enlightenment, haiku, humor, miracle, philosophy

Miracle: Satori from an MBA

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It started so gaily.

A tongue-in-cheek post about writer’s block led to
 a tongue-in-cheek comment that led to
 a tongue-in-cheek post that led to
 a tongue-in-cheek comment that seemed to
merit a tongue-in-cheek reply.

But the volleyball hit the floor before I could whack it upward.

That last comment in the cascade included the question

What made you the lucky poet whom God speaks through?

While the comment’s “you” is me and my claim to prophecy was indeed tongue-in-cheek (and perceived as such by the commenter), I could not get past the fact that many people do claim (seriously and stridently) to speak for God.  Many of those who are serious and strident are also willing to coerce people they cannot convince.  Many of those who are willing to coerce are also willing to kill people they cannot coerce.

lesson-learnedNON SEQUITUR © 2014 Wiley Ink, Inc.. Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

While I cannot just keep it tongue-in-cheek, I still see the wisdom in Oscar Wilde’s remark that life is too important to be taken seriously.  So I will continue semiseriously.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish literature from either literal truth or bogus claims to tell it.  Now I will tweak the font as a gentle reminder that the rest of this post is just lit.

Management consultants are often hired by executives who want an outsider with “MBA” after their name to bless what they have already decided to do.  While God could bless well enough on His own, He did want advice from a management consultant on how to get out of a procedural rut.

Aware that the complexity of the Real World (and how to thrive in it) was beyond immediate comprehension, He had endowed some otherwise unremarkable creatures with abilities to observe and learn; to imagine and reason; to build bridges and write poems.  He had tried repeatedly to nudge them in good directions by inspiring a few of them, with a little success and a lot of failure.

As He told the consultant:

I keep it simple and age-appropriate, but they oversimplify half of what I tell them and obfuscate the rest.  The Golden Rule gets thru as something to proclaim but not as something to practice.  Absurdly much of what they think has been revealed to them is just their own bigotry and bullshit.

The consultant read over the case histories and concluded that there was a personnel issue:

U tend to inspire people who mean well but score high on credulity and low on humor.  Maybe it would help to go outside the box.  How about inspiring a nerdy atheist who digs sacred music and pushes the envelope of haiku poetry?

God balked at the suggestion:

Does anybody like that exist?

The consultant smiled the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile that sometimes appeared when he was moonlighting as a Zen master.  He leaned forward and spoke softly:

Does anybody like U exist?

At that moment, God attained enlightenment.

enlightenment, haiku, humor

Genesis

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There are many images for the Biblical 6 days of creation, and one of them is particularly apt for illustrating this post’s haiku.  The following photo of an exuberant stained glass window comes from the Witterings blog, which also has a fascinating discussion and beautiful closeup photos of the window’s details.

6-days

When God finally rested, did He just chill out?  In response to

(with some inspiration from The Write Idea | Six days), here are 2 haiku dealing with that question.

First Sabbath
 After 6 hectic days,
 writer’s block dissipated.
 God wrote a haiku.

Thus saith the Lord:
 The world I made
 is bigger and better than
 dogmas can describe.

education, humor, language, photography

Writing Well – Part 8

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Blood & Gold End This Series

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

There are 8 lines that start with “A time to” in the famous Bible passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  I want to add another such line, anywhere in the series.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to comply and a time to resist; a time to obey rules, and a time to defy rules;

One of the strengths of Lynch’s book is the way page 274 (hardcover) notes that

even the schoolmarmish rules can be valuable in the right context

and later that the point of studying English in school is not

correct English but appropriate English—English suited to the occasion

(where I have replaced italics by boldface, which is better for emphasis in sans-serif fonts).

One of the book’s few weaknesses is in the examples of being suited to the occasion that Lynch uses.  While they are appropriate, the lack of any other examples may be misleading.

