humor, language, photography

True Blue

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Aqua and Azure ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #134

« Extra style points for those who weave both in. 😉 »

true-blue_840x630

Aqua and azure in cobalt on powder
Which one is true blue?
Don’t ask! 😉
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ethics, haiku, humor, language, music, oversimplify

Be Precise, But Keep It Real

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I am big on precise language.  Why am I so damn mellow about whether a poem is a haiku?  The answer hints at bigger things (like reconciling polished theory with rough-hewn reality), but there will also be a few jokes.

Yes, there are short poems that are not haiku.  Limericks are not haiku.  Googling «one word poem» yielded more hits than I expected (and infinitely more than I would like).  U can read about one that made national news here.  One word poems are not haiku.  (As candidates for a one word poem about one word poetry, words like [prank] and [scam] come to mind.)  On the other hand, trying to say exactly what is a haiku is a lot harder than it seems to many people.  It is also a lot less important, and we should be thankful for small blessings.

A list of several common characteristics of haiku is a good starting point as a tentative definition.  Such a list can be good for introducing people to haiku.  Whether it should be carved in stone is another question.

Here is a plausible list of things one might say about a short poem in English, such that the poem “should” only be called a haiku if they are all true.

  1. It does not rhyme.
  2. It has 3 lines, with a total of 17 syllables distributed 5-7-5.
  3. It includes some seasonal reference.
  4. It includes a poignant relationship between nature and humanity.

I got this particular list from a thoughtful comment by Sue Ranscht on a post with a 3-5-3 haiku.  Amicably and implicitly, the comment posed the question that starts this post.  It deserves an amicable (but explicit) reply.

§1: How Do I List Thee?

Let me count the ways.  Hmmm.  Do I have enough fingers?

There is a downside to defining the word [haiku] in a way that excludes much of what the best haiku poets actually write and much of what the Haiku Society of America considers to be a haiku.  What are we to call that stuff?

Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) was among the many eminent haiku poets who do not adhere to our 4-item list.  She was also an advocate (so am I) of haiku with a characteristic that is not in that list: juxtaposing 2 contrasting images (rensô in Japanese).  Rather than import yet another Japanese word into English, she wrote about “fragment and phrase” as parts of a haiku, in an insightful essay that was nicely formatted in a CDHK episode.  The juxtaposition may seem incongruous at first, and much of the fun comes from realizing how it does make sense.  Sometimes one part clarifies the other.  Sometimes the fragment (the shorter part) is the punch line of a joke set up by the phrase, as in the essay’s clever classic

roasting_veg_chkn_800x575

Haiku © Jane Reichold superimposed on
Photo © Vladlena Azima | ShutterStock

Another criterion not in our 4-item list is interchangeability of lines 1 and 3.  While Jane did not advocate interchangeability (neither do I), it matters to some people.  Should we have a 6-item list?  There is no need to consider here the whole multitude of criteria that are sometimes important to some people.  There is no need to try wriggling out of the contradictions between some of these criteria.  This section’s takeaway is simply that there is no single authoritative list.  Do U find that conclusion stressful?  Maybe a musical interlude will help.

§2: Musical Interlude

Back in 1800, Viennese concert-goers knew what a symphony was, with or w/o knowing much music theory.  A symphony was an orchestral composition with 4 movements.  Movement #1 might have a short slow introduction; otherwise, movements #1 and #4 were both at a brisk pace.  Movement #2 was slower; movement #3 was a minuet at an intermediate pace.  Performing the whole thing took a while, but well under an hour.  And so on.  That was before Beethoven began shredding the dictionary.

Did anybody abuse the new freedom by writing schlock that was long and loud?  Of course.  But some composers crafted some beautiful and enduring symphonies with great care and skill.  Works like Dvořák’s From the New World are classics, tho in various ways they are not classical.

Saying that something is “a symphony” no longer says much about its length or layout.  With no claim that they are all great symphonies, here are a few examples of the diversity.

  • We have symphonies with less than 4 movements (Hovhaness; Schubert).  More movements were apparently intended for Schubert’s “unfinished” symphony, but it is deservedly popular as is.
  • We have a short strings-only symphony that does have 4 movements, but the 2 (not 1!) based on dance forms are not minuets (Britten).
  • We have humongous symphonies with vocal parts (Beethoven; Mahler).

And so on.

