history, politics, riff

Riff on a Churchill Quote

On 2020-11-07 (around 11:30 AM), CNN declares that Joe Biden has won the electoral vote and will be the next POTUS.  Of course, the state-by-state vote counts that determine the electoral vote are not yet official.  Lawsuits and recounts loom.  Violence from “militia” thugs goaded by Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is possible.  And so on.

Tho I am not quite old enough to have been following the news on 1942-11-10, I remember what Winston Churchill said then to mark the victory at El Alamein:

“Now this is not the end.
It is not even the beginning of the end.
But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

That first victory in 1942 ended the beginning of the long hard slog to rid the world of fascism.  The riddance was temporary.  Perhaps 2020 can begin the long hard slog to repair the damage done to the USA by about four decades of coddling plutocrats and four years of coddling bigots.  Perhaps 2020 can begin to free the USA and other nations from creeping fascism disguised as conservatism.

For the moment anyway, here is the answer to the question about 2020 that I posed soon after the disastrous 2016 election:
s-s-b-386x342

Our flag is still there.

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history, politics

I Cried Today

Tho I do not tear up easily, I have teared up and even cried a little at many moments in this dismal year.  Today I sobbed and moaned and gushed tears.  Like I did nearly six years ago, when my wife died.  This time it was not personal grief.
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As soon as I could see clearly again, I started this post.  Tho I am a compulsive polisher and normally let things marinate for many hours before I revisit and revise, I pressed the [Publish] button after less than an hour.  I had to get back to the battle, to doing what little I can to help organizations like VoteVets fight for constitutional democracy against the corrupt fascist in the White House and his enablers.

history, photography, politics, serendipity

Machu Pichu Endures

The colors of glistening pineapple and watermelon may distract the eye from something unusual about how these chunks of fruit fell into a bowl.  Let’s remove most of the color from the image and nudge a few other sliders in a photo editor.  Does the accidental arrangement look somewhat familiar?  Ever been to Machu Pichu?
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While I have only been to Machu Pichu vicariously, I have long admired the skills and can-do spirit of Inca stonemasons who made sturdy walls from precisely aligned stones of various shapes.  Precise alignment is a lot harder with stone than with fruit.

The exquisitely crafted walls of Machu Pichu’s now-roofless buildings have endured centuries of frost heaves and neglect.  What high purposes might the buildings have served?  Were any of them schools or hospitals or research institutes?

Panorama of Machu Picchu ruins in Cuzco, Peru

Nope.  The buildings were summer homes for the emperor and courtiers top 0.1% and temples think tanks for the priests pundits who told them that their wealth and privileges were rewards for pleasing the gods creating jobs.  Machu Pichu endures in more ways than one.

Remember in November.

Image Sources for Machu Pichu

(reblog), haiku, photography, politics, tanka

Twilight Tanka

In context, the phrase «world slipping into darkness» in a recent challenge refers to serene twilight in the natural world.  In the political world, the same phrase has an utterly different mood.  What to do?  Write a tanka and dig deeper for ways to fight the political world’s descent into darkness.
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The challenge is reblogged (in effect) below.  I was jolted by the clash between the serenity of the image and the political interpretation of a phrase in the poem.

ebbing-radiance-near-lions-bay-british-columbia_840x520

In the ebbing radiance
Of a world slipping into darkness
The light is most vivid
Capable of magiks
Unknown to daylight

© Patrick Jennings | Radiance ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #243

Radiance and Darkness
|In sure and certain hope
|that light returns tomorrow,
|sky’s radiance fades.
|
|But slipping into darkness
|is not serene for nations.

 

humor, photography, politics

Lines Plan Their Day

«Let’s twist and ripple across the computer screen
in an exuberant pseudorandom dance
that won’t repeat for centuries.»

twist-ripple-bird_840x788

«Maybe tomorrow.  Still sore from yesterday.
I pulled red line duty and
people stepped on me as they crossed.»

red-line_840x344

«Hmmm.  Let’s just mark a few straight edges
of flat surfaces in the real world
until U feel better.»
«I’m up for that if we keep the angles simple.»

corner-grn-pink-align_800x564

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that I have improved the format of some silliness posted on 2018-05-01, in response to a challenge with the word [line].  The improvements appear above, in response to a new challenge:

Line ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #240

The bad news is that the serious undercurrent in my silliness is even more topical than before.  In so many high places in so many nations, fascists and their enablers have been stampeding across red lines.  One of many recent examples in the USA is Donald Trump’s order that hospitals bypass the CDC and send COVID-19 data only to a database run by Trump loyalists.  With predictable consequences.

