Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Poetry as a national security risk

Yes, you read that correctly...

It really says something about the quality of our detainees in Guantanamo, that they have written poems in Arabic on fragments of styrofoam cups.

But, apparently, too much poetry has been written at Guantanamo-- compromising our national security-- and much of it has been censored or destroyed. However, a collection of the remnants of these cup poems is to be published by the University of Iowa...

An excerpt from Leonard Doyle's piece in Common Dreams, originally published in The Independent/UK, and which also includes several of the poems:

The words of the celebrated Pakistani poet were scratched on the sides of a Styrofoam cup with a pebble. Then, under the eyes of Guantanamo Bay’s prison guards, they were secretly passed from cell to cell. When the guards discovered what was going on, they smashed the containers and threw them away, fearing that it was a way of passing coded messages.


There are other tragic tales behind the verses. The “cup poems” of Guantanamo speak of the strange absence of flowers in spring, the bangles worn by young women and handcuffs on the militants.

Fragments survived in the memory of the poet Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost after his eventual release, but thousands of lines of poetry he wrote in prison have disappeared.

Dost, a respected religious scholar, poet, and journalist - and author of nearly 20 books - until his arrest in 2001, spent nearly three years in Guantanamo with his brother. Sent home two years ago, the brothers were picked up by Pakistani intelligence and they too disappeared. Nothing has been heard of them since.

Perhaps the real security issue is the safety of those who have been or are currently in Guantanamo.

* * *

William Carlos Williams wrote... words that are apropos of almost any moment in these times:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably
every day
for lack of what is found there.”

A h/t to Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, for his post with the link to this story...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value.

"Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

"I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement. "

from National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia's
commencement speech to the Class of 2007
at Stanford University, his alma mater

Monday, June 25, 2007

Were it not for Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory...

...there would probably be no Chocolate Interrobang. [Our very first few posts explain the beginnings of this blog, and how we met in the comment threads at UT, and decided to take a tangential discussion of grammar and usage elsewhere, so as not to hijack the thread any further, and really annoy everyone else.]

Perhaps our existence might seem frivolous to you, but just consider how many other serendipitous meetings and occurrences have probably happened because of Glenn's blog. Not to mention the epiphanies...

You will be doing more than merely rewarding Glenn for creating such an interesting and intellectually stimulating community, if you buy his book. You will also be rewarding everyone else who has invested their own time & intellectual capital (a considerable amount, all told), and built his comment threads into a sight to behold.

More importantly-- for the sake of all of us, no matter our political stripe-- you will help to elevate the debate about the very life of our Constitution by making it impossible for the BigMediaGuys in the M$M to avoid paying proper attention to this book.

Ordinarily, I would suggest that you head off to your favorite independent book store to make your purchase, but in this case, I encourage you to buy from Amazon. It will save you money, and you can use the savings toward the purchase of a second copy... from your favorite independent book store. A loaner, a gift, or a donation... use it however you wish. Ordering from Amazon, though, does make the book more competitive in the quantitative environment where books like Glenn's must compete. And, if you are one of those who never buys anything online, then just buy it. Where ever you buy your books.

BUY THIS BOOK! Please...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

a short note on process...

I once had a boss who later fired/laid me off immediately after the beginning of the "First" Gulf War. He said to me one day-- long before the war-- "You really take an idea and run with it, don't you?" Unfortunately... he didn't really mean it as a compliment. Nor did he consider the "running-with" trait as desirable. And yet, he wanted me to do more. Oh, well...

Then, not so long ago, maybe a year or two, I happened to be on a city bus (because that was the easiest way to get to and from a doctor's appointment, since it did not involve parking) and I found myself in a conversation with the middle-aged, African-American man holding onto the strap next door. Seats were dear. I had a book with me, but could not read, given that I was holding a strap above my head and whatever else I was carrying at the time with my other hand.

So, I was eyeing enviously all of the seated passengers who could. And I remarked to my fellow traveler that there was an untapped, in fact, unrecognized, need for "book-holders." That is, for seated passengers who might care slightly less about reading than the passengers who were standing. For a token sum, they could offer to hold the standing passenger's book and turn the pages as needed, so that said passenger could still ride and read. He looked at me quizzically, but not unkindly, and said something very similar to "you really take an idea and run with it" don't you.

I had to laugh out loud. It's true. I have maybe one friend who really appreciates this about me; everyone else just tolerates it. It's not as if I actually "do" anything, since most of the time these are "ideas" that I'm running with, not things. But it is still amazing to consider some of the things you can accomplish, just by running with ideas, which of course everyone here understands at a pretty deep level. Or we wouldn't have connected at GG's blog.

This was just a roundabout way to say to the other contributors here that if an idea grabs you, it's probably okay to run with it. If you are hesitant to do that in a group blog, then go ahead and ask first. But know that you don't have to. This is "true" because of the self-selection process that brings us all here.

I believe there is a Muse watching over us.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I posted this distillation of a BBC lexicon of zeitgeist speech on the Patteran Pages a year or so ago. By now it's probably as cutting edge as Virgil's famous account of hip speak along the Via Appia.

What’s book, what’s buzzing, what’s boom-boom..?

When I was at school around about the time they drew up Magna Carta, we wore shirts in blue & black stripes with upturned collars under black v-neck sweaters over black trousers with 15” bottoms & chisel- or pointed-toe shoes. Under the dripping trees, fags on & transistor radio playing, we called each other ‘dad’ or ‘man’. Good stuff was ‘cool’ or ‘guvnor’; bad stuff was ‘square’.