Maybe it would be nice if the word [symphony] had a more specific meaning, but we get by.  When Prokofiev revisited the old layout from before 1800, he did not claim to be writing the first “real” symphony in decades.  He just wrote his Classical Symphony. The title’s meaning is clear enough.

§3: Back to Haiku

I wish those who advocate one of the narrower concepts of haiku would imitate Prokofiev.  Speak of “classical” haiku or (better still) “traditional” haiku.  Say which of the various traditions U have in mind.  Want to make a discussion of a single tradition flow more smoothly by temporarily restricting the word [haiku] to that tradition?  That might work, but it is hard to avoid any hint of permanently excluding other traditions in other discussions.  Want to claim that working within your favored tradition tends to help people write good haiku?  OK.  I may well agree, unless U go on to claim that all haiku (or all good ones) are necessarily in that one tradition.  Ain’t so.

Most of my own haiku (and many that I admire by others) do comply with at least 2 items in our 4-item list.  Full compliance is common but far from universal.  Want to be careful and focused when writing haiku?  Pay serious attention to a list like this.  But don’t let the tail wag the dog.

§4: Leery of Labels

The 6-item list briefly contemplated at the end of §1 is much like the 7-item list of rules that was actually used in a challenging CDHK episode.  The main difference between the lists is in whether rhymes or words referencing the poet (like [I] or [dunno]) are forbidden.  Neither is common in haiku; both do occur.

I responded to the challenge with a cheekily titled but fully compliant haiku (This Haiku Is Kosher), followed by one that breaks a few of the rules (Not Quite Kosher).  Which rules?  In the unlikely event that anybody cared, I could say.  As it happens, my Not Quite Kosher is a wry lament (about crediting an image illustrating This Haiku Is Kosher).  The title’s double meaning would be lost if it somehow specified which rules in the 7-item list were being broken.

zen-frog

Not Quite Kosher
|Zen frog bronze sculpture
|(credit lost, like casting wax).
|Dunno who to thank.

Suppose we want to discuss partial compliance with a list of rules in some detail.  Would it be helpful to have a noun as a 1-word label to pin on my partially compliant haiku, so as to indicate exactly which rules it obeys?  Not really.  With 4 rules we would need 16 nouns.  That would be burdensome.  With 6 (or more) rules, we would need an absurd 64 (or more) nouns.  Better to just say what happens with each rule, if there is any need to say it.

Maybe a single noun for obeying all the rules would still be helpful?  No, it is better to just plop a convenient adjective (like [classical] or [compliant] or [kosher] or [traditional]) in front of good old [haiku].  Remembering which rules are relevant at the moment is enough of a cognitive load.

A cluttered vocabulary is not the only downside of a profusion of special nouns, one for full compliance with each of several lists of rules.  People tend to confuse pinning a fancy label on something with understanding it.  They also tend to assume that labels are mutually exclusive.  When the recipients of labels are other people, the results can be nasty.

§5: Takeaway

Tho willing to break the 5-7-5 rule, I obey it more than might be expected of somebody who knows about its origin in a translation error.  I am especially respectful of 5-7-5 when I write an aphoristic haiku (as a zingy summary of some nerdy philosophizing) rather than a moment-in-nature haiku.  With a linebreak after the comma, this post’s title could be a 2-line aphoristic haiku.  (Yes, there are 2-line haiku.)  Maybe a 5-7-5 aphoristic haiku will reinforce the point.

Precision < Accuracy
|Speaking precisely
|is great, if we speak about
|what is really there.

 

history, language, photography

Solstice Salutation

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When I say Merry Xmas (pronounced like “MEH-ree KRIS-muhs”), it might be heard as an unwelcome hint that the hearer is (or should be) a Christian.  I suppose I should say something like Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings instead, but the generic salutations for this time of year sound bland and vague to ears as old as mine.  Can anybody suggest something with more pizzazz but w/o religious implications?

I decorate for the winter solstice (with multicultural Xmas lights and wreaths) and hope it is OK to wish U a

chickadee-wreath_el-greco

Merry Xmas!

haiku, history, humor, language, photography, tanka

Seedless 😀 — Needless 😬

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With what I hope is the usual wry humor, we consider how categorizing things is intrinsically simplistic but sometimes useful.  Or not.  We start simply and then go up, in importance as well as complexity.