After a rueful chuckle about how it feels to be a red line nowadays, we can get back to disinfecting surfaces and other little chores.  Like saving constitutional democracy.

Remember in November.

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photography, politics

Freedom for Whom?

«Normally I let people interpret my poems as they will, but here I will be crystal clear on one point.»  So says Patrick Jennings in #236 of his Pic and a Word Challenge series, and I concur.  My poem in response to the challenge has a final couplet that could be misinterpreted, so I too will try to be crystal clear afterward.
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Freedom ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #236

Breonna Taylor and George Floyd did not enjoy freedoms that a white guy like me could easily take for granted.

Freedom?
|Freedom to be left alone,
|not be shot in my own home.
|Freedom from the nagging fear
|that a racist cop is near.
|Freedom to salute the flag,
|or to burn it like a rag?

flag_716x632

The Pledge of Allegiance ends with an aspiration, not a fact.  Maybe some flag burnings are meant to protest America’s failure to provide liberty and justice for all, but they don’t look like that.  They look like flag burnings in Tehran, like hatred of the republic for which it stands.

Tho ardent about civil liberties, I can accept prosecution of flag burners for violating local ordinances against open burning and the air pollution it causes.  Don’t give jerks who alienate potential allies an excuse to fancy themselves as martyrs for freedom of speech.

Close the Camps_2019-07-02_200x304

There are respectful ways to protest with the flag.  Fly it upside down.  Display artwork that incorporates it, such as the moving “Close the Camps” stickers (designed by artist Pablo Stanley) that were distributed by MoveOn.org in 2017.

Above all, remember that the worst defilers of the flag are the bigots and plutocrats who hide behind it, while denying others the freedoms it represents.

Remember in November.

flowers, history, photography, politics

Memorial Day 2020

Originally a day to remember and honor the fallen in the American Civil War, Memorial Day expanded to include later wars.  Now it should expand beyond the military.  In the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers risk their lives and sometimes die, defending the rest of us from the disease itself and the societal collapse it could cause.
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lavender-memorial_840x483

In wartime, ignorant and impulsive pols can somehow make horrendous situations even worse.  So it is with the pandemic.  Medical workers (including EMT-s and hospital support staff as well as doctors and nurses) have been sent into battle with inadequate personal protective equipment for themselves and inadequate intensive care facilities for their patients.  Stockpiling such stuff would cost money.  Might even need to raise taxes on those who can work from home, if they need to work at all.  And so on.

It’s so much easier to claim that all is well until all Hell breaks loose, then claim that all will be well when the weather warms up, if we just go back to work and drink a little bleach.

The governors of some states have stepped up.  Learning from each other and from countries (like New Zealand and South Korea) that took the threat seriously, they made tough decisions.  They include a few Republicans (like Hogan in Maryland and DeWine in Ohio) and more Democrats.  It is too early to be sure, but they just might have saved the USA from criminal incompetence in the White House.  Federalism works.

The doctor in Wuhan who first sounded the alarm about COVID-19 was punished for “spreading rumors” and later died of the disease.  Remember him also today, along with our essential civilian workers and those who serve in our military.  Remember that dark money and gerrymandering and vote suppression have sickened American democracy but not yet killed it.

Remember in November.

flag-rhodo-1_840x1062

haiku, humor, philosophy, politics, seasons

Vampire Bunny at a Haiku Party

Follow tradition or push the envelope?  Normal or weird?  (Normalcy spiked with weirdness?)  Haiku or senryu?  This crowd does not fret about simplistic dichotomies.  Let’s get some saké and join the party.
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Haiku poems often want (and sometimes need) to interact with images or prose, as in haiga or haibun.  Here is a gathering of ten haiku that could stand alone if they had to.  (Some would rather not.)  They have been invited to come here and interact with just each other, while enjoying some good saké (or whatever).

momokawa_crop_vampire-bunny_840x684

Overlay © Incognito – Russian Federation | 123RF Stock Photo

A haiku inspired by an image may or may not speak to readers who have not seen the image.  It’s hard for the writer to make this call objectively.  That’s OK.  As Stephen Jay Gould often told readers of his articles in Natural History, perfect objectivity is a myth anyway.  (The path from my raw data to “facts” that matter to me depends on my cultural baggage and personal experience.)  Rather than pretend that my judgement calls are objective, I try to compensate for my biases.  In particular, some of my haiku were not invited to the party because they might be too dependent on their inspirations to stand alone.  That’s OK too.  Unlike me, they are not compulsively self-reliant.