And that was about it. Illicit cider in thermos flasks or cooking sherry in shampoo bottles, Players No. 6 tucked into a t-shirt sleeve, nodding moodily along with Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran & cheeking the teacher constituted the apogee of anti-social behaviour. Youth subculture was as deep as a coat of paint. Scratch it & the butcher, baker or barrister beneath would shine through.

Here, within the largely uncharted waters of the 21st century, there flourishes an archipelago of subcultural groupings, each animated by their own modi vivendi, each as fiercely exclusive as Balkan nation states.

Hoody culture – that which glossy new Tory leader David Cameron is so anxious to enfold in his pragmatic embrace – has managed, thus far, to resist corporate takeover. However, The Guardian – whose radar is ever sensitive to the slightest bleep of zeitgeist – has compiled a glossary of contemporary youth-speak. Now that the camera has flashed & the souls of the natives have been captured forever, street culture will duck the scrutiny of the media, the hoods will disappear & the language will remake & remodel. So get it here & now while it’s still fresh…


ah nam - tell on, rat on.


bait - obvious, as in "that's so bait".
(Nimesh Bhudia, Wembley, London)

bare - a lot of, very. In the case of a man or woman described as bare butters, see below.

beast - an adjective to describe something that's really cool.
(Suggested by reader Richard Beadnall, North Yorkshire) Beasting = bullying] [

book - cool. The first option given in predictive text when trying to type ‘c-o-o-l’.

boom boom - a slogan of approval in inner-city London. There was much debate during the election campaign about whether Tony Blair was booed or boomed at the Lilian Bayliss Technology School in London. [Surely a term of African American origin from jazz]

buff - sexy, fit. [It has been suggested to me that this term is used more frequently by the female to express approval of the male, where ‘fit’ might be used more frequently by the male commenting on the female]

bum - to enjoy something: "he bums that game so much". And there are levels of bummage - to really like something is to "bum it blue", but "he bummed it black" means he used to like it but has since gone off it.

butters - ugly (pronounced without sounding the t's).

buzzing - cool.


chirps - chat up: "We chirps some buff gals last night."

chung - extremely sexy. If someone is described as "chung", that's a serious step up from ‘buff’.

clappin' - out of date or worn out, usually to describe attire or accessories, as in "Man, my tracksuit is clappin'. Gotta get down JJB Sport and buy a new one." Also means tired out.
(Suggested by reader Denney, Reading) [‘Clapped out’ is a respectable term describing something functional that has broken down. The term originates from the 18th century in description of prostitutes consumed by venereal disease]

cotch down - to hang out, relax, chill out or sleep. Possibly derived, via patois, from the French "se coucher", meaning to lie down. See also kotch. [I have come across what I believe is an American verb to ‘skootch’, which means to wriggle or shuffle into a comfortable position]

crump - a multi-purpose term which can be an insult, an exclamation and a rather explicit sex act. It generally means bad, but can also mean good, depending on the context: "That ain't good, man, it's crump", or "That's one crump message you left there".


dash - to dash is to pass something to somebody - but it can be "pass" in the broadest possible sense, including to throw violently with the intention of causing hurt or damage.

dred - dreadful, terrible, bad, cruel. [Surely a well-known Jamaican adjective from Rastafarian culture]

dry - dull, boring, stupid, unfunny. A bad joke might be described as "dry".


feds - police. Taken from the US word for the FBI.

flat roofin' - to be overworked and stressed, as in, "I was flat roofin for my GCSEs". Probably comes from flat out.
(Suggested by reader Michael, London)

fo sho - "urban" version of yes, for sure, certainly. Clearly a steal from Afro-American vocabulary, with a strong suggestion of Southern inflection]

from ends - one who is "from the streets" and so knows what's going on.

fudge - a very, very stupid person indeed, presumably from the common slang verb ‘to fudge’, or mess up.


grimy - good, or may describe a practical joke or amusing - and probably unsavoury - act. [The term is used as a noun to define a version of urban dance music]


hangin - ugly, most likely with an unattractive body and bad dress sense to boot.

heavy - cool, interesting.
(Suggested by reader Yahya Raje) [Surely merely a version of the original meaning of the old hippy adjective]

howling - ugly.


jack - to steal or take, as in "car-jacking".

jokes - funny or enjoyable, as in, "That party was jokes".
(Suggested by reader Anishka Wil, Edgware)

jook - to stab or to steal.
(Suggested by reader Caroline Jones, Godalming) [In early jazz terminology to ‘jook’ meant to fuck. Is this in some way an extension, retaining the penetrative sense?]


kotch - sit and chill out. See also cotch.


laoy dat - forget that.
(Suggested by reader Masum Ullah, Birmingham)

long - someone who won't put out, also meaning a lot of effort: "He wanted to have sex with me, but I told him I'm long."

lush - good-looking, sexy. [This sense – an abbreviation of ‘luscious’ - has been around for many years]


mint - cool. Self-explanatory, surely.

munter - ugly. An alternate to minger, which has passed into the mainstream since its first recorded use in 1995.


nang - London term for cool, excellent, brilliant. When something is very good, it's "proper nang".

nim nim nim - blah blah blah; yadda yadda yadda. What's said when someone is talking rubbish.
(Suggested by reader Ian, Bristol) [An interesting example of contemporary onomatopoeia]


off the hook - cool, appealing, fresh, exceeding one's expectations. A phrase much over-used by Maxwell in Big Brother to express appreciation for his surroundings, for an attractive member of the opposite sex...

owned - to be made a fool of, to be beaten by. Can also be spelled "pwned", to denote a common spelling error in online gaming slang.
(Suggested by reader Jason Truman, Leamington Spa)


rago - whatever, OK.