1: Seedless 😀

I like watermelon but am far too old to like spitting out the seeds.  Of course, I buy seedless watermelons.  But what is that off-white speck on one of the chunks of watermelon in my bowl of fruit?  A closer look at the chunk shows that it has lots of seeds.  Did the supermarket cheat me?  No, those seeds are small and soft and immature forever.  They will be unnoticed on the way in and on the way out.  I wish the body politic could so easily excrete a POTUS that is small and soft and immature forever.

As “may contain occasional seeds” on its produce label hints, a “seedless” watermelon may well have a few serious seeds.  They are large and hard and nasty to eat.  But they are also large enough and dark enough to be easily seen when on or near the surface of a chunk.  I hardly ever let one slip past for an uninvited tour of my extensive collection of tooth crowns and fillings.

big-seed-slice_800x479

Putting watermelons into little bins with the labels [seedless] or [seeded] distorts the literal truth but is easy and useful for my purposes.  Plant breeders would need more detail.

Categorization is not always so easy as when buying and selling watermelons.

2: Needless 😬

There are situations where useful categorization is hard.  Friend or foe?  Right or wrong?  We must often proceed despite the knowledge that such tidy-looking categories are misleading.

Happily, some of the problematic contexts (where it is hard to decide which little bin “should” receive something we may feel an urge to categorize) are also contexts where putting things into little bins is a waste of time.  Compare something to other things in the same big (and obviously appropriate) bin; do not fret about little bins and dubious claims that things in the same little bin are importantly alike in some ways.

For example, consider the problem of deciding whether a little bin labelled [haiku] or a little bin labelled [senryu] is where a short poem (written in English, not Japanese) belongs.  The metaproblem of deciding whether this problem is meaningful is a step up from whether we should categorize watermelons but not so difficult (and steeped in nastiness) as deciding when (if ever) it is meaningful to put people into bins with labels like [black] or [white].

Imported into English from Japanese for good reasons long ago, the English word [haiku] does not mean exactly what the Japanese word [haiku] did mean in Edo Japan or does mean in modern Japan.  Most words do not even have exact meanings.  Different groups of speakers use the same word in different ways, with varying degrees of similarity.

To me and many other speakers of American English, any poem in haiku form is a haiku (tho not necessarily a good one).  For now, we need not fret about what “the” haiku form requires or what is recommended (and often beneficial) but not required.  Whether a poem is a haiku (or a quadrille or a sonnet or …) does not depend on its content.  The poem’s form alone indicates whether it is a haiku.  Tho common, this usage is not universal.

2.1: HSA Usage

For both [haiku] and [senryu] (as English words about poems in English, with several nods to Japanese usage), the Haiku Society of America adopted the definitions and notes quoted below in 2004.  We consider [haiku] first.

HAIKU

Definition: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

Notes: Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today’s poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements.  In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen “sounds” (on) arranged five, seven, and five.  (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.)  Traditional Japanese haiku include a “season word” (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a “cutting word” (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem.  In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues.  The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô).  Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word.  Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided.  (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently.  A discussion of what might be called “deep metaphor” or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition.  Various kinds of “pseudohaiku” have also arisen in recent years; see the Notes to “senryu”, below, for a brief discussion.)

I applaud the way the HSA keeps the definition of haiku form very short and broad, then discusses some formal details lucidly in the notes.  Apart from the ominous last sentence, the notes will be helpful to anybody puzzled by the multitude of formal considerations to which various people attach various degrees of importance.  But I have 2 concerns about the definition.

  1. Must I allude (however subtly) to the human condition whenever I celebrate an experience of nature?  Must Basho’s frog carry some human baggage whenever it jumps into the old pond?
  2. Form is lumped with content.  The poems in haiku form that do celebrate nature (or the season) and do have another layer of meaning get the label [haiku], while the others get [poem in haiku form] or a clunkier phrase.  Is a nice short word wanted?  Yes.  Does [senryu] do the job?  No.

SENRYU

Definition: A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.

Notes: A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break.  Some Japanese senryu seem more like aphorisms, and some modern senryu in both Japanese and English avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form.  There are also “borderline haiku/senryu”, which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them.

Many so-called “haiku” in English are really senryu.  Others, such as “Spam-ku” and “headline haiku”, seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value.  Some call the products of these recent fads “pseudohaiku” to make clear that they are not haiku at all.

