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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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

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.
Unless U want to doze off, U might want to drink some coffee (and maybe eat some chocolate) before reading the following cure for insomnia.

Gähnenschlafen’s Law

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

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

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


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

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

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

Example 7.1: Flaky Punctuation

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

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

Not Jefferson.  He chose advance over retreat.

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

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

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

Ain’t.  Gonna.  Happen.

Don’t overdo it.

Example 7.2: Using Taboo Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 7.3: Paradox Lost

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

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

I never said most of the things I said.

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

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

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

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

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.


 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.


  • 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.

humor, language, philosophy, science

Writing Well – Part 4

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Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?

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.

This post’s subtitle is a quote from the book’s Chapter 8, which considers 2 versions of the question.  How did English spelling become such a mess?  Why is it still such a mess, despite various reform efforts?  A major insight into why reform is extremely difficult is also applicable to a wide range of otherwise very different activities (digging in rocky soil; making software run faster; philosophizing; …), so I will devote this post to it.  That devotion will make this post a little off-topic for the project, but the general insight is worth the detour and the length.  If U trust me about the wide range, U can skim or skip some examples to make it a much shorter read.

There is a tweetable (but crude and cryptic) way to formulate the general insight:

The word [the] is the most misleading word in English.

Huh?  My tweetable formulation uses the word [the] twice, with a mention of it in between.  The first use (in “The word”) is OK.  The second use (in “the most misleading”) is extremely misleading because it presupposes that there is a single word more misleading than any of the other words.  Be alert for bullshit whenever U see [the] followed by a superlative.  Sadly, the same kind of bullshit lurks in many phrases that start with [the] but have no superlative to raise a red flag.  A lot of effort can be wasted on questions of the form [What is the … ?] that cannot be answered at all well w/o refuting an implicit uniqueness assumption smuggled in by [the].

In particular, consider the ultimate goal of spelling reform:

The way we spell a word should match the way we pronounce it.

Oops.  Aiming at “the” way we pronounce a word is aiming at multiple moving targets, as Lynch notes.  As the author of the play Pygmalion (and thus the godfather of the musical My Fair Lady), spelling reformer George Bernard Shaw was aware that various pronunciations were out there.  But he lived at a time when educated Brits like Henry Higgins could be proud of their own pronunciations, disparage those of uneducated Brits like Eliza Doolittle, and ignore those of educated Yanks.

Now that Brittania no longer rules the waves but English has become a global language that plays roles formerly played by Latin and then French, the multiplicity of pronunciations is a bigger obstacle than it was in Shaw’s time (and a much bigger obstacle than it seemed to him).

Isn’t it obvious that multiplicity of pronunciations is a major obstacle to spelling reform?  It is now that Lynch has made it item #2 in his list of 7 obstacles.  Unless U can rattle off most them w/o peeking at pages 180 to 184 (hardcover edition), please do not dismiss the insight as obvious.

While organized efforts at sweeping reform are unlikely to succeed, minor word-by-word improvements in spelling do happen spontaneously now and then.  Lynch notes a few that have already happened.  In the examples to follow, I will note a few more that may be happening now.  I will also give examples of the wide scope of the insight about the perils of [the].

Non Sequitur - nq_c170417.tif

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Example 4.1: Realizing That Superfluous Letters Can Be Dropped

Dropping the superfluous [u] in various words that formerly ended with [o][u][r] (like [color], [honor], [humor], and [valor]) has already happened on my side of The Pond.

There are other minor improvements that do not presuppose mastery of the International Phonetic Alphabet.  For example, words whose last 2 sounds are like [eyes] can be spelled somewhat more phonetically with [z] rather than [s], as in [realize] vs [realise].  It is no surprize that prigs will object in some cases, as in [surprize] vs [surprise].  I have stopped caring about which version of each such word is more common on which side of The Pond.  Some of the wavy red underlines from spell-checkers can be ignored w/o harming readability.

Example 4.2: Common Shortcuts

While many of the shortcuts used in texting and tweeting are puzzling to outsiders like me, others are self-explanatory, improve the fit with pronunciation, and saw some use before 140 became a magic number.  Wish I could be as confident that civilization will persist for another century as I am that (assuming it does persist) spelling changes like

[you] —> [U]    &    [through] —> [thru]    &    [though] —> [tho]

will spread to formal prose.  W/o making a big fuss about it, I do my part in promoting these changes.

Example 4.3: Digging in Rocky Soil

Suppose we need to dig a hole in rocky soil with hand tools.  A pick and a shovel are in the tool shed.  Which is “the” better tool for the job?  A few minutes of digging experience reveals that neither is much good w/o the other. Using one creates an opportunity to use the other.  Tho often debased as a euphemism for layoffs in announcements of corporate mergers, [synergy] is an honorable word for the way a pick and shovel complement each other.  Similar synergies are important elsewhere, as the next example sketches.

Example 4.4: Making Software Run Faster

The instructions followed directly by a computer are mincing little steps for tiny little feet.  Writing out the long sequence of steps needed to do anything interesting is a tedious and error-prone job, so computer software is usually written in artificial “high-level” languages that are closer to how people would tell each other about an algorithm to compute whatever needs to be computed.  The computer programs that translate software from the relatively intelligible high-level languages down to the mincing little “low-level” steps are called “compilers” (despite the fact that compiling is not what they do).

Early compilers had a bigger problem than a misleading name.  They produced code (sequences of low-level instructions) that ran much slower than the code skilled people could eventually produce, after agonies of debugging.  How do we build compilers that can translate an algorithm written in a high-level language into correct code that runs roughly as fast as hand-crafted code for the same algorithm?  That was among the hot topics when I started my career in computer science.

Very broadly, the strategy for producing fast code was (and still is) to start with slow code that is presumed to be correct because it is a straightforward translation of a high-level algorithm to low-level code, w/o trying to be clever.  (Whether the algorithm itself is correct and whether there are better algorithms were also hot topics.  They still are.)  The slow code is tweaked here and there, so as to do whatever it has been doing but do it a little faster.  While no single tweak accomplishes much, there are many places to tweak.  A tweak here can reveal a previously hidden opportunity for another tweak there.  Synergy!

Alas, the opportunities for synergy struck me as so obvious that I never figured out how to persuade other compiler researchers.  There was a subculture working on one bag of tricks and a subculture working on another bag of tricks.  The debates over which bag was “the” one to use struck me as more like medieval theology than science, and I was explicit about the “Pick and Shovel Principle” in a few of the papers I wrote.  Did not help.  Cutting classes in the school of hard knocks is harder than ignoring sometimes tactless writing by the brash new guy, so the lesson was eventually learned the hard way.

Example 4.5: Philosophizing

Have U noticed a big omission in this post so far?  Not a word about writing well after the title.  Let’s fix that omission to end this post.  I promise to be more on-topic in the next part.

Some philosophers have shown that it is possible to write serious thoughts about deep stuff in a way that is also clear and good-humored.  Really.  (As other philosophers have shown, it does not just happen.)  To keep it short, I will point to just one well-written book (by D.C. Dennett):

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Apart from the clunky title, Dennett’s book can be highly recommended, for both what it says and how it says it.  Indeed, some of the 77 chapters deserve to be required reading in any college curriculum.  Having been a young nerd who was hassled by his elders about getting a “well-rounded liberal education” supposedly obtainable before any serious study of STEM, I do not use the phrase [required reading] lightly.

Dennett’s chapter 43 is among those that deserve to be required.  It starts with a variant of a familiar infinite regress:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

A careful look at what is flaky about trying to identify “the first mammal” leads to a thoughtful objection to the Socratic quest to nail down things like “the essence” of virtue.

While not so requirement-worthy as chapter 43, Dennett’s chapter 30 provides another good read about [the].  Pick any problem U like and consider the phrase [the solution].  Depending on which problem U pick, there are many possibilities.  Maybe there are no solutions at all.  Maybe there is a unique solution.  (Both provably-none and provably-just-one do happen in pure math.)  Maybe there is just one known solution and so many constraints that looking for another is a bad bet.  Maybe there are 2 or more known solutions and fretting about which is “the” real solution would be silly.  Dennett concocts an amusing quibble-proof example of this last possibility.  With a lot less trouble, the way English imports words from other languages provides a quibble-resistant example.

As a word in English, [concerto] has 2 plurals.  A minute with Google shows that both [concerti] and [concertos] are widely used by people who know what a concerto is.  Asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an Italian word makes sense; asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an English word imported from Italian does not.  Be wary of [the]!