Why the “Oxford Comma” matters

When you write a sentence that includes a list of items, the last one typically starts with “and.”  A question that has been vexing people for centuries now is whether that last clause should start with a comma – i.e., “, and” rather than just “and.”

That last comma is called the Oxford Comma.  Some people love it. Other people hate it. Continue reading “Why the “Oxford Comma” matters”

The importance of composition

Some students quibble with me about the weight I give “composition skills.”  This usually happens at the end of the semester when I grade the team design reports.

Composition is more than just spelling or grammar.  These days, a computer can handle most if not all spelling and grammar concerns.  All it takes on the student’s part is the presence of mind to actually use the available tools.  If a computer can do it, it can’t really be that hard.  Composition, on the other hand, is always hard.  It’s the “art” of constructing a concise, precise sentence that communicates clearly.  Poor composition skills mean either a lack in one’s education, or a lack of clarity in thinking.  There’s a famous quotation: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”  Whether Mark Twain or Blaise Pascal penned it, it’s a good one.  The point is this: it takes time and effort to compose good prose, and the benefits of good prose are significant.  Not only does it let you get your point across accurately and convincingly, it also demonstrates to others that you have expertise in an area and respect for your audience.

Case in point: in October 2014, I participated in a meeting of the International Standards Organization, which is setting up standards on biomimetics.  There were various sessions focussed on different areas of the field, some of which I have some expertise, and others in which I don’t.  During one of the sessions in which I did NOT have expertise, the work involved resolving problems with the text of a working document.  Notwithstanding my nearly total lack of knowledge of the topic, I was about to contribute significantly to the work, simply because I know about english composition.  Indeed, a number of other participants thanked me afterwards for my contributions, saying that the document was that much stronger and better for my efforts.

Let me say it again, just to be clear: even though I had no idea what the subject matter was, I was still able to help improve the document because I know about english composition.  That’s how important composition skills are.

English is funny

There is no egg in the eggplant, no ham in the Hamburger and neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.

English muffins were not invented in England; French fries were not invented in France.

Quicksand takes you down slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing. If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?

If the teacher taught, why didn’t the preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what the heck does a humanitarian eat!?

Why do people recite at a play, yet play at a recital? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language where a house can burn up as it burns down; in which you fill in a form by filling it out.

What is it that when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. And why it is that when I wind up my watch it starts but when I wind up a story it ends?

Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?

Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist, but a person who drives a race car not called a racist?

Why are wise men and wise guys opposites?

Why do overlook and oversee mean opposite things?

If horrific means to make horrible, does terrific mean to make terrible?

Why isn’t 11 pronounced onety one?

Holy taboo, Batman!

Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I shall read:
Melissa Mohr. 2013. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (available both on Google Play and Amazon).

I’m adding this book to my goram reading list, based on an interview that Dr. Mohr gave Q The Summer (CBC Radio 1, 15 August 2013).

Here’s some of the points from the interview that make me want to read the book.

Swearing comes from the limbic system, not from the usual language centres of the brain. This explains why some brain injuries impede regular speech but not swearing. It can also be beneficial; for instance, swearing seems to actually increase our tolerance for pain.
How swearing has changed over the years is an indication of what that culture thinks is taboo. Ancient Romans – being “manly men” – often used words indicative of being sexual “receivers” as swear words. During the Medieval period, swear words typically involved religion. In Victorian times, swearing was all about sex – to the point that even “leg” was considered a taboo (and hence a swear) word. (If you wanted to refer to the leg of a table, one would use “limb” or “lower extremity” or some such.) By the middle of the last century, Victorian goofiness had given way to the usual swear words we know today, which remain sexual and scatological in nature.

Continue reading “Holy taboo, Batman!”

GM needs remedial English lessons

The Chevy Logo, worn
Poor English makes Chevy adverts seem desparate.

I recently saw a billboard that advertised the Chevrolet Malibu.  The caption read: “By definition, an Accord is a Compromise.”  Very funny.  The ad also puzzled me, because I’d never thought the word “accord” had anything to do with “compromise.”

So I looked it up.  In four dictionaries, including the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I found no evidence of “accord” meaning in any sense a compromise.  Indeed, it typically referred to harmonious correspondence, or some kind of mutual agreement.

After a little Googling, I did find one site that actually uses the word “compromise” in its definition of “accord.”  But that particular sense is based on the interpretation of “accord” in American Law.

If GM were advertising to lawyers, then I’d have no problem with this ad.  But since it is clearly targeted at a much broader audience, it seems entirely inappropriate to focus on such a narrow – indeed, technical – sense of the word.  And the tone of the ad suggests a definitive statement about the word “accord” that discourages questioning it.

I know I wouldn’t want to live in a country where everyone used language as lawyers do….

I’m not sure what to make of this – except to think that using the narrow American legal sense of a word is a really smarmy thing to do, especially in Canada.  Indeed, I’d say this ad definitely qualifies for status in the weasel words lexicon.

Message to GM: go back to grade one and learn how to speak real English, not lawyer-ese.  And while you’re at it, stop thinking that Canadians would know or care about American legal definitions.

Vulgar Hypocrisy

Vulgarity is a useful tool; too bad so many people are rank hypocrites about it.

