baseball, grammar, humor, language

Writing Well – Part 7

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.   Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

Yogi Berra’s Paradox

Here are links to previous posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.

Whatever hinders communication is bad English to me.  While context may keep them from being very harmful, many grammar goofs are indeed bad English.  But obfuscation is bad English too.  Lynch quotes an example on page 20 (hardcover).  The sentence is 136 words long, has no grammar goofs, purports to be a scholarly statement about philosophy, and is laughably unintelligible.  It was an unintentional winner in a Bad Writing Contest.

Another example of bad English that may be “correct” from a language prig’s viewpoint is use of the word [nauseous].  See Example 5.1 in Part 5 in this series.  Likewise for use of the word [inflammable].  See Example 5.2.

Is bad grammar always bad English?  Not quite.  Lynch quotes Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s statement before his 1927 death sentence on page 21 (hardcover).  Lynch rightly admires the “tragic dignity” of Vanzetti’s roughly hewn eloquence.

This post deals with a paradox about bad English.  A visual hint is provided by the red squiggle in the image below.
Unless U want to doze off, U might want to drink some coffee (and maybe eat some chocolate) before reading the following cure for insomnia.

Gähnenschlafen’s Law

The relative standings of the participants at the conclusion of a game cannot be predicted with certainty at any time prior to the conclusion.  The word [game] should be interpreted very broadly, as any kind of competitive interaction.  For example, an illness may be considered to be a game with the patient and healthcare providers on one team, opposed by the illness along with the side effects of medical interventions on the other team.  Furthermore, …

Gähnenschlafen’s Law is more familiar and less soporific when stated in another way.  Two versions are widely quoted.

Yogi Berra’s Law
{The game|It} ain’t over til it’s over.


Please be assured that I fervently admire things like Newton’s Laws and Coulomb’s Law (as well as Murphy’s Law), so I do not use the word [Law] lightly.  I have already posted on the importance of Yogi Berra’s Law, and I might haul out Gähnenschlafen’s Law and some coffee if I needed to explain Yogi Berra’s Law to someone who did not understand it quickly.  But I doubt that the need would arise.  What is happening here?  I believe the answer is relevant to some issues addressed in Lynch’s book.  Imitating Yogi’s style as well as I can, I will try to state the answer concisely.  The examples will (I hope!) clarify

Yogi Berra’s Paradox
Sometimes bad English is good English
that’s good because it’s bad.

BTW, [Gähnenschlafen] is a name I made up, so as sound funny to anglophones.  If U happen to know that [Gähnen] (in German) means what [yawn] means and [schlafen] means what [sleep] means, so much the better.  I hope I did not accidentally blunder upon a real German name.

Example 7.1: Flaky Punctuation

Consider the last 2 paragraphs in the first section in Chapter 15 of Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson:

The personal and political miseries of 1781 and 1782–the invasions by the British, the aspersions on his character, and the death of his wife–might well have sent lesser men back to their plantations in bitterness and in anger at the injustice of it all.

Not Jefferson.  He chose advance over retreat.

Declarative sentences ordinarily have a subject and a verb.  A language prig might complain about punctuating the tiny fragment [Not Jefferson.] like a declarative sentence.  But it works here.  (A language prig might also complain that I should have written [However,] rather than [But].)  I did not notice any other instance of flaky punctuation in the entire book (505 pages hardcover, not counting the notes).

Routinely.  Punctuating.  Single.  Words.  Or.  Other.  Tiny.  Fragments.  As.  Sentences.  Really.  Is.  Bad.  English.  That.  Could.  Wear.  Out.  The.  Shift.  And.  Period.  Keys.

A good way to convey emphasis calmly in speech is to exaggerate the minuscule pauses between words.  Occasional flaky punctuation of a short stretch of writing can do the same job, as in

Ain’t.  Gonna.  Happen.

Don’t overdo it.

Example 7.2: Using Taboo Words

Near the end of Chapter 11, Lynch quotes approvingly from a Lenny Bruce monolog about ethnic slurs, with emphasis on the N-word.  Bruce says that

… the word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness …

and suggests that an avalanche of absurd uses of the N-word could sweep away its “meaning” and its nastiness.

I wish life was that simple.  Historically, the N-word was used freely and frequently by white people when speaking to or about black people.  It was a nasty slur long before becoming something that bigots were shamed into avoiding when a microphone was on.

While the contention that an avalanche of absurd uses of a taboo word can bury it is seriously oversimplified as an antidote to the poison in the N-word, there is a lesson here.  Now that some comedians cannot go half a minute w/o a gratuitous use of the F-word, the F-word has lost what little utility it had.  Now it is just verbal clutter, no longer taboo (in some circles) but still offensive (to those who are offended by clutter).

An unexpected but appropriate word can be enlightening.  Taboo words are unexpected in some contexts.  Appropriateness is trickier.  Should we opt for a polite way to say the same thing if we can find one that is readily understood?  Mostly, yes.  But neither [is not] nor [isn’t] would be an adequate replacement for [ain’t] in Yogi Berra’s Law.

Example 7.3: Paradox Lost

Inconsistencies and tautologies are also bad English, most of the time.  But they are like flaky punctuation or taboo words.  Used rarely in a few well-chosen places, these kinds of bad English can become good English, partly because they may give a little jolt to the reader who has become too complacent while cruising along with good English.

Whether by accident or design, Yogi Berra had a knack for using inconsistency and tautology (as well as [ain’t]) to make a point in a memorable way.  Consider #36 in my favorite list of Yogi Berra quotes:

I never said most of the things I said.

The quote is flagrantly inconsistent.  As a former wannabe mathematician, I normally loathe inconsistency.  But here I feel an urge to interpolate instead, and I succeed:

I never said most of the things people think I said.

In its more general version, Yogi Berra’s Law is #3 on my favorite list.  The law’s pronoun [It] has no referent (which is weird outside of weather talk); the taboo word [ain’t] is used; the whole thing is a tautology when taken literally.  But even nerds like me do not take it literally.  We feel an urge to reinterpret the first use of [over] and arrive at something like Gähnenschlafen’s Law.  Instead of directly remembering the wisdom in all the details of Gähnenschlafen’s Law, we can remember Yogi Berra’s Law and adapt it to cope with whatever has just now hit the fan.

Many things that prigs say we should never do are actually things we should rarely do.


6 thoughts on “Writing Well – Part 7

  1. I enjoy reading your Writing Well series. You approach those subjects with brilliance and humor. I do have one beef about the taboo words. I just wanted to add that Yogi Berra only completed school on the 8th grade level. Doesn’t that fact make his use of “ain’t” understandable since his formal education was limited? I’m not sure Bera used that taboo word for emphasis as much as it was probably due to his lack of education.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dunno whether Yogi picked up any informal self-directed education beyond grade 8; some people do. Many of the things he said do sound as if they are just funny failures to say whatever he really wanted to say, and it is possible that [ain’t] to him was like [is not] to me.

      Maybe the quirky eloquence and wisdom of so many other things he said was just an unlikely coincidence. It’s also not clear how many Yogi quotes are accurate anyway. Saying “Whether by accident or design” (and “had a knack for” rather than my first draft’s “was a master at”) was my attempt to cover my ass w/o much fuss.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! I agree. Yogi’s quotes are astute in a quirky way.

        Yes, you cover your ass well, Mel. I must say, though, some of my professor’s asses were cute, so no need to cover yours all the time. 😜❤

        Liked by 1 person

Care to comment?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s