humor, language, philosophy, science

Writing Well – Part 4

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.

Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?

Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.
  7. Yogi Berra’s Paradox
    Sometimes bad English is good English that’s good because it’s bad.
  8. Blood & Gold End This Series
    Apart from a concern about the examples on 2 late pages in the book, I could applaud those pages until my hands bleed.

This post’s subtitle is 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

NON SEQUITUR © 2014 Wiley Ink, Inc.. Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
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]!

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

Writing Well – Part 2

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.

Babies, Names, and Snobs

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.

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

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.

Introduction

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.

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.