I believe there are some occasions where some of the rules are genuinely helpful for clear communication with a sincere and attentive audience.  I use [sincere] to describe people who want to know what somebody has to say.  (They are not just looking for excuses to pounce.)  I use [attentive] to indicate that they are not so hung up on assorted inane rules that violations are ipso facto distracting.  (If U know any better words, please suggest them.)  After reading the entire book, I am confident that Lynch and I are in general agreement, with some wiggle room for agreeing to disagree about which rules suit which occasions with sincere and attentive audiences.  The examples of suitability that Lynch uses could give a different impression.

The example of a job interview (between the passages quoted above) and a hasty reading of pages 274 and 275 (hardcover) could mislead students.  Young people tend to be rebellious and skeptical of authority.  Rightly so.  They also tend to be utopian and simplistic about what rebellion might accomplish and whether other people are good guys or bad guys.  Students do “need to become proficient in the standard form of the language” for grubby reasons like job interviews and access to “the corridors of power” and the sad fact that being sincere does not imply being attentive.  (Sometimes men need to wear neckties and women need to wear high heels, tho both would rather not.)  Apart from wishing that Lynch had been more explicit about not-so-grubby reasons for proficiency with some of the rules, I could applaud pages 274 and 275 until my hands bleed.

With curly braces around a place where I paraphrase a longer stretch of text, this section ends with more excerpts from those eloquent pages.

Clarity has to remain paramount; anything that interferes with clarity or precision of expression is a genuine obstacle to communication …

{What Samuel Johnson said about a wise Tory and a wise Whig} can be said of the two camps of language commentators—a wise prescriptivist and a wise descriptivist will agree, despite all the differences in their modes of thinking.  The problem is that the people shouting loudest about language are rarely wise.  The more extreme prescriptivists routinely make the mistake of assuming that standard English, which usually means the language of a certain class from the previous generation, is the only acceptable English.  The more extreme descriptivists make the mistake of assuming there’s nothing special about standard English, that it’s merely one variety among many.  A balanced approach would acknowledge that change happens … and that we should all learn to stop worrying and love language change.

But that approach would also recognize that … readers come with various hang-ups, preconceptions, and biases … A good writer, therefore, won’t wantonly split infinitives—not because infinitives can’t be split, not because it’s some moral outrage, and certainly not because the English language needs to be protected, but simply because split infinitives might distract readers who’ve been taught that they’re wrong.  At the same time, a good writer won’t let these rules get in the way of real communication.  Grace and clarity should always trump pedantry.

Amen to that.  I will bandage my hands and be right back.

Example 8.1: Safety First

Consider the convention of putting the full name and address of the recipient at the start of a professional or business letter, which was a big nuisance in the hard-copy world of my youth.  That standard convention struck me as a silly rule because the recipient would know their own name and address.  I got into the habit of avoiding the nuisance.

One day I sent a professional letter to a colleague (call him Joe Jones), with a CC to another colleague (call him Joe Smith) who might be interested.  My letter had just “Dear Joe:” after my letterhead and the date.  The line saying “CC: Joe Smith” was at the end of the longish letter, so Smith was confused for a while by text that seemed to be putting what Jones had said in Smith’s mouth.  Glad my tone was friendly and polite!

In today’s world (with Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V and printing from soft copy), the rule that letters “should” start with the recipient’s full name and address is no longer such a nuisance.  Apart from contexts where starting that way would be pompous, I would rather make obeying the rule habitual than try to obey it only when needed and then accidentally miss a needed case.

In the same spirit, I tend to write rather formally, as with [is not] rather than [isn’t] (let alone [ain’t]).  But not always.  Sometimes [is not] would be stilted.  Sometimes the zing of a rarely used [ain’t] is wanted.  So be it.

Example 8.2: Going for Gold

gold-1-round
As Part 3 and Part 5 and Part 6 have noted, standard English (plus a few rules against things that are “correct” but confusing) can help in communicating with people who are not native speakers (or who are native speakers from a different subculture).  Standard English is not just for grubby things.  It’s also for communicating ideas that are new and unexpected, ideas that are counterintuitive but perhaps also true and good and beautiful.

baseball, grammar, humor, language

Writing Well – Part 7

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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.
york-wrapper
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.

yogi-berra-1

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.

haiku, humor

Old Pond Revisited

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Someday I hope to post the reasons that I respectfully disagree with the Haiku Society of America’s effort to maintain the distinction between haiku and senryu.  For the moment, responding to

Carpe Diem Universal Jane #14 Basho’s “Old Pond”

is an occasion to hint at one of them with a haiku.  (That’s what I choose to call it.)