random - odd, irregular, crazy, out there. Not used when something is genuinely random, but as an adjective by those who like to think they live a life less ordinary and have a wacky sense of humour. An example from Urban Dictionary reads thus:
Teen 1: "Cheese! hahahaha"
Teen 2: "Wow! That's sooooo random!"
Also used by players of the online game Counter-Strike to describe someone whose performance is inconsistent.

rents - parents.
(Suggested by reader Eric, London)

rinsed - overused, used up, all gone. "That song was rinsed, I don't like it anymore."
(Suggested by reader Angharad, Brixton)

roll with - hang out with.


safa - coolest of the cool, superlative version of safe (see below).

safe - cool, good, sweet. [Now outside the ‘underground’ & into common usage]

shabby - cool, smart, "da bomb". As in, "That's a well shabby suit."

sick - interesting, cool, never seen before. The more sick something is, the better. This usage originated with skaters and snowboarders.

sik - see sick.

skeen - I see. Also seen.
(Suggested by reader Alex Harris, Nottingham)

slap up - to beat up. Hence the happy slapping craze in which feral youths attack passers-by and film it on their mobiles.

standard - goes without saying.

swag - extreme, scary. A word which once denoted ill-gotten gains and then freebies - particularly branded merchandise - it can also be used as an adjective for something frightening.

switch - to turn on someone.


tell over/told over - to rat on someone.


unass - to relinquish or surrender control of an object or person; to leave.
(Suggested by reader Spoon, Leamington Spa)


vexed - irritated, angry. An old word, it has gained new currency, as demonstrated by Science in Big Brother to express his annoyance with some triviality or other.


wagwaan - what's up? what's going on? Originates from Jamaican patois.
(Suggested by reader Abtin, Berkhamsted)

wicked - cool. Yes, 30-somethings who remember it from their own school days, it has made a comeback. Can also mean very, thus something can be described as "wicked cool". [Long outside the ‘underground’ & in common usage]


yard - house, garden, where one lives and hangs out. Once again, a steal from early jazz slang]

your mum - a comeback to a question or insult. An implied affront to one's mother, which may be taken as an ineffectual insult or may result in grievous bodily harm.

Friday, June 22, 2007

open thread - welcome friends!

There has been some talk back and forth over the in the GG comment section - "I shall check out the Chocolate Interrobang!" There hasn't been a new post in a little bit. My home is more full of relatives than usual (a layered thought, there) and one of them is very small. My oft contemplated recap of the thinking-in-metaphors discussion and my conclusions thereto (ants, mandelbrot, and free-climbing) remains un-compiled.

Unproductive this week, new books, too many people, and the attraction/repulsion of provoking posters at the comment section. But I keep checking here, and want to say "hey!" and see what comments and remarks people who drop by may have. Usually, the idea is you write a post to post, and therefore people comment. This time, I write a post in hopes, waiting for it to be time just to comment.

The picture comes from

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

An Open Thread...










Thanks to the commenter (?) at GG's blog who posted the link to this image.

Valerie's turn... The following has been pasted in from the comments for suggestions on how best to respond to a news story; feel free to add comments, suggestions, etc., directly to this post, if you are able, or else in the comments...

and now a rewrite from Valerie (see both her note and mine in the comment box) which I have also moved up the page a bit:

Valerie said...

Good morning, good folks!

I have decided to focus my ire directly on CNN for several reasons. One, they did it! Two, it's already old news :( I'm just not quick enough to be on-spot with commentary like Glenn or others. So, I narrowed my "audience" which helped me structure my rant. Here is my rewrite, which obviously still needs work. I'll do more fact checking later this morning to substantiate my argument. Here goes:

Dear CNN American Morning,

On Wednesday, June 20, 2007, I viewed your show during the period that Christianne Amanpour reported on Iraqi refugees which was followed by the interview with Mrs. Laura Bush. I believe the stated facts in these two segments conflicted, which disturbs me for two reasons, which are of great import to your viewers whether they realize it or not. The importance to me has prompted this correspondence.

The first reason is the apparent conflict in the facts. Amanpour's discussion regarding Iraqi refugees in various countries was informative and presented factually. She stated that the USA had the fewest refugees from Iraq and only in the 10s this year -- not tens of hundreds or tens of thousands, but 10s.

Then Mrs. Bush's interview followed Amanpour immediately, with Mrs. Bush quoting entirely different Iraqi refugee statistics, saying that (paraphrase): "the USA was helping out with the refugee crisis in a big way, and was leading the world in refugee assistance."

To alleviate my disturbance, I did some research and found that an article in the Boston Sun (,0,946531.story) supports Amanpour. QUOTE SOME FACTS.

Another article, from CNN (, could support Mrs. Bush in a flawed sort of way. Your article states "The U.S. State Department says it expects at least 70 Iraqi refugees to come to the United States in the next 10 days, part of the 7,000 who will be allowed to resettle in America under an emergency measure approved in February." Thus it appears that your article supports Amanpour, but Mrs. Bush used the 7,000 number as if it had already happened. FIND SWEDEN NUMBERS (12,000, I believe)


My second reason for disturbance concerns CNN's decision to air these two segments back-to-back as coverage of World Refugee Day. Did not anyone at CNN notice the conflict in facts? Did not anyone at CNN expect their viewers to notice the conflict in facts? Or was this segment placement intentional in an effort to be "balanced"? And if it was meant to show viewers "both sides of the story," then where is your analysis of the factual conflict?


June 22, 2007 4:30 AM

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lost in Translation or I'll Take an "M," Pat

Now, right now, as you're reading this, thousands of people halfway around the planet are trying to translate the word "rat-arsed" into perfectly idiomatic Chinese.