One evening, my kids watched a comedian on TV rant about the practise of dubbing over vulgarities and obscenities in movies shown on TV with nonsensical words.  Like: “Ah, go fruit yourself!”

This brought to mind a silly movie from the 80’s called Johnny Dangerously, starring Michael Keaton.  This movie, though it had virtually no other redeeming qualities (except possibly Dom DeLuise‘s appearance as the Pope), did manage to cheat the censors by intentionally using nonsense words in place of the standard seven words you can’t say on television, and their sundry declensions, conjugations, participles, and gerunds.  Examples included: “you fargin cork-soaker!” and “I’m gonna tear yer arm off an’ shove it up yer icehole!” (To hear what I mean for yourself, see this youtube clip.)

The point is that whether Big Brother censors the original language, or whether the actors censor it themselves, though the words change, the meaning remains the same.  And we all know what they really meant to say.  My kids certainly do.

I myself am not particularly against the use of vulgarities, in some contexts.  I use them when I lecture, usually to emphasize a point, or to keep the class’s attention.  Sure, it’s a cheap trick, but it works.  I use vulgarities because they’re emotionally loaded and because they’re extremely concise.  (Call someone a f*ckin’ a$$hole, and there is little doubt about your opinion even with just four syllables.)  And sometimes I use vulgarities because I know that’s the only kind of language that the target of my vitriol will understand.

Of course, I can also elucidate my sentiments in particularly florid and loquacious ways.  I can talk about someone being ankle deep at the shallow end of the gene pool.  I can speak of someone’s ability to write at the bleeding edge of grammatical validity.  I can talk about something being designed by a squirrel on quaaludes.  Or about a fine scent befitting only the very best cesspools.  Or of colour schemes that should be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions against torture.  Or of the authenticity of someone’s sense of faux (this is particularly descriptive of certain poorly educated media celebrities who pawn themselves off as “interior designers”).  Or of being one slice short of a loaf, one bit short of a byte, or deserving of a job at Microsoft.

But that takes time, and effort.  And though the results are often more pleasing, sometimes keeping things punchy and to the point is more important.

The point is this: vulgarity, like any other form of language, has its place and its use.  Denying its existence is a lot like the Victorian fear of talking about sex: stupid.  It’s stupid because it denies a route of self-expression that is certainly valid, and at least occasionally both effective and efficient.

Of course, the trick is knowing when to be vulgar.  This is something that requires a certain mental maturity that children lack.  Modern society’s solution to this problem is to denounce vulgarity – especially as a language tool of children – as entirely inappropriate.  Vulgarity is punished, pushed aside, and ignored.

And as a strategy, it fails miserably.  Kids still use vulgarities.  And they use vulgarities especially because they’re forbidden.  What easier way for a child to get attention than to swear like a sailor on shore leave?  It’ll embarrass the hell out of the kid’s parents and make everyone within earshot stare disapprovingly.

It’s hard to explain to children that there’s a time and a place for everything.  But that’s what parenthood and teaching are: hard.  By trying to outlaw vulgarity, we’re doing exactly the wrong thing: making vulgarity attractive for its own sake rather than as the tool that it can be.  And we’re taking the easy way out, which is not an honourable way to treat our children.

And all this is, of course, a horrible hypocrisy.  When the kids aren’t listening, adults (except for certain prudes and religious zealots) use vulgarities all the time.  These people will often hide it with something even worse: denial.  They’ll say they’re hiding their use of vulgarity from their children for the benefit.  That’s just crap.  They’re doing it because it’s expedient, and easier than having to teach children about vulgarity and its place in the language.  They’re just lazy and selfish.

Sometimes, I really think adults are far more childish than children, and that the only real vulgarity is the hypocrisy of parents.

Aphoristic aphasia

Here’s a reason why sports figures should not be quoted, ever. Except for Yogi Berra, of course.

I came across the following quote, attributed to John Wooden, a former basketball coach at UCLA.

“My father used to tell me: never try to be better than someone else, but never cease trying to be the best you can be.”

This is a nice sentiment, and a worthwhile idea, rendered horribly.

Granted, this statement may have been made on the spur of the moment, without much time to think through a better way of making the point. But still, it’s a very poorly designed aphorism.

The first part, “never try to be better than someone else,” excludes the possibility of being better than others naturally (i.e. without trying). And the position of the negation is wrong (grammarians might have a fancier name for this).

The second part, “but never cease trying to be the best you can be,” exhibits a different structure and so loses the point. What is needed is some sort of symmetry between the two parts to emphasize the point being made. And seriously, who uses “cease” this way?

Indeed, the point of this stillborn aphorism is to identify where your attention should be, not the success or failure of your attempts, so even the choice of “trying” is poor.

Here are some suggested alternatives, all of which I think make the point more clearly.

  • Don’t worry about being better than anyone but yourself.
  • If you can always do better than you did, you’ll eventually beat everyone else.
  • You are your own best competition.
  • Compete against yourself and eventually you’ll beat everyone else.
  • Improve your self; screw the rest of the world.

Please note that I came up with these in less than two minutes. Those more inclined to clever language use would very likely do much better.

The point is this: if you want to make a good, meaningful point, you need to design how you say it.