Old Pond Revisited
 Basho’s frog can jump
 over lines drawn in the mud.
 Haiku? Senryu?

humor, language

Writing Well – Part 6

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What is the Point of Punctuation?

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.

Speech seems to get along w/o punctuation.  (Not quite, as will be seen shortly.)  As a classic Victor Borge routine illustrates, it would be ludicrous to add noises to speech that correspond directly to punctuation marks in writing (especially if the noises sound like farts).

On the other hand, speech has air quotes and other gestures.  It has pauses and variations in pitch and loudness.  Careful punctuation (including capitalization and font weight as well as little marks like [?] and [,]) conveys similar information in a different code.  But not all punctuation is careful.

Suppose a biologist writes a book with some new contributions to evolutionary theory.  The acknowledgements express gratitude to

my mentors, Darwin and Wallace

While this is ambiguous, knowing what else is in the acknowledgements (and whether the author studied in England when Darwin and Wallace were active) could hide the ambiguity by making one of the following interpretations much more plausible than the other:

  1. my mentors (Darwin and Wallace)
  2. my mentors, Darwin, and Wallace

The serial comma (AKA “Oxford comma”; AKA “Harvard comma”) before [ and] in #2 disambiguates the comma before [ Darwin].  Use it.  Want to add a little more info about your mentors?  Don’t use a comma at all.  The closing parenthesis in #1 makes it clear where the added info ends.  Let the reader get mental exercise by grappling with the book’s ideas rather than its syntax.

The serial comma is not really needed when [red, white, and blue] describes the US flag’s colors.  It does no harm, and there are better uses for the energy expended in deciding whether it is needed.

The ambiguity of the biologist’s acknowledgement appears in a language joke cited by Lynch; the imaginary author expresses gratitude to

my parents, God and Ayn Rand

and we laugh at the nuttiness of the #1 interpretation.  The correctness of the #2 interpretation is so obvious that it is all too easy to dismiss careful punctuation as mere fussiness.  It ain’t.

Lynch has little to say about punctuation beyond mildly endorsing the serial comma where needed and hinting that punctuation does not matter much.  He remarks that Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss is amusing and informative.  He notes that the pretentious subtitle is “wrong” by some standards (because it has no hyphen between [Zero] and [Tolerance]) that are merely parochial conventions of publishers.  I agree with what Lynch says about Truss’s book, but there is more to be said.

Unlike many prescriptivists (and that unfortunate subtitle), Truss really cares about readability and is usually good-humored, as in

Sticklers unite, your have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with.

She is also mellow about “matters of style and preference that are definitely not set in stone” (such as whether I should refer to her book as [Truss’ book] or [Truss’s book]).  The next example also says a little more about her book.

Example 6.1: Rogue Commas and Periods

The rogue comma in Truss’s title comes from a joke on the back cover, not an actual instance of somebody saying something loony because they sprinkle punctuation marks as mindlessly as inept cooks sprinkle chili pepper flakes.  A much more concise version of the joke is posted in Eric Wong’s blog as a to-do list with a line that reads

Throw baby, shower

(People who throw babies on hot humid days can work up a sweat, so showering soon afterwards would be a good idea.)  A strength of Truss’s book is that it is not limited to jokes; it has some real examples of such mindlessness and its ill effects.  Consider a newspaper quote that appears on page 98 (hardcover):

The society decided not to prosecute the owners of the Windsor Safari Park, where animals, have allegedly been fed live to snakes and lions, on legal advice.

Did the lawyer advise the society (not to prosecute) or the park (to feed live animals to snakes and lions)?  The rogue comma makes the quote even more obscure than it would otherwise be.  A readable formulation of what I presume was intended would be

On legal advice, the society decided not to prosecute the owners of the Windsor Safari Park, where animals have allegedly been fed live to snakes and lions.