The Fourth Casio Cup Translation Contest is in full swing. Organized by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, the goal of the contest is to translate a given English source text into Chinese.The text this time is "Reservoir Frogs (Or Places Called Mama’s)," a 1996 New Yorker piece by Salman Rushdie, on what Rushdie calls "the fine art of meaningless naming." Here's a sample (you can see the full text here [scroll down]):
As Luis Bunuel knew, obscurity is a characteristic of objects of desire. Accordingly, there is no trainspotting in Trainspotting; just a predictable, even sentimental movie that thinks it's hip. (Compared to the work of, say, William S. Burroughs, it’s positively cutesy.) It has many admirers, perhaps because they are unable even to understand its title, let alone the fashionably indecipherable argot of the dialogue. The fact remains: Trainspotting contains no mention of persons keeping obsessive notes on the arrival and departure of trains…Irvine Welsh’s original novel does offer some help. The section titled ‘Trainspotting at Leith Central Station’ takes the characters to a derelict, train-less station, where one of them attacks a derelict human being who is, in fact, his father, doling out a goodly quantity of what Anthony Burgess’s hoodlum Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, would call ‘the old ultraviolence’. Clearly, something metaphorical is being reached for here, though it's not clear exactly what. In addition, Welsh thoughtfully provides a glossary for American readers: ‘Rat-arsed--drunk; wanker - masturbator; thrush - minor sexually transmitted disease’. At least an effort at translation is being made. Out-and-out incomprehensibilists disdain such cosiness.

In 1928, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali co-directed the Surrealist classic
Un Chien Andalou, a film about many things, but not Andalusian dogs. So it is with Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. No reservoir, no dogs, no use of the words ‘reservoir’, ‘dogs’ or ‘reservoir dogs’ at any point in the movie. No imagery derived from dogs or reservoirs or dogs in reservoirs or reservoirs of dogs. Nada, or, as Mr Pink and Co. would say, ‘Fuckin’ nada.’ The story goes that when the young Tarantino was working in a Los Angeles video store his distate [sic] for fancy-pants European auteurs like, for example, Louis Malle manifested itself in an inability to pronounce the titles of their films. Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants defeated him completely (oh reservoir les oh fuck) until he began to refer to it contemptuously as - you guessed it – ‘those, oh, reservoir dogs’. Subsequently he made this the title of his own movie, no doubt as a further gesture of anti-European defiance. Alas, the obliqueness of the gibe meant that the Europeans simply did not comprenday.

To forestall any attempts at exegesis (‘Author, Citing Dadaism’s Erstwhile Esotericism, Opposes Present-Day “Mamaist” Obfuscations’), I confess that as a title it means nothing at all; but then the very concept of meaning is now outdated, nerdy, pre-ironic. Welcome to the New Incomprehensibility: gibberish with attitude.
A friend in China asked me some questions about the text—not about the translation (which would be against the rules and, besides, I don't know Chinese)—and, in the process of helping her, I began to think about how hard the art of translation really is. Like everyone, I've read bad translations but I hadn't really thought about translation from the translating end.

My friend was thinking "hip" means "fashionable" but, used here, it's more like a self-conscious knowingness of being fashionable—and the word itself is self-cancelling, its very use a comment on unhipness. "With attitude" is a confrontational, "tell-it-like-it-is" stance—it's a positive inversion of "having an attitude" which I always thought of as a sort of sullen hostility—it's hard to imagine that a similar word exists in Chinese.

And then there's the transmutation from "Au Revoir Les Enfants" to "Reservoir Dogs." How do you manage that in Chinese while retaining the essential meaninglessness of it all? The Chinese releases of those films must have titles—do you go with those or with some specially transliterated versions to show just how Tarantino's mangled French and strange disdain led to a meaningless yet slightly similar title?

A site devoted entirely to the Harry Potter books in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese translation provides some fascinating clues as to how translators deal with thorny translation problems. (Disclaimer: I have never touched a Harry Potter book.)

In Book One, Chapter 5, Harry asks Hagrid the eternal question: "What's the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite?" Hagrid, not feeling up to geological exegesis (as Sir Salman might say), replies: "Stalagmite's got an "m" in it. An' don' ask me questions just now, I think I'm gonna be sick."

In Chinese, stalactite is zhōng-rǔ-shí ("hanging-bell milk rock") and stalagmite is shí-sǔn (''rock bamboo-shoot''). No "M" in sight. What do you do?

If you're the Mainland Chinese translator, well, there's no problem: Hagrid says: "There's an "M" in the middle of zhōng-rǔ-shí." Well, true enough as a translation but that answer must leave Chinese readers scratching their heads.

If you're the Taiwanese Chinese translator, Hagrid says "zhōng-rǔ-shí is made up of three characters" (the word shí-sǔn , after all, has two), effectively getting at the irritated non-answer of Hagrid's reply.

Another example: one character, Fleur Delacour, is referred to by the contemptuous nickname, "Phlegm." So how do you come up with a nickname that sounds like "Fleur" but with the disgusting properties of "phlegm"?

This time the Taiwanese Chinese translator comes up with a true masterpiece: Fleur in the Taiwanese version is named Huār meaning 'flower'; the contemptuous nickname for her is Wār meaning "frog" which might be considered a suitably slimy substitute for "phlegm" and, as a bonus, mocks the French accent of the character (who drops her "h's").

So, a particularly gifted translator can convey the essence of the original in another language. (And, in a few rare cases, the translation surpasses the source. Gabriel Garcia Márquez said that Gregory Rabassa's English translation of Márquez's Cien anos de soledad "improved the original.")

Still, contemplating the flawless translation of Rushdie's piece—or any translation of a difficult literary piece—now fills me with new-found awe and trepidation—awe at the idea that a translator could overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and craft a fully Chinese version, and trepidation at the actual odds stacked against doing so, both illustrated by the judges' choices in the previous Casio translation competition.