Like some of the other guests, October was originally posted in a haiga or haibun context.  That’s why the title it wears as a name tag is also a link.  (When a pale yellow background indicates that several such guests arrived together from the same place, only one of them has a link.)  Click on a link to see the guest(s) interact with an image or some prose that adds to the experience of the haiku.

Seen in Spring
|Kelly green moss on
|rocks near the clear quiet stream
|with water striders 
|October
|Bright sun and cool air;
|azure skies and pumpkin pies.
|Leaves fall in glory. 
Who Miscounted?
|This so-called “haiku”
|ignores five-seven-five, so
|it’s not a haiku.
 
|Deciduous
|Lifeless?  No, leafless.
|Trees hold their breath all winter,
|exhale leaves in spring. 
This is Not Apollo 13
|Is failure an option?
|No, it is a given.
|But we will still try. 
|No Pots of Gold
|Seek ends of rainbows.
|You will not find them? Okay.
|The quest is enough. 
Fiscal Responsibility
|Debts rise; incomes fall.
|Hard times demand bold action:
|tax cuts for the rich! 
|Seize the Breeze
|Helicopter seeds
|fall from maples and travel
|far enough, this once. 
What’s for Lunch?
|Mosquitoes in flight
|are seen as meat on the hoof
|by a dragonfly. 
|Vampire Bunny
|With coprophagy
|as the alternative,
|you might suck blood too. 
history, politics

Independence Day, 2019

It’s a pardonable oversimplification: celebrating “the” day the Continental Congress held some truths to be self-evident.  Yes, they were all privileged white males.  Yes, some lived off the toil of slaves.  But their concept of public service was not based on pandering to bigotry and whoring for campaign contributions.
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Knowingly or not, the signers of the Declaration of Independence started something big, still far from finished, and now critically endangered.  They started the long hard slog to build a nation with liberty and justice for all.

336541 - flag and fireworks,

© Scott David Patterson | 123RF Stock Photo

Happy July 4th!

politics

Yard Sign Defies Winter

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I bought a “Warren 2020” yard sign from PCCC with the intention of putting it out after snow season.  Then I went outside the box.

yard-sign-sunny-closeup_840x625

yard-sign-wire_300x221

yard-sign-shade_300x578

I do not recall why I bought a spool of electric fence wire decades ago.  (Half a mile of the stuff is more than a lifetime supply for me.)  Like duct tape, the wire has many other uses.  For example, it makes rugged rustproof twist ties.

The sign’s stand is lashed to a fence corner (well away from any driveway) with several short lengths of electric fence wire.  The bottom of the sign is 4 feet above the ground, safe from plows as well as snow throwers.  The sign is easily read from cars going in both directions on my street.  While the sign won’t convince anybody that Elizabeth Warren should be the next POTUS, it has good graphics and might spark some interest.

The list of candidates for the Dems’ 2020 presidential nomination is long and growing.  The Dems may not nominate my first (or second or third or …) choice, but I will not sulk.  However flawed (s)he may be, the nominee will be a patriotic adult.  Unlike the incumbent.

history, music, politics

Battle Hymn of the Re…

At best, those who fight to save the Republic from the Age of Trumpery will get tired and sweaty.  My update of Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics is something they can sing in the shower.  I tried that.  It helps.
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The song commonly known as Greensleaves has been given several other titles and sets of lyrics.  The melody is too good to be bound by any one version of the song’s words.  Likewise for the song commonly known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which got the familiar title and lyrics from the five stanzas published by Julia Ward Howe in 1862.  Details and diction bind her words to the Civil War era, but the melody and rhythm break free.

As a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and another by the US Army Field Band illustrate, there is considerable variety in musical phrasing and how the singers are accompanied (as well as which 2 or 3 stanzas are sung).  I tried to write 3 stanzas appropriate for 2017 that really could be sung well by people who know how to sing.  The choir or the field band could give a rousing performance of my updated battle hymn.

A few of Howe’s phrases still resonate; I have used them (and a few other fragments of American societal hymnody) in my updated title and lyrics.  Will the future find my details from 2017 as dated as Howe’s details from 1862?  I hope so.

Battle Hymn of the Resistance

Our eyes have seen the glory
|of a land where freedom rings;
where fear and hate are cast aside;
|where no one bows to kings;
where clean air fills the spacious skies;
|where hope can spread its wings.
We fight to make it real.

|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|We fight to make it real.