Mindless sprinkling is not new.  Consider an 1867 church near where I live.  The church has a plaque with its date.  Fair enough.  From a distance, it appears that there is something like a swallows’ nest adhering to the plaque.  Let’s zoom in.  Hmmm.  Somebody went to the trouble of carving and painting a pointless period to go after the year.

old-church_368x370old-church-date_386x370

 Example 6.2: Missing Commas

I have a book (with pictures of scenic places in Scotland) that was produced during a severe comma shortage in the UK.  In particular, it has a comma-deprived caption that says

Attractively set by the River Tweed in the heart of the Tweedale Hills Peebles is justifiably proud of its reputation as a haven for sportsmen.

It was clear that [the Tweedale Hills Peebles is] means the same as either [the Tweedale Hills, Peebles is] or [the Tweedale, Hills Peebles is], with the former seeming more likely.  But I could not be sure.  Maybe the Tweedale is a region that includes the river.  Maybe Hills Peebles is a town in the heart of this region.  The book describes a town named [Peebles] elsewhere, so I gather that Peebles is indeed a town in the Tweedale Hills.

People who know Scottish place names could resolve the ambiguity quickly and easily, perhaps w/o even noticing that there is an ambiguity.  But I noticed and was a little annoyed.  I would have been greatly annoyed if I had really cared about resolving the ambiguity correctly.

A hilarious example of missing commas on a magazine cover is well-known, but the commas on the real cover were photoshopped away in a hoax/joke/prank that went viral.  Comparisons of the real and fake covers can be found here and here; the real cover does not say that Rachel Ray cooks her family and her dog.

I would like to update this post with a funny but real example of missing commas.  Maybe not so funny as the fake magazine cover, but funnier than [Hills Peebles] as the name of a town. Any suggestions?

humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 5

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Ambiguity Sucks!

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.

This post’s subtitle is slightly oversimplified.  Apart from deliberate and obvious ambiguity in language jokes, ambiguity is almost always unwanted and at least a little harmful to clear communication.  It can be disastrous.  Suppose I write something ambiguous that I interpret one way.  Suppose the reader interprets it differently w/o noticing the ambiguity.  (Verbal ambiguities tend to be much less obvious than visual ones.)  Maybe the reader just writes me off as a jerk.  Maybe the reader objects in a way that makes no sense to me because I also do not notice the ambiguity.  Maybe we eventually sort it all out after wasting time in an unpleasant exchange; maybe not.  Ambiguous language can act as if the artist in the famous duck/rabbit illusion sees only the duck while the viewer sees only the rabbit.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion_439x242

  • Jastrow, J. (1899). The mind’s eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312.
  • The soft copy used here has been downloaded, resized, and cropped.

Don’t context and common sense make it obvious how to resolve ambiguities in real life?  Yes and no.  Speech among native speakers on familiar topics may be safe, especially if the conversation has many redundancies and/or few surprizes.  In a casual setting, a hearer who notices an ambiguity can request and get a clarification in real time.  Not all settings are casual.  Not all ambiguities are noticed.  After briefly considering a setting quite unlike casual speech, we will ponder how to cope with ambiguity in the vast middle ground between utterly casual speech and utterly formal prose.

That English has become the global language of science is convenient for anglophones like me.  A few centuries ago, I would have needed to read and write in Latin to communicate with colleagues who did not speak English when asking what’s for dinner.  Now I can write in English, but I must be mindful that readers may not be native speakers and may not understand slang and topical references (especially if I write something still worth reading some years from now).  Common sense will not help readers decide what I really mean if I garble something new and contrary to conventional wisdom.

Blog posts land in a wide swath of middle ground.  Some are close to casual speech; some are researched and/or crafted.  Some are for venting or sharing a self-explanatory image; some do try to say something new and contrary to conventional wisdom.  Much of the care taken by good science writers to avoid ambiguity is also appropriate to some blog posts.  Personally, I find it easier (as well as safer) to make being careful habitual rather than decide whether it really matters in each specific case.