Awe? One of the judges described the translation of the second prize winner as "the one that you could barely recognize as a translation. In other words, [John] Updike's story ["The Delicate Wives"] read as though it were written in Chinese originally."

And trepidation? Well, what about the first prize winner? There wasn't any—the judging panel said that none of the entries submitted was worthy of the honor of winning the top prize.

Even so, I'm hoping one of those people now puzzling over the Mandarin version of the word "rat-arsed" nails it this time.

Today's Good Grammar and Good Taste Award goes to ...

... smartalec on Glenn's blog for the following:
It's very disappointing to me -- who have had to watch both my favorite local bookstore and one of the best NY landmarks both ...

Good taste, of course, for supporting the small, independent merchant over the megacorporate giant.

But good grammar for both knowing that a relative pronoun agrees with its antecedent in person and number and for acting on that knowledge in the face of the knowledge that 99.9% of English speakers would have said and would have expected *"who has" instead of the grammatically correct "who have".

It's time to remember that castigating those who use poor grammar is not enough. It's not even enough to point out that many pedagogical grammatical "rules" are nonsense from a language-historical point of view. It is also necessary to reward those with the courage to practice good grammar in public.

So kudos to smartalec for winning the first (and possibly last) ever "Good Grammar and Good Taste Award". The prize includes (consists entirely of, in fact) a year's free subscription to The Chocolate Interrobang.

Monday, June 18, 2007

"That Long Grey Corridor" and "Clear Blue Sky" ...both by Dick Jones

Serendipitously, Dick Jones, whom I mentioned in the previous post and then dropped a note in the comments, now has a an essay in the latest issue of qarrtsiluni, an online literary magazine. Accompanying it, is a poem, written to honor his father who died six years ago.

Both the essay and the poem deal with the ineffability of death.

You really want to click over and read them, especially the poem.

It is a marvel, and-- just to be clear, completely on-topic for this blog.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bloggers' Love of Language + Generosity = Something Ineffable

2004 really wasn't all that long ago, but it seems like ages. I first started blogging that summer, partly to deal with my anxiety about the upcoming election, and partly because I had been sick and couldn't do much else. It seems appropriate at this particular moment-- a transitional one for me-- to mention a few bloggers that I met when I first started at Salon. Not only because of the theme of community-- first there, and now here, although that is true-- but even more because each of them has an immense love of language and storytelling.

Although there were a lot of bloggers who were generous with their time and encouragement to other newbies, these four stand out for me: Birdie, who began her first blog, Beauty Dish, in order to track her experiences as a single mother selling Avon; Sam, whose blog, feral, underwent many transformations before it's ultimate end; and Dick Jones, whose Patteran Pages includes poems, reminiscences, stories about his days in rock and roll (which didn't really end all that long ago), and photos of both his older and youngest children, all glorious examples of offspring; and perhaps the most unusual of all, Mark Hoback, of Fried Green al-Qaedas, and once of The Virtual Occoquan (now on hiatus), and more recently of The Aristocrats.

Birdie tells the very best stories of anyone I know. She would consistently have her readers refreshing their screens all day long-- sometimes for days at a time-- waiting for the next unbelievable episode in her life. What made her stories so wonderful was partly her sense of adventure and her ability to turn anything into a story worth telling, but also her openness to life itself and her ability to say yes. It also didn't hurt that stories worth telling kept happening to her... like the night when an unknown person rang her doorbell in the middle of the night to alert her that they were leaving a potbellied pig (named Frank E. Bacon) with her because they knew she loved animals. (All of this information was conveyed in the note attached to Frankie.) Or the curious customers she met while hawking Avon: the naked lady, the lady with the monkey who needed conditioning lotion, the very content married lady who had discovered an unusually satisfying use for the firming cream, and on and on. Some rainy day, or any day when you could use a laugh, try and read through her archives. You'll probably find something that will make you laugh and cry. Especially, if you come across the story about her younger Trekkie son and the Pledge of Allegiance. We also had virtual parties in Birdie's comment pages, complete with graphics of food, beverages, and sometimes costumes. That's one advantage of Salon's strange comment editing boxes... if you know how, you can post a picture of something yummy. In the comment box. Something we can't do here. Or in most other comment boxes, for that matter. And the after-party clean-up only looked bad; it really took no time at all when everyone pitched in.

Sam's blog was one of the most linguistically stylish I've ever had the pleasure to read, her use of language the most impeccable and free of cliches. She had a successful career as an editor, but at heart may be more of an artist. Sam has lots of stories and adventures, too, though not usually as light-hearted as Birdie's, due to her different circumstances. In Sam's daily posts, you might find a poem, fresh that morning from a dream or her psyche, or oftentimes a description of the natural sounds, along with the sights and scents, on her walkabouts in rural Northern California. I haven't found any other blogs with such soundtracks, or more properly... sensetracks. Of course, there would be the requisite posting of animal pictures, but on a grander scale, with sequential photos of both Sam and her brother, Brian, accompanying those of their amazing menagerie of animals: numerous dogs and cats, itinerant boarding visitors (e.g., a large turtle with a dour personality), and two llamas. Sam has since been busy trying to make a go of a bookstore, and has created a much-needed and beloved center for booklovers in her small town, but its success has been complicated beause she has had to move the business-- while caring for her autistic brother and an extended family of friends, both two-legged and four-legged-- sometimes just within blocks, 3 or 4 or 5 times. Maybe 6. I've lost count. Ai yai yaiii... only a true-blooded Capricorn like Sam could have accomplished as much heartbreaking work as she has in the few years I've known her, while fulfilling all of those other obligations.

