baseball, grammar, humor, language

Writing Well – Part 7

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Yogi Berra’s Paradox

Here are links to previous posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.

Whatever hinders communication is bad English to me.  While context may keep them from being very harmful, many grammar goofs are indeed bad English.  But obfuscation is bad English too.  Lynch quotes an example on page 20 (hardcover).  The sentence is 136 words long, has no grammar goofs, purports to be a scholarly statement about philosophy, and is laughably unintelligible.  It was an unintentional winner in a Bad Writing Contest.

Another example of bad English that may be “correct” from a language prig’s viewpoint is use of the word [nauseous].  See Example 5.1 in Part 5 in this series.  Likewise for use of the word [inflammable].  See Example 5.2.

Is bad grammar always bad English?  Not quite.  Lynch quotes Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s statement before his 1927 death sentence on page 21 (hardcover).  Lynch rightly admires the “tragic dignity” of Vanzetti’s roughly hewn eloquence.

This post deals with a paradox about bad English.  A visual hint is provided by the red squiggle in the image below.
york-wrapper
Unless U want to doze off, U might want to drink some coffee (and maybe eat some chocolate) before reading the following cure for insomnia.

Gähnenschlafen’s Law

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

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

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

yogi-berra-1

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

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

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

Example 7.1: Flaky Punctuation

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

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

Not Jefferson.  He chose advance over retreat.

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

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

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

Ain’t.  Gonna.  Happen.

Don’t overdo it.

Example 7.2: Using Taboo Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 7.3: Paradox Lost

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

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

I never said most of the things I said.

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

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

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

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

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humor, language

Writing Well – Part 6

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What is the Point of Punctuation?

Here are links to previous posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.

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

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

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

my mentors, Darwin and Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

my parents, God and Ayn Rand

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

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

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

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

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

Example 6.1: Rogue Commas and Periods

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

Throw baby, shower

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

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

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

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

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

old-church_368x370old-church-date_386x370

 Example 6.2: Missing Commas

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

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

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

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

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

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

education, grammar, history, humor, language, philosophy, politics

Writing Well – Part 2

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Babies, Names, and Snobs

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?

Sorry, but we need a short digression on ways to name a word so we can talk about it.  Some details here will also contribute later to the overall project.

Failure to distinguish using a word from talking about it can lead to confusion, as in the following dialog:

Mother :         How was school today?
Small Child :  Fun.  Teacher showed us how to make babies.
Mother :         What?  WHAT?
Small Child :  Drop the Y and add IES.

In casual speech, we can insert “the word” in a few places.  That is clunky in extended writing.  There are 2 common ways to do the job in writing: quote marks and italics.  Using quote marks works well in short documents, but it can be confusing in longer ones that also use quote marks for actual quotations and/or for sarcasm, as in

After an ad blitz from the National Rifle Association rescued his failing campaign, Senator Schmaltz “bravely” defended the right of crazy people to buy assault weapons.

Maybe we should follow Lynch and use the convention popular among those who are most fastidious about the difference between using a word and discussing it: those who often call it the “use/mention distinction” and put words being mentioned (rather than used) in italics.  I do not mind doing w/o italics for emphasis because I prefer bold anyway, but italics are also used for titles and for foreign words temporarily imported into English.  I want those uses, and I found that Lynch’s use of italics for multiple purposes in quick succession invited confusion.

There is a simple way to give any word or phrase a name that works well here and in many other contexts, tho not universally.  Wrap it in square brackets (or curly braces).  Choose the wrapper U never (well, hardly ever) use for some other purpose in the current document and run with it.  If both wrappers are OK, use square brackets and give the Shift key a rest.

Now I can avoid confusion, even if I want to be emphatic, be sarcastic, and mention words (marking some as foreign), all in the same sentence:

Some snobs flaunt their “education” by saying [Weltanshauung] when [worldview] is all they need.

While not so disgusting as Senator Schmaltz, the flaunting snobs are enemies of clarity.  An enemy of my friend is my enemy too, and clarity is both a very dear friend and a concept crucial to amicable resolution of some of the tensions that Lynch explores so ably.  So I want to be especially clear and hope U will forgive the digression into metametalanguage.  Will put a quick reminder of the square brackets convention early in each subsequent post.  The next one will get down to business.

enlightenment, grammar, history, humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 1

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Introduction

lex-dilem_jack-lynch
Writing well ain’t easy.  If the word “ain’t” in the previous sentence raised hackles, U really need to read The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.  If not?  Read it anyway.  This post starts a series of posts that includes a glowing review of the book, with my own additions and amplifications for some points (and a few mild disagreements).

One of the few complaints I have about the book is that the title is too narrow.  Yes, the book considers lexicography.  It also considers grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vulgarisms.  In just 276 well-written pages (not counting source notes and such), it considers all these things with serious historical scholarship and considerable humor (mostly dry; sometimes LOL).

Why a series of posts?  Doing justice to the scope of the book in a single post would be tough unless what I wrote was only a book review, and the single post might still be quite long.  Better to write a separate post of moderate length on each of several themes in the book, adding something worthwhile to each.  In between posts in this Writing Well series, I can post on other topics.  If I think of yet another way that the sane and decent people in the USA might resist the Age of Trumpery, I want to interrupt the series rather than interrupt work on a single humongous draft.

Can a noncontiguous series work?  Across the Room and Into the Fire is working quite well for Óglach, with Part 6 (out of a projected 7) posted as of this writing.

Example 1.1: Recency of “Proper” English


Example numbers in this series have the form (part number).(number within the part), just in case I want to refer to an example in one part when writing up another part.

The following quote from page 10 of the book poses a conundrum that cries out for the kind of historical investigation exemplified by the book.

For just one third of 1 percent of the history of language in general, and for just 20 percent of the history of our own language, have we had to go to school to study the language we already speak.

When something is that strange, asking how the Hell it happened is not just idle curiosity.  It might lead to major insights.  Here is something similarly strange in physics.

For every chunk of matter in the entire universe (no matter what it is made of), the gravitational mass is exactly the same as the inertial mass.

For everything we can get our hands on, the equality of the 2 kinds of mass has been verified to more decimal places than I can count on my fingers.  Why is gravity like this?  Isaac Newton had no idea at all.  His theory of gravity could use this fact but could not explain it.  Early in the previous century, many physicists were uneasy about this apparent cosmic coincidence.  They were also uneasy about a piddling tiny difference between how Mercury orbited the sun and how Newton’s theory predicted it would orbit the sun.

One of the uneasy physicists was Albert Einstein, whose more elaborate theory of gravity gave an elegant explanation of the equality of the 2 kinds of mass and yielded predictions that were slightly different from Newton’s.  When Einstein published his theory in 1916, the only known differences were just barely measurable by those who cared about nerdy stuff like the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit.  Today, we know of many other differences.  Thanks to our knowledge of some of them, your GPS is more than just an expensive paperweight.

Acknowledgements


Jack Lynch wrote the book that anchors this series.  The historical perspective helped me refine my own views.  Want to see many examples of clear writing that is balanced and nuanced w/o being wishy-washy?  Read the book.

Óglach is among the bloggers who demonstrate that good writing can thrive in the blogosphere.   Thanking all those I know would take up too much space and omit those I do not know, but I must thank him for the inspiration to try a noncontiguous series.

Miriam Sargon taught the AP English class that I took in my senior year of high school.  (My post on lexicography will say a little more about that class.)  Back in the 1962/1963 academic year, well-informed people could still believe that Enlightenment values were winning (albeit slowly and with many setbacks).  She did not preach those values; she exemplified them.