haiku, humor, language

Squirrely Juxtaposition

In many a haiku poem, there is an unexpected juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas.  Much of the fun is in realizing how the ideas fit together in the context of the haiku.  Here is a 3-5-3 haiku with two ideas that U might expect to see juxtaposed, but not in this way.  I saw what I saw.
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Carpe Diem Exploring The Beauty Of Haiku #1826 Juxtaposition

flying-squirrel_crop_clone_840x294

Both in Sciuridae
|Chipmunk does
|rodenta yoga:
|flying squirrel.

Nerdy 😉 Notes

  1. When I first saw the chipmunk with belly down and legs spread out, it looked remarkably like a flying squirrel on a long glide.  Despite being well paid for modeling by seeds that fall from my bird feeder, the chipmunk did not hold the exact position while I fetched and focused the camera.the flying squirrel sketch vector graphics  picture
  2. While at least one yoga position is named for a kind of snake (the “cobra”), no position known to me is named for a kind of squirrel.  Too bad.  The chipmunk’s “flying squirrel” position is one that even I might be able to master, on the floor if not in the air.
  3. Wanna count syllables?  Where I live, the word [squirrel] has one syllable and rhymes with [swirl].  Elsewhere, it can have two syllables.  Maybe more.
language, philosophy, photography, science, seasons

Emergent Leaves and More

Much more.  Careful consideration of emergent things provides some hints about how to live fully and righteously on a little blue planet in a big oblivious universe.  Does that sound too grandiose?  Let’s start small, with some spring leaves and two ways to make adjectives.
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emergergent-sakura_crp-1_840x841

Turning Verbs into Adjectives

While we do it mostly by adding the suffix [-ing] (and maybe tweaking the spelling), we sometimes add [-ent] (or [-ant]) instead.  There is a subtle but important difference when we turn [emerge] into an adjective.  Leaves emerge and then go about the business of growing and photosynthesizing.  It would be a little better to say that my photo shows “emerging leaves” because there is no “and then” for emergent things.  They just are emergent.  What they emerge from is still there.

For example, look again at my photo, not as leaves but as an image.  It emerges from about 700,000 pixels encoded with about 480 KB of data in JPEG format.  That matters if I want to e-mail it to somebody who pays for data flow over a slow connection.  For many other purposes, to fret about the underlying pixels and bytes is a waste of effort.  The shapes and colors and composition are not in the pixels themselves.  They emerge from the way the pixels are arranged and interact with each other and the viewer.

My mild misuse of the [-ent] suffix for emerging leaves is a point of departure for considering bigger issues, not just a bow to the exact wording of Patrick Jennings’ challenge:

Emergent ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #232 – Pix to Words

Poetic Naturalism

Once we start looking for emergent things, we find that the world teems with them.  (Water, ice, and steam all emerge from crowds of the same kind of molecule.)  We find that fretting about “ultimate reality” may well be as pointless as trying to understand my photo by always diving down into those 480 KB and never looking at the emergent image.  While some contexts demand a deep dive, others demand a shallow one.

One of many places with examples and discussion of various emergent phenomena is Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture, which somehow manages to be a good read (and a mostly easy one) despite dealing with deep stuff in science and philosophy while being fair to other viewpoints.

While nothing in science is nailed down as tightly as 3+2 = 5 in math, there is much evidence that we are in a tiny corner of a vast universe that goes its own way with no overall design or purpose or supernatural intervention.  Can we live fully and righteously in a cosmos that does not give a rat’s ass about beauty or goodness?  In much more detail than I can hope to put into a blog post, Carroll argues that we can.  Emergence is part of the story.

Tho a little queasy about Carroll’s use of the phrase [poetic naturalism] to name his upbeat attitude in the face of knowledge that would depress many people, I can’t think of a better name or a better attitude.

Don’t despair if love and justice seem as fanciful as unicorns when U consider only the underlying dance of atoms and molecules.  Love and justice may be real enough, but emergent.

 

Buddhism, fiction, humor, language

Live in the present.  Write there too.

The ancient advice is still good.  Live mostly in the present, with enough dwelling on the past to serve specific purposes like learning from mistakes.  Also good is the much more recent advice to write fiction in the present tense, unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense.
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Zen lore includes some stories with endings of the form

At that moment, __________ attained enlightenment.