Dick Jones was one of the first two people to leave a comment on my Salon blog, Bread Crumbs-- on my second post-- the one with an illustration for R.L. Stevenson's "When I was sick and lay abed," and the accompanying poem, posted because I felt that was how GWB thought of our military, like some toy soldiers he could play with whenever he felt like it. Getting to know Dick was a refreshing respite (redundancy needed for emphasis) because he lives in the UK, and was perfectly willing to read or listen to political diatribes against the current occupant and his administration, even when he didn't know all of the parties involved. And you could always count on him for a pithy one- or two-word epithet to fit the occasion. Dick's blog posts are varied. He is an accomplished poet who writes from the intersecting axes of his memory and dreams and history, both his family's and his country's, especially WWII. A few years older than I am, he has far more courage, given that he is the doting father of not one, nor two, but of three toddlers, the youngest of whom has just had her first birthday. You'll have to look at his blog yourself, or you won't believe me when I say how gorgeous they are. And their older siblings look pretty great, too. Dick's blog is also a good place to look for a good joke (especially for comparisons of US and UK humor) or a fitting quote.

Mark Hoback's blog scared me a little at first, and I wasn't sure I wanted to add a name like Fried Green al-Qaedas to my blogroll, since we still didn't know at that time what the Patriot Act really meant, or what the DHS would be looking for. Nevertheless, I girded my loins and added the link. Mark posts some of the most pointed and biting satire anywhere, good enough that his work, especially his graphics, have sometimes been used by other bloggers without citation. [A big no-no in my book.] And yet, he was unfailingly generous in collaborating with me, photoshopping images when needed, most notably for an online "dialogue" between Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ, with a very familiar-looking alien calling them to account. Occasionally he would use something I had written for the Virtual Occoquan, his online literary review of some of the original writing on Salon blogs. If I had to name only one piece of Mark's that was my favorite, it would actually have to be a series of posts he did with tiny photo images of some very famous people speaking the words he dared to put in their mouths. The cast included Peewee Herman and his genie, Jambi, as well as Reese Witherspoon, George Bush and Laura, most of GWB's administration, and the current North Korean dictator, who had a nefarious plot that involved kidnapping you-know-whom. The photos he used were so perfectly dead-on that I would have to laugh out loud while reading each new episode. I asked Mark to extend the story line to get us through the worst of the administration. I don't recall the last date, but it may actually have been last fall.

Certainly there are many other bloggers whose work I like and admire. You have only to glance at the Bread Crumbs' blogroll... but these four people fed my spirit in a special way during a time when I was recovering from a chronic condition, and couldn't do much else but surf, blog, and post political rants and diatribes. Except for Mark, they mostly posted other things, which may be why they were so important to me then, as I look back on it. Every diet needs a bit of variety, especially a political one.

Most importantly, each one of them consistently exercised the highest respect for language and for saying what they wanted to say with integrity. Because of them and the others I met there, Salon was, and still is, in a way, a kind of "wetlands" for blogging. But, except for a handful, most of those original bloggers have left Salon for other environs.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sure, he did - but it hardly made up for such a crappy Summer

One of the famous quotes from Alice in Wonderland is "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'" The whole passage is interesting, but I want to focus on just this bit.

Second things first, the second most notable thing in this quote is the placement of the word "rather" - so precise, suggesting (1) a tone that was more "scornful" than any other adjective, and (2) that the scornfulness was not excessive.

The first most notable thing in this quote, as applied to how people use words, is how it is both (1) generally untrue and (2) generally true.

(1) It is generally untrue:

This line can be taken to mean that, with Humpty Dumpty as our example, we each privately decide words mean whatever we want, regardless of what other people think those words mean. I find that hackle-raising. It could mean
  • (a) we make sounds that sound like words while expecting people to read from our minds thoughts bearing little external relation to the sounds we make; or
  • (b) we are cunningly sloppy, accomplishing naughty ends through (technically) virtuous means, stretching facets of meanings into loopholes in truth, and lazily tending toward presidential signing statements and viral marketing campaigns and worse.

(a) and (b) are common enough in this bad old world, and put a fair reading on that quote, but that reading is generally untrue because we humans usually do purposefully use words that mean to others what they mean to us.

In other words, as a practical matter, words work. People buy and sell, travel to new places, do their work, meet and fall in love, all using words to communicate - much gets accomplished, and so it is clear that this hackle raising reading of Humpty Dumpty's statement is untrue for most of us most of the time.

And yet! Even beyond items (1)(a) and (1)(b) above,

(2) It is generally true:

Surprisingly often, we use words without thinking about what other people think they mean. The problem with that is, if a word is to have meaning at all, multiple people must ascribe a given meaning to that word. We say or write things without considering them, assuming our natural usage will carry our thoughts smoothly to others. Note the key verb in the quote - "choose" - and reflect for a moment. We use the words that mean what we say, but often
  • (a) we fail to think through all the possible things a given word can mean, or
  • (b) fail to narrow down a word's general region of meaning to the relevant specific meaning.
Do you think about what a word means before you use it? 50% of the time? 85% of the time? 99% of the time?

If I take into account both speaking and writing, I have about a B average. An average average, even. I do try, though, and I urge others to try. And, through this blog, I hope to lend my strength to more general resistance against sloppy usage. If I felt more comfortable flinging alarmist statements without preambles, I would simply say "We are letting each other get away with critical meaning failure!"

One of my pet peeves is contemporary usage of the word "unique" - what does it mean? If widget A is unique, there is not one other widget like it anywhere in the world. If there is a remarkably similar widget somewhere, one could then say that widget A is "practically unique" or "almost unique" - that is fine. However, even if there were never another such widget as widget A anywhere ever, and it is totally blowing everyone's minds, one could NOT then say that widget A is "very unique" - it is as unique as ever, neither more nor less. There is no such thing as more or less unique. That is, potentially, the whole power of the word, a power we waste through improper usage. [There is a bible verse about saltiness that could go here.]

When you said something was "very unique", did you mean to say "very rare" or "very cool" or "I feel like talking all fancy, so I say 'simplistic' instead of simple, and I might as well say 'very unique' because I am not really thinking this through, nor am I referring to a dictionary, ever"?

Language is one of those aspects of human society about which it may be said that the individual's best interest is also the group's best interest - more words, more meaning, more knowledge, and more understanding. What this adds up to is more power. Power in the "sword and shield" sense. A shield - to avoid misunderstanding in yourself and others. A sword to make your arguments clear and persuasive, and to eviscerate the false arguments of others.

There is a lot of work to be done, cleaning up all this mess of propaganda, politicking, and marketing, and we will never win any war against them, only certain battles. So let's be a little cheesy about it and say "People of good will and great vocabularies! Gird your loins and grab your dictionaries! The fight is all!"

Q & (non-)A: a notable quote

At today's press briefing, Bush White House spokesman, Tony Snow, eschewed using a standard part of speech, as he danced around the finer points of a question he would prefer to completely avoid:

Reporter: Can you attach an adjective here?

Snow: No, I try to stay out of the adjectival business.

For the rest of the exchange, you'll have to check out this link from Salon's War Room. The above Q & (non-)A are the 5th between AP reporter Holland and Snow.

* * *

Later on in the same interview, Snow attempted to distinguish between backpedaling and minimizing a vast, metaphysical question.

Reporter: That sounds like backpedaling.

Snow: No, it's not backpedaling. It's just it seems to me to be such a vast, metaphysical question.

* * *

I don't know about the rest of you, but I find small comfort in knowing that the Bush White House's spokesman can even use the word metaphysical in a relevant context... whether hyperbole or not.

Escaping Flatland...

I almost posted something about Edward Tufte a day or two ago, when Arts & Letters Daily posted a link to the first of two pieces about him. Instead, I hesitated... and I'm glad I did, since the second link is even more Tufte-like. I also figured that the select group that gathers here would already be familiar with Tufte and his revolutionary notions about combining qualitative and quantitative data in ways that allow telling a story.

But then I thought, why not discuss him anyway?

Two short excerpts from the second link:
“We had numbers and words in the same house,’’ Tufte says, as if that explains how he got to where he is. [His father was an engineer, and his mother began a career as a journalist, but later became an English professor.]
In an interview in the mid-’90s with the Computer Literacy Bookshops in San Jose, Tufte explained that to do statistical design, one has to be able to see and to count. He claimed he didn’t see as well as many graphic artists and didn’t count as well as the best statisticians, but he did the combo better than just about anyone. His great insight was to think about graphics not as art or statistical constructs but as stories. He challenged chart-makers to ask the question: what is the story we’re trying to tell?
Both pieces are worth reading... just as Tufte's own site is well worth exploring.

Monday, June 11, 2007

To blithely split infinitives: a group collaboration in Draft form...

from Karen M.

Does anyone else want to compile a list of examples of famously split infinitives?

Of course, there is "to boldly go."

* * *

and from Frankly, my dear...

Since I don't seem to be able to make additions to your post, I've started a parallel one from which you can copy and paste.

Points to make: First, in principle an infinitive can't be split in English since it is the simplest form of the verb (walk, stand, run, etc.). Technically speaking, the form 'to' + infinitive in English is known as the supine. On the other hand, about 1 person in 100,000 knows this and if you talk about split supines no one will have a clue what you are talking about. In common usage, 'infinitive' usually encompasses both the simple verb (nomen actionis) and the form with 'to' (the supine).

Then, like 'she turned him on' there should probably be a nod to "Obligatorily Split Infinitives."

George Bernard Shaw, the brilliant Irish playwright, once sent this letter to the Times of London: “There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives: I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once.”

The twentieth-century writer and cartoonist James Thurber had this to say to the editor who rearranged his infinitive: “When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split!”

Both of the above quotations can be found at this site.

* * *

from Karen M.

I loved those examples, Frankly... !

Any of the current contributors are free to blithely make edits directly on this post. [Permissions were updated to make this possible.]

Anyone else is free to make suggestions in the comments and we will, if we like them, add them to the post for you.

"...phrase-parsed text displays that more naturally match the way our eyes perceive and capture...?"

I found this link to Live Ink via Dave Pollard's blog, How to Save the World. At first glance, the technique seems to turn prose into a form of prose-poetry via subtle bullet points (tho' without the actual bullet points).

Read the Moby Dick example, and see if you agree. I tried to paste a small sample here for you, but the very clever programming would not allow me to. You'll have to take a look at it yourself in order to see what I mean.

I have often wondered whether books could ever be satisfactorily read-- with ease and in comfort-- on some kind of hand-held computer. Having learned to read across the pages, from left to right, a small screen just seemed so inadequate for accommodating even a modest page of text.

However, the Live Ink format leads the eyes to read... using narrow columns of curving text... down the page. This is the first time I've felt tempted to wonder about having an iPod or other MP3 device for reading.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Divided by a Common Language? Are We Sure about That?

Having read all sorts of English fiction, poetry and essays over the years, without ever having actually set foot in the British Isles, I've never thought much about the differences in usage between the U.S. and the U.K. In fact, except for noting obvious variations in spelling and vocabulary -- honor vs. honour, sedan vs. saloon, etc. -- I'm not sure I've ever been all that conscious of specific stylistic differences. The differences between Kingsley Amis and John Updike weren't any more notable in context than those between Updike and Norman Mailer. One language, different voices was as much distinction as I ever admitted to.

Only recently have I encountered new reasons to pay closer attention. The first arrived -- courtesy of the Fox soccer channel -- with the advent on American television of games from the English Premier Football League. (Make that the obligatory Barclays Premier Football League. The British may laugh at Pizza Hut Park, but they have their own problems with commercialism in sport.)

In listening over time to the match commentators, I gradually became aware of all sorts of hitherto unsuspected divergences in usage. Here are some examples:

British: On the floor.
American: On the ground. (Only indoors is it the floor.)

British: He's got pace.
American: He's fast.

British: Into touch.
American: Out of bounds.

British: Fixture, match
American: Game

British: tie (a competition for one of the many football cups)
American: tie (a game in which both teams have or end up with with the same score.)

British: Kit, strip
American: Uniform

British: A foul on so-and-so (So-and-so has been fouled.)
American: A foul on so-and-so (So-and-so has committed a foul.)

Add all of this up, and it's hard to avoid noticing that you're not in Kansas any more -- or in New York or Alabama either, for that matter. I might have dismissed this as simply a difference in sports dialects, but for the fact that at the same time I found myself reading more in the way of news and political commentary from British sources on the Internet: The Guardian and Independent, as well as the Economist, Prospect, the BBC, the Times, etc. Differences I hadn't noticed before began to jump out at me. For example:

British: It wasn't the best thing anyone has ever said about him, but nor was it the worst.
American: It wasn't the best thing anyone has ever said about him, nor was it the worst.

British: Did I do it? Well no, but I might've done, if....
American: Did I do it? Well no, but I might have, if....

British: The engineering team have decided to pursue the recommended design changes.
American: The engineering team has decided to pursue the recommended design changes.

(American translations are my own.)

Not all of this was new, of course, but I was seeing it in a new light, possibly because there was suddenly so much of it around me. I also realized that the loo, or the telly, knickers, or napkins weren't the interesting parts. What was far more interesting were the grammatical, or if you like, syntactical differences -- the way different choices of word or phrase were both derived from, and in turn led again to different rhythms of speech and writing. It was those rhythms which had been steadily diverging over the last two hundred plus years, a divergence which had only been partly attenuated by the fact that, increasingly, we share a single literature.

At that point, I realized that being a voracious reader as a kid hadn't been entirely without its disadvantages. Whenever I'd encountered something new and tasty then, I'd simply incorporated it, as kids do, into my own linguistic toolkit. Unfortunately, once I had it firmly in my possession, all hope of provenance was lost. It took me years to grasp that I couldn't just insert what some Oxford wag had said a century before -- or rather his manner of saying it -- into my own speech or writing, not without seeming either a pedant or a mutant. far so good. Then I realized something that led all the way around the circle to my starting point again. Look at the following two examples of regional American usage:


I gave them bupkis. BUPKIS, I'm telling you. (Yiddish)

We spent hours on line, just waiting for the place to open. (on, not in)

Rural Alabama:

It was laying over yonder, behind the barn. (lay/lie, archaic
yonder instead of there)

Y'all going over to the store later? Carry me with you, I need a few things myself. (entirely regional use of
carry, and then, of course, y'all itself.)

Would the idioms of residents of Manhattan necessarily be more familiar to a rural Alabaman, or vice versa, than any of the Britishisms listed above? I suspect not, which leads me to conclude that the British/American versions of our common language aren't as different as we might be tempted to think, and thanks to things like the Internet, probably won't diverge significantly more in the future than they have already.

The leftover Latin curse

I'm inspired by a comment thread on the post below to attack that most contemptuous of grammar rules: the ridiculous notion that you can't end sentences with a preposition. This rule aggravates me in particular because it is simple enough for every fool to understand and remember, so it is the one hammered hardest into the heads of poor, innocent schoolchildren. We now have generations of people who cannot quip, as Winston Churchill did when criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put."

Plus, it's an excuse to quote here, at length, an enticing passage in Garner's Modern American Usage on the subject (the argument is pulled largely from Fowler's classic Modern English Usage):

"The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a 'rule' at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. ...

"The idea that a preposition is ungrammatical at the end of a sentence is often attributed to 18th-century grammarians. But that idea is greatly overstated. ... The furthest [Bishop] Lowth [the most prominent grammarian of that period] went was to urge that 'the placing of the preposition before the relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.' That idea is an archaic view that makes modern writing stuffy. ... Lowth's statement about prepositions was hardly intended as a 'rule.' ...

"In 1947, a scholar summed up the point: 'Those who insist that final prepositions are inelegant are taking from teh English language one of its greatest assets -- its flexibility -- an advantage realized and practiced by all our greatest writers except a few who, like Dryden and Gibbon, tried to fashion the English language after the Latin.

"Good writers don't hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural."

Despite grammarians' agreement on this issue, it's still pushed in the language education in our schools, and I wish it wouldn't be. Doing so creates squadrons of mean-spirited adults who try to make others feel small for saying, "What are you thinking about?" And to whom I would like to say, "Bugger off."

Our First Open Thread

While we await further postings... I thought it might be a good idea to open up a thread for topics that are unrelated to the current posts, and also to allow readers/commenters to suggest topics for future discussion.

Collaboration is everything. People used to say that about timing... I know, I was one of them, but now... I think it's all about collaboration.

And it's all because of the Internets and the Google.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Why does it matter?

Who cares, right? What's it any good for? is what the high school student always asks of grammar and mathematics lessons alike. It is a question that has long kept me from accepting acquaintances' casual requests that "maybe you can help me edit this brochure/paper/website/letter to the editor." Inevitably, at some stage in the process, the acquaintance will become in the first place frustