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The mailbag includes questions about tin – and Tintin

Fall has arrived. It's time to winnow the Word Play files.

A recent column about tin and the comic-strip character Tintin prompted William Vance to recall the phrase Tin Pan Alley, in print by 1908. It alluded to the tinny sound of cheap pianos used by songwriters and hustlers who, working for music publishers in New York City, struggled to interest customers in the latest songs available on sheet music. Tin Pan Alley first referred to NYC's 28th Street, home of a number of song publishers, but the term expanded to cover any places where songwriters toiled to produce tomorrow's hits.

Tin pops up in a useful term from Easter Island in the Pascuan language. According to Adam Jacot de Boinod's book The Meaning of Tingo, tingo means "to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by borrowing them." Dagwood Bumstead and neighbour Herb Woodley played that trick all the time in the comic strip Blondie.

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The "tin" column also noted, with a grumble, that the name of Tintin's dog was changed from Milou in the original French to Snowy in English. Reader Pierre Hampshire, who calls the decision not to stick with Milou "inexcusable," points out a bit of word play I had missed. "Milou sounds exactly like mi-loup, or half-wolf," he writes.

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How inclusive is include? Reader Tom Priestly was surprised by a sentence that began, "The Cecilia String Quartet includes," and then listed all four names. Include is traditionally followed by only a partial list, he said. If a full list is given, the verb should be comprise or consist of. The duo includes Jerry. The duo comprises Tom and Jerry.

Priestly is right. The question is how strictly the distinction is observed.

Comprise is simple enough. It has to include everything. The whole comprises the parts. The 26-volume encyclopedia comprises 26 volumes.

Include is on a longer leash. The American Heritage Dictionary says include "more often implies an incomplete listing." Note the qualification "more often." To writers who argue that include can never be followed by all the ingredients, it replies: "This restriction is too strong. Include does not rule out the possibility of a complete listing. It's just that comprise [is preferred in such cases because it] rules out all ambiguity."

The caution against ambiguity recurs in H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage and, word for word, in R.W. Burchfield's later revision of that work. "Good writers" say comprise when considering the whole and include when considering the part, Fowler wrote. With include, "there is no presumption (though it is often the fact) that all or even most of the components are mentioned."

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Bryan A. Garner is less forgiving. Include, he says, is now widely "misused" as a comprehensive verb. If you use it that way, generations of reference books may mutter "tut tut" in a variety of querulous fonts.

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As a lover of puzzles – I can't start the day without The Globe's mathematical KenKen – I am impressed by Toronto electronics engineer Les Foeldessy's creation of a crossword puzzle without standard clues. A book of the puzzles, which he calls Gryptics, is to be published this month by New York's Puzzle Wright Press under the title Next-Generation Crosswords.

The puzzle's grid is usually six squares by six. Several letters, most of them placed outside the grid, indicate how each word begins or ends; one or two letters are placed on the grid as a hint. Using "logic and pattern recognition" (Foeldessy's words), the player guesses the six words that fit horizontally and the six that interlock vertically. A sample is on offer at

The trickiest part, as with KenKen, is not to make rash assumptions. More than one word begins and ends with the given letters (sleeveless/ speechless, swallowing/ sweltering), as I remembered too late while filling in Foeldessy's puzzles with a pen.

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