When shills disguised as pundits
|stole the spotlights on the stage,
the centrists lost their bearings
|and misread the workers’ rage.
Dark money seized a chance to buy
|a second Gilded Age.
We fight the lies with truth.

|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|We fight the lies with truth.

We still can hear the trumpet
|that will never call retreat.
A white-haired warrior still steps forth
|to drum a steady beat.
Our voices shout rebuttal
|to each cryptofascist tweet,
and we will win this fight.

|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Yes, we will win this fight.

Sprit_of_'76

Spirit of ’76

Writing cogent modern English in triplets is not easy.  Neither is saving the Republic from the Age of Trumpery.  At best, those who fight this fight will get tired and sweaty.  My update of Howe’s lyrics is something they can sing in the shower.  I tried that.  It helps.

haiku, history, humor, politics

What Luther Did Before Nailing

Did U ever wonder how an outraged monk could be like a frightened squid while being quite unlike the squid in a closely related way?  Neither did I.  The answer hit me before the question.
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The answer hit me while I pondered an intriguing juxtaposition in

Haiku Poems: Grip (For Samantha) | Poet Rummager

that inspired me to write a haiku:

Squids and Scribblers
|Squids squirt ink to flee.
|Writers also (sometimes), but
|often to confront.

• Image from © Brad Scot Lark | ShutterStock
• Image cropped from © Michele Paccione | ShutterStock

Long after Martin Luther’s time, fundamental institutions have yet again strayed from their missions and been corrupted.  Of course, people write (and mesh their words with images) very differently now.  Writers depend on the media (rather than a trip to the hardware store) to nail things to doors.  But if U listen carefully, U can still hear hammering.

2017-09-22

NON SEQUITUR © 2017 Wiley Ink, Inc..
Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

history, politics

Rowing Against the Current

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I row against the current.  My oar bends.  Will it break?

« Current ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #97 »
Thru a haze of fatigue, my mind drifts to a far away place and long ago time.  To Salamis.  I remember the ancient Greek navy, the mostly Athenian “wooden wall” that defied long odds to save Western civilization.  Salvation is not permanent.

trireme
Greek Trireme (public domain)

I cannot draw to save a life, and it is hard to find a trireme to photograph on short notice.  I used an image I did not create because something about triremes really matters now.

The rowers in Greek triremes were citizens rowing to defend their communities, not galley slaves rowing to avoid the lash.  Tho they could not see the Persian ships they needed to ram, they could trust their leaders to see and steer.  Themistocles owed nothing to Xerxes.

Here and now, rowing as a citizen is more complicated.  The peril is a strong current (stealthy as metastasis) that surges around breakwaters.  What is there to ram?  Will the rowers be swept out to sea while squabbling over which cove to head for?  Are the leaders loyal and competent?  What does Trump owe to Putin?

I row against the current.  I am not alone.

Update [2017-07-30]

Here is a good example of rowing against the current that has gotten less publicity than it deserves.  Senator Mazie Hirono [Dem-HI] interrupted treatment for stage 4 kidney cancer to speak eloquently and vote against the latest pseudoconservative travesty of healthcare legislation.  U can read more details and hear the speech (under 5 minutes) by clicking here.  U can sign a petition to thank her by clicking here.

history, photography, politics

Poem, Book, and Flag

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HughesPoem
The image atop this post comes from a new reading of the classic Langston Hughes poem Let America Be America Again, published in 1936.  On one hand, it is discouraging that the poem is still so timely.  Indeed, a speech from 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt is still timely and sounds remarkably like what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are saying today.  We have frittered away so much of the hard-won partial progress made since 1910 and 1936.  On the other hand, …

Slavomir Rawicz planned and led a small group’s escape from a prison camp in the Siberian Gulag in 1941.  About 9 months and 3000 miles later, the 4 survivors reached safety in India, having walked (with a little crudely improvised equipment and w/o maps) thru Siberian snow, the Gobi Desert, and high passes in the Himalayas.  Details are in his book The Long Walk.

There are many sane and decent people in the USA, and some of them may have the grit and ingenuity of Slavomir Rawicz and his companions.  In my own small way, I will try to help and will keep Yogi Berra’s Law in mind.

Having flown my flag inverted (as a protest) for a few days after the electoral disaster of 2016, I put it away.  The meaning of inversion would no longer be clear.  In the spring of 2017, I bought a new flag (larger and US-made) for occasions like July 4th, when flying the flag upright would not look so much like general approval of the way things are going.  Ceding patriotic symbols to bigots and plutocrats would be a tactical error.

