The cluster “aunt” should have come to him if he can spell “flaunting,” or “taunting,” or at least “haunting.” But “aunt” as a stand-alone word is less reliable as a pronunciation guide: from New Jersey, I pronounce it just the way I pronounce those insects that swarm all over the picnic blanket, or my kitchen floor on rainy summer days; many people from Connecticut, where we currently are, seem to sigh with pleasure when referring to their ahnts; the British seem to have some regrets, since they also have awnts. Did this variability give my student pause?

Daughtr…caught…taught…now, that’s a consistent pattern. Is THAT how “gh” crept into the relatively uncluttered “daunt”?

He was being punctilious on the basis of the wrong set of points.