Fill in the blank with the name of somebody who studied Zen for some time and finally saw the light when his teacher said or did something outrageously weird.

While my story Satori from a Consulting Gig does not presuppose any knowledge of Zen lore, it does have a surprise ending (partly inspired by those Zen stories) with my own way to fill in the blank.  Using the past tense in my story’s last sentence helps make the allusion to Zen lore clear to those who might care about it.

Did I choose to write my story in the past tense because I planned to end it that way?  Not consciously.  I just set out to write a short story.  I’ll write some fiction.  I’ll use the customary past tense.  Doesn’t everybody?

Not quite.  I got over 16 million hits when I googled

present tense vs past tense fiction

much later, in preparation for writing this post.  Before discussing some pros and cons that are out there (and some that may be new), there is a little more to be said about my story’s tense situation.

Rope fraying

© S. Silver | 123RF Stock Photo

My story was written for an anthology whose editors asked the contributors to supply blurbs.  I wrote a blurb in the same tense as the story, then noticed that other contributors wrote blurbs in the present tense for stories in the past tense.  Why?  I found the inconsistency troubling.

Another contributor (Sue Ranscht) kindly remarked that the present tense “creates a punchier tease” in blurbs than the past tense does.  Indeed.  Why not make the actual story (not just the blurb) be as vivid and engrossing as it can possibly be?  Unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense, why not write in the present tense?

§1: Perilous Present

Written in the present tense, my newer story Entanglements begins with

Squatting over the airport, a thunderstorm supercell demolishes …

Yes, the word demolishes might be misread as (a typo for) demolished.  Yes, the reader might be a little disoriented at first.  Worse, the reader might suspect that gimmicky writing is camoflage for weak content.  Such concerns loom large in a thoughtful page that recommends using the past tense by default and the present in some special cases.  We can agree on the bedrock principle that one size does not fit all, even as we disagree amicably on where to draw some lines and how strongly to weight some concerns.  That’s a respite from the train wreck of contemporary politics.

Dunno how 16 million hits in my Google search compares with how often the present tense has actually been used in good stuff.  As good uses accumulate, the prudential reasons for defaulting to the past tense will gradually weaken.  Of course, there will always be people who believe that the earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, and

Thou shalt write fiction in the past tense.

came down from Mount Sinai with Moses.

§2: Perilous Past

Readers (and writers!) may not be native speakers of English.  As with many other aspects of language, English is exuberantly irregular in how it forms the past tense.  People learn the past tense of a verb later (and less thoroughly?) than they learn the present tense.  Can U hear the rumble of an approaching storm?

When offline (or distrustful of Google Translate), Pierre consults his French/English dictionary.  How can he say prendre in English?  No problem.  Just say take.  But Pierre is writing in the customary past tense.  Neglecting to look up take in the other half of the dictionary, he says taked where he should say took.

Consider 3 common ways that verbs ending in -it can form their past tenses: hit/hit, pit/pitted, and sit/sat.  Quick now: knit/knit or knit/knitted?  Shit/shit or shit/shat?

There are a few verbs with 2 ways to form the past: an irregular usual way and a regular way for a special usage:

  • Starting a road trip, the team flew out to Chicago.
    Swinging at the first pitch, the batter flied out to left field.
  • The picture was hung in a prominent place.
    Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy on 1776-09-22.

This last nuance is subtle enough to trip up some native speakers.

§3: Perilous Past Perfect

Pierre is back.  The draft of his story has a short paragraph about some taking that happened at an earlier time.  Not fond of flashbacks, he has a good reason to put this paragraph as late as it is, not earlier in the narrative.

Sadder but wiser after being corrected by a ten-year old whose first language is English, Pierre refrains from writing had took for the past perfect for the verb take.  He looks up the actual past participle and writes had taken.

Pierre’s pluperfect paragraph is grammatical but clunky.  What to do?  Rewrite the main narrative in the present tense and the clunky paragraph in the past.  That will be a chore, but such a clear and distinct idea deserves the effort.  Descartes would approve.