Maybe I should be doing other things today, but I came across the new reading of the poem.  Despite not having burst mode on my camera, I then lucked into a good snapshot of my flag waving proudly.  As usual, I teared up when a radio station played The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Tonight, I will both smile and yawn when neighborhood fireworks keep me up late.  Tomorrow, the sane and decent people can return to the work of redeeming the promise of this day.

flag_716x632

Happy July 4th!

humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 5

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Ambiguity Sucks!

Here are links to all 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.
  8. 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.

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.

grammar, humor, language, photography, politics

Writing Well – Part 3

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Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????

Here are links to all 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.
  8. 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.

One trouble with categories is that so many of the interesting and important people and things in the real world do not fit neatly into them.  Tho wary of categories, I feel a need to introduce another one, alongside the descriptivism and prescriptivism (reviewed below) that are commonly used to categorize writings/writers that deal with the English language.

To oversimplify somewhat:

  • A descriptivist says how people actually use the language.
  • A prescriptivist says how people should use the language, according to various rules.

The captions under the following images for these attitudes link to notes and credits at the end of this post.

One of the strengths of Lynch’s book is that most of the time it is so fair to both.  Lynch is mostly in the descriptivist camp, but he sees merit in some prescriptivist ideas and explores the absurdities of trying to be 100% one or the other.  Perhaps some of the more thoughtful people on both sides are implicitly in another category, which I will call [readabilism] until somebody suggests a name I like better that is not already in use.  Still being simplistic to get started, here is what I mean by [readabilism].

  • A readabilist says how people should use the language, so as to communicate clearly.  (The caption under the following image links to a note on its relevance.)

Communicating clearly is not the same as abiding by rules.  Do U want to be clear?  Some of the prescriptivists’ rules are helpful, as is attention to the descriptivists’ findings.  Some of the prescriptivists’ rules are harmful, as is being lazy in ways that descriptivists find to be common.  As with geometry, there is no royal road to clarity.  Various examples will be in later posts.  A quick preliminary example appears later in this post.

I am a proud readabilist.  I try to write clearly.  I fail and try again.  Sometimes I succeed.  I try to recommend ways to write clearly.  I fail and try again.  I will recommend a prescriptivist’s rule that seems helpful and disrecommend one that seems harmful.  If something seems helpful in one context and harmful in another, I will try to sort things out rather than claim that one size fits all.

Any suggestions of alternative names for readabilism?  I was disappointed when Google told me that [lucidism] is already in use as the name of a religion, as is [claritism].  [Communicationism] is a pejorative term for the kind of reductionism that attributes conflicts to failures of communication.  I had better grab [readabilism] while I can.

Example 3.1: Split Infinitives


On page 19, Lynch scorches the extreme prescriptivists who make sweeping bogus claims about enhancing clarity for long lists of rules, including inanities like the rule against splitting an infinitive.  This rule was made up by prigs with too much free time who were enamored of Latin, a language with no blank space inside an infinitive where anything might be inserted.

Prescriptivists who claim devotion to clarity while peddling such drivel remind me of pseudoconservatives in US politics, who claim devotion to fiscal responsibility while peddling tax cuts for the same tiny fraction of the population that has been siphoning away wealth from everybody else for decades (while the national debt increases).

Tho the rhetoric of extreme prescriptivists may sound readabilist, the conduct is definitely not readabilist.  Fretting about where else to put an adverb that wants to follow [to] may not be directly harmful, but it siphons away time and energy from serious work on clarity.

Image Notes and Credits

An antenna from the array in a radio telescope is emblematic of the spirit of descriptivism.  Let’s see what is out there (and maybe try to explain it).

The clothes and facial expression of the man making the thumb-down gesture suggest that he is an arrogant jerk. This caricature of prescriptivism is appropriate at this admittedly simplistic stage in the discussion (and at any stage for some extreme prescriptivists).  Nuance will come later.

Back in 2013, I photographed a daylily flower in my yard because I wanted to show it to a flower lover in a nursing home.  I did not want to be at all arty.  I just wanted her to see the flower clearly and completely, w/o puzzling about what I had photographed or about the technologies that let me show her a long-gone flower on my laptop computer.  I wanted the wizardry to be transparent and therefore invisible to the casual eye.

The clear view (thru the photo to see the daylily) is emblematic of the spirit of readabilism.  While it is OK if the reader pauses briefly a few times to admire how well an idea has been conveyed, the reader should never need a shovel to unearth ideas buried by obscure writing.