Right after the definition limits senryu to being about foibles, the notes rescind the limitation.  Maybe an aphorism is a senryu?  Maybe a serious short poem in haiku form, like the wistful classic

© Alexis Rotella
|Just friends: …
|he watches my gauze dress
|blowing on the line.

is a senryu?  Maybe yet another poem in haiku form is something else, neither a haiku nor a senryu?  Maybe we should rummage in a Japanese/English dictionary for words like [zappai]?

Maybe we should speak plain English.

Importing the Japanese word [haiku] into English gave a good name to a new kind of English poetry inspired by Japanese poetry; importing [senryu] helped discuss the history of Japanese poetry.  But we already had plenty of words for saying that the mood of a poem is humorous or inspirational or philosophical or wistful.  We still have them, along with plenty of words for saying what a poem is about and why we like or dislike it.  We do not need special words for saying such things when the poem happens to be in haiku form.  Barbarians like me are not the only ones who prefer to use [haiku] broadly.  As Jane Reichold argued in 2010 with allegorical apples, [haiku] versus [senryu] is becoming a distinction w/o a difference.

2.2: Pushing the Envelope

That haiku forms are good for naturalistic subjects is beyond dispute.  Some of my favorite haiku (among both those I have read and those I have written) are indeed naturalistic.  But I also push the envelope of haiku subject matter and am far from alone in doing so.  A classic by Alexis Rotella has already been mentioned.  This section has more examples of pushing the envelope (not necessarily of being classics) and closes with a takeaway tanka.

2.2.1: Spike Gillespie

Page 104 of the 2003-01 issue of the magazine Smithsonian had a collection of humorous haiku ranging over the entire history of our little blue planet, with more detail from the 18-th century onward.  An image of the whole page is available on the web.  Back in 2003, I read the page in hard copy.  The haiku were mostly amusing w/o being memorable, but I liked one dealing with the 20-th century so much that I memorized it spontaneously, w/o trying:

© Spike Gillespie
|One World War follows
|another.  Rosie rivets.
|Patton rolls.  We win.

OK, it is not a great haiku.  Excessive devotion to the 5-7-5 rule leads to awkward linebreaks.  A tiny rewrite yields a better haiku:

Apart from the linebreaks, Spike nailed it!
|One World War follows another.
|Rosie rivets.  Patton rolls.
|We win.

While Brits and Russkies could object to the Yank-centric viewpoint, the haiku is a remarkably concise and accurate poetic summary of major aspects of World War 2 and its roots in the bungled ending of World War 1.  Neither war was a moment in nature.  Neither war was a mere foible.  While I needed Google to recover the author name and magazine date, the haiku itself just stuck, somewhere between my ears.  Maybe such stickiness was part of charm of poetry in preliterate societies.  Maybe it still is, even for those who are literate and online.

2.2.2: Mellow Curmudgeon

As there is already more than enough grimness in the real world, I usually dislike grim art.  An envelope-pushing haiku by Poet Rummager is so good that (despite its grimness) I reblogged it with my own grim haiku.  As with all my posts, the Comments section will remain open as long as my blog stays up.  (I overrode the WordPress default.)  Anybody who wants to criticize any of my haiku is welcome to comment, unless they want to quibble that my haiku is “really” a senryu or a pseudohaiku.

While I have not yet written a haiku about pizza, duct tape has been a subject.  The table below links to some of my other posts with haiku on outside-the-box subjects.  While some of my haiku are weird and/or knowingly silly, most do have a serious undercurrent about the human condition.  So does this post.

becalmed sailors | bereavement
Buddhism | Genesis
Hildegard of Bingen | history of biology
Jane Reichold | music
Platonism | quantum physics
sadness | silliness
Taoism | time travel

2.2.3: Takeaway Tanka

Some lines are better left undrawn.
|Haiku or senryu?
|Lumping form with content hides
|what poems can be:
|salutes to whatever is
|true and good and beautiful.

haiku, humor, language

Are Short Words Better than Long?

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Yes, short words are better.  But not always.  It depends on what U want to do.  Here is a little silliness with self-reference in response to [Diminutive ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #90], which displays a good use of a long word.

tiny

Wanting Five
 Ah, “diminutive”!
 Big word for “tiny” fills out
 first line of haiku.

Hmmm.  Would anybody want a long synonym for “tiny” in a 5-7-5 haiku?  Nah.

BTW, self-reference in language really is a big deal, as explained (among other places) here and here.  It has also been joked about in other haiku.  Some examples are here and here.

education, humor, language, photography

Writing Well – Part 8

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Blood & Gold End This Series

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.

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 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.

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.