This post’s examples deal with lexicographic ambiguity.  They are good for displaying how a readabilist perspective differs from a descriptivist or prescriptivist perspective.  They are also conveniently short, so I will devote a little space to historical remarks inspired by one of Lynch’s chapters on lexicography.

Chapter 10 begins with a humorous account of the absurdly apocalyptic reaction to the publication of a dictionary in 1961.  True, it was not just any dictionary.  It was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (hereafter just “Webster’s 3-rd”), and it was more explicitly descriptive (rather than prescriptive) than its predecessor.  As Lynch explains in detail, good dictionaries had always been more descriptive than those who were shocked by Webster’s 3-rd noticed.  But Webster’s 3-rd took descriptivism past a tipping point.  Was it open to specific objections about how common (and/or harmless?) some mistakes must be, before they should be just be listed as alternative usages w/o being stigmatized in any way?  Yes.  Was it part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to repopulate the world with licentious ninnies?  No.  Many critics really were that wacky, as Lynch reminded me.

The furor led to the 1962 publication of a compilation by Sledd and Ebbitt of essays pro and con, with the title Dictionaries and That Dictionary. Reading and reacting to that compilation was the best part of the AP English class that capped my high school education.  I came down hard for descriptivism, w/o noticing many amusing ironies that Lynch points out.  Some of the alleged crimes of Webster’s 3-rd had already been committed by the revered Webster’s 2-nd, which had been marketed with authoritarian hype that came back to haunt the publisher in the furor over Webster’s 3-rd.

Lynch’s book came out in 2009, much closer on the calendar to 2017 than to 1961.  Calendar distance can be misleading.  In 2009, the USA was still one of many countries where authoritarian rants could be laughed off.  They did not come from the White House.

Example 5.1: Tummy Troubles

On pages 223 and 224 (hardcover), Lynch uses 3 words to illustrate how a rival dictionary that began as a knee-jerk prescriptivist alternative to Webster’s 3-rd evolved into a rational one.  The same words illustrate the kind of rule a readabilist can recommend.

Consider 3 things I might conceivably say about Donald Trump:

  1. He is nauseating.
  2. He is nauseated.
  3. He is nauseous.

Items #1 and #2 are clear.  But what if I said #3?  From a correct assumption about my politics (and an incorrect assumption about a fondness for older usages), U could infer that #3 from me means what #1 means.  But #3 from somebody else (who likes newer usages and was a dinner guest at the White House) could well mean what #2 means.  However loudly prescriptivists might claim that [nauseous] “really” means what [nauseating] means, the word [nauseous] is hopelessly ambiguous in the real world.  I cannot imagine any situation where this particular ambiguity would be wanted, so I offer a rule:

Never use the word [nauseous].
Use what clearly says whatever U want to say.

Please be assured that I am well aware of the wisdom in the old saying

Never say [never]!

and once was in a situation where I did want to write ambiguously.  But not about tummy troubles.

Example 5.2: Accidental Arson

People for whom English is a second language sometimes say things that native speakers never say.  I have a CD of Chinese music with a track list that displays a translation of each track’s title from Chinese into English.  One of the translations is [Blue Little Flower].  Before seeing that mistake, I had not noticed that native speakers of English put size before color (as in [Little Red Hen] or [big blue eyes]).  The mistaken translation is harmless in the CD track list; I only bring it up to show that nonnative speakers may blunder in ways that native speakers would not.

Suppose I tell the translator that toluene is “inflammable” w/o further explanation.  Suppose the translator is familiar with some pairs of adjectives like [accessible]/[inaccessible] and [voluntary]/[involuntary] (and many more between these).  Suppose the translator looks up [flammable] in an English/Chinese dictionary, extrapolates from the usual effect on meaning of prefixing [i][n] to an adjective, and thinks it safe to have a smoke in a room reeking of glue fumes.  Oops.

Likely?  No.  Possible?  Yes.  At best, to say or write [inflammable] wastes a syllable or 2 keystrokes.  A tiny downside is certain, a huge downside is possible, and there is no upside (unless U want to write weird poetry).

Never use the word [inflammable].
It may be ambiguous to nonnative speakers.