§4: John and Jane Get Tense

John has been writing screenplays that often use flashbacks.  Now he wants to write a novel and still likes flashbacks.  He realizes that readers would be confused if nothing but a paragraph break separates what the characters do and experience “now” (from their viewpoint) from the start or end of a flashback.  There is a lot of sensible advice out there about things like narrative transitions to and from flashbacks, but John wants to stay closer to his cinematic roots.  He uses the present tense for the main content and the past tense for the flashbacks.  If he also switches to a noticeably different font for the flashbacks, that might be enough in most places (after narrative transitions for the first few flashbacks).

Jane has been writing historical fiction and using the past tense to make it look like history.  Now she wants to write fiction with a first-person narrator and package it as a rather one-sided conversation with an implicit listener.  She plans to keep the past tense for the main content and add some present-tense remarks, often in response to what the listener has presumably just said.  The present-tense remarks will be frequent and incongruous.  The narrator will tell a self-serving version of a sequence of events in the past tense while accidentally revealing the darker and/or funnier truth in the present tense.

I warned Jane that readers (especially impatient thick-headed guys like me) may just take the narrator to be ditzy and bail out early.  But Jane is game to try.  If she does make it work, I know a good place to submit her story.

§5: Recurring Rabbit

Rabbit-Hole_Worried-Rabbit
The Rabbit Hole is a series of anthologies of weird stories, with a troika of editors.  Volume 1 came out in 2018, Volume 2 is scheduled to come out on 2019-10-01, and the editors hope to continue annually.  Maybe Jane can contribute to Volume 3.

My story Satori from a Consulting Gig in Volume 1 is just 2 pages long, so even those who dislike it may still be glad they bought the book for $2.99 as an e-book or $12.50 as an ink-on-paper book.

While every extended narrative in Volume 1 uses the customary past tense, Volume 2 will have at least two stories told in the present tense.  No, the editors’ fondness for weird stories does not extend to a fondness for weird writing.  As originally submitted for Volume 2, my story Entanglements did have some weird writing at the end that seemed unavoidable to me.  One of the editors (Curtis Bausse) suggested a strategy for avoiding the unwanted weirdness, and the strategy worked.  There was no fuss at all about my use of the present tense.  That is as it should be.

haiku, humor, language, oversimplify, photography

Red-y or Not …

Some short color words are spread thin in common usage.  Words like “red” are pinned on many things that are slightly reddish.  If plant breeders ever develop a cabbage that is actually red, they will find that the name “red cabbage” has been usurped.  Chaos in the produce aisle!  Hope spinach stays green.
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Red ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #187

salad_obrem_y-10_669x208

Salad Paradox
|Red peppers are red.
|Red cabbage is purple but
|is said to be red.
haiku, humor, language

Innocence Lost & Mischief Found

Tweaking a wistful response to an earlier challenge in a different series yields a response to

that defers to Canada’s retention of British spelling.  (One of the tweaks was to replace color by colour.)  Being deferential does not suit me, so I revert to US spelling in some new mischief at the end.

When colour computer displays came in, I was jolted to see that a yellowish green and an orangish red were now “primary” for RGB coordinates of coloured pixels.  I also had to use CMYK coordinates for coloured inks and pray to the graphics gods that printing software would translate from RGB to CMYK in a way that respected how something looked.  My prayers were seldom answered.  Eventually, I learned to put away childish things (like hard copy).

Before Colours Went RGB
|Red, yellow, and blue
|were “primary” when kids
|smeared paint on paper.

RYB-triangle_700x619

I am all too aware of several ways that Canada is more sensible than the USA.  I used one of the less important ones to balance a little mischief about one small way the USA is more sensible:

Color in 6 Letters
|Some folks spell it with a U.
|On my honor, they sure do.
|Hour and sour I can buy;
|misspelled humor makes me cry.
|You stayed loyal to the Crown?
|Gotta press that U key down!
|I’m a proud Yank but confess
|that our anthem is a mess,
|sung as if we never heard:
|yeh-et really ain’t a word.

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humor, language, philosophy, photography

Don’t Sweat the Meaning of Life

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.
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While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common.  Deservedly?  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

§1: Colors

Meanings are tricky.  Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas.

§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?

The question heading this subsection is nonsense.  Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t.  Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.

One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as nonsensical as the one heading of this subsection.  Determining which ones are really deep will take a while.  Nonsensical questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that would be more tractable with better wording, so some nonsense may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.

§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?

Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still nonsense.  The US flag is red, white, and blue.  While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow.  How many nations have flags of just one color?

Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs.  I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).

It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on.  But look at the ribbon on my wreath:

closer_crop_840x485

The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent.  Where is the light coming from?  Where am I standing?  While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.

§2: Words

Mole

© tunedin123 | 123RF Stock Photo
(Image has been cropped.)

The word mole has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage.  Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of mole.

Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication.  Who uses life to say what to whom?

I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

§3: How to Live

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live.  Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I go with a simple short list:

  • Try to have some fun.
  • Try to do more good than harm.
  • Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
food, humor, language, photography

Lime Time

The [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.  Typing just the [Enter] key into the Search box is a way to browse WordPress blogs.
The color word lime is used for many light or yellowish kinds of green.


Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Lime or Light Green

New leaves often display a version of lime.

lime-leaves_fix_840x1214

 
Actual limes display several versions of lime on the outside and …

lime-light_840x630

 
… yet another version on the inside.

lime-face_840x840

Got tequila?

Dry Margarita

A bottle of premixed margaritas is convenient, but the contents are too sweet for me.  To get a drier margarita with minimal mixological effort, I use roughly equal amounts of premixed margarita and dry white wine.  Tho admittedly not a world-class margarita, the result is a good no-fuss drink.

haiku, language, philosophy, photography

AKA Blue-Green (or Cyan or …)

This pretty color is also a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.  What to call it?  There’s a reason to prefer “blue-green” over other names, most of the time.
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Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Teal, Aqua, Seafoam or Turquoise

blue-green_840x666

What would I say is “the” color of the cloth in my image?  Even more than with other colors, how it looks depends on lighting and surroundings.  This pretty color is a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.

Colorful Plain English
|Inkjets squirt cyan;
|some poets sing of turquoise.
|I just see blue-green.

For most purposes, I prefer blue-green (and 2 variations on it) over the other names.  Anybody who knows what blue and green mean can guess what blue-green means.  Those who need more choices for naming colors like this can put blue-green between bluish green (AKA aqua) and greenish blue (AKA turquoise).  The 3 names I prefer are all clearer than names like aqua about where they lie on the range from just plain blue to just plain green.

Nerdy 😉 Note

Need still more choices?  Use Red|Green|Blue coordinates.  The 256x256x256 possible values for the RGB coordinates of a color can make more distinctions than U will ever need.

For example, the image below is a detail from the image above, with little yellow circles around 2 spots on the cloth, one relatively bright and another relatively dark.  Most spots on the cloth have [R|G|B] between the bright spot’s [45|223|226] and the dark spot’s [0|48|86].

blue-green_crop_upsize_mark_crop_840x131

If U like one of those colors enough to want it as a text or background color, U can use the corresponding hexadecimal code (#2DDFE2 or #003056) in an HTML style sheet.  Explicit hex codes avoid the bother of remembering the sometimes flaky conventional names for web colors.

Hex codes also provide flexibility.  Colors rarely look the way one expects when picking a color by pointing to it in another context, as I noticed when I used colors from an image to add a haiku to the image and then to write text referring to parts of the haiku.  Bumping coordinates up or down can adjust colors to look good in actual use.

ethics, haiku, humor, language, music, oversimplify

Be Precise, But Keep It Real

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.
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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, seasons

Solstice Salutation

Whether a person lives fully and righteously is vastly more important than which religion (if any) helps them do so.  But I still wish people “Merry Xmas” in late December.  Can anybody suggest something with more pizzazz than the generic salutations but w/o religious implications?
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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 😬

With the usual (?) wryness, we consider how categorizing things is intrinsically simplistic but sometimes useful.  Or not.  We start simply (with a useful categorization of watermelons) and then go up (with a not-so-useful categorization of poems in haiku form).
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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?

Yes, but not always.  It depends on what U want to do.
(BTW, the [Menu] button atop the vertical black bar reveals the widgets.)

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.

humor, language

Writing Well – Part 6

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

What is the Point of Punctuation?

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.

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

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

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

my mentors, Darwin and Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

my parents, God and Ayn Rand

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

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

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

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

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

Example 6.1: Rogue Commas and Periods

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

Throw baby, shower

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

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

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

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

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

old-church_368x370old-church-date_386x370

 Example 6.2: Missing Commas

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

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

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

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

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

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