Babies, Names, and Snobs
Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.
What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
- Babies, Names, and Snobs
We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
- Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
- Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
- Ambiguity Sucks!
Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
- What is the Point of Punctuation?
Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.
- Yogi Berra’s Paradox
Sometimes bad English is good English that’s good because it’s bad.
- Blood & Gold End This Series
Apart from a concern about the examples on 2 late pages in the book, I could applaud those pages until my hands bleed.
Sorry, but we need a short digression on ways to name a word so we can talk about it. Some details here will also contribute later to the overall project.
Failure to distinguish using a word from talking about it can lead to confusion, as in the following dialog:
Mother : What did you learn in school today?
Small Child : Teacher showed us how to make babies.
Mother : What? WHAT?
Small Child : Drop the Y and add IES.
In casual speech, we can insert “the word” in a few places. That is clunky in extended writing. There are 2 common ways to do the job in writing: quote marks and italics. Using quote marks works well in short documents, but it can be confusing in longer ones that also use quote marks for actual quotations and/or for sarcasm, as in
After an ad blitz from the National Rifle Association rescued his failing campaign, Senator Schmaltz “bravely” defended the right of crazy people to buy assault weapons.
Maybe we should follow Lynch and use the convention popular among those who are most fastidious about the difference between using a word and discussing it: those who often call it the “use/mention distinction” and put words being mentioned (rather than used) in italics. I do not mind doing w/o italics for emphasis because I prefer bold anyway, but italics are also used for titles and for foreign words temporarily imported into English. I want those uses, and I found that Lynch’s use of italics for multiple purposes in quick succession invited confusion.
There is a simple way to give any word or phrase a name that works well here and in many other contexts, tho not universally. Wrap it in square brackets (or curly braces). Choose the wrapper U never (well, hardly ever) use for some other purpose in the current document and run with it. If both wrappers are OK, use square brackets and give the Shift key a rest.
Now I can avoid confusion, even if I want to be emphatic, be sarcastic, and mention words (marking some as foreign), all in the same sentence:
Some snobs flaunt their “education” by saying [Weltanshauung] when [worldview] is all they need.
While not so disgusting as Senator Schmaltz, the flaunting snobs are enemies of clarity. An enemy of my friend is my enemy too, and clarity is both a very dear friend and a concept crucial to amicable resolution of some of the tensions that Lynch explores so ably. So I want to be especially clear and hope U will forgive the digression into metametalanguage. Will put a quick reminder of the square brackets convention early in each subsequent post. The next one will get down to business.
11 thoughts on “Writing Well – Part 2”
Hmm, I’ve never used square brackets before and now, I may try it [if I’m brave].
Haha! Make babies, eh? Great post, Mel. 😀
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Thanks. In ancient times, when IBM had its own goofy way of arranging keyboards, it took bravery and a machete to hack thru snake-infested brambles and type square brackets. Characters codes were inconsistent, too. The hard-won square brackets on the screen would print as other (and weird) characters of paper.
Just for kicks I typed [ metametalanguage ] into a WORD document and ran the spellchecker. I had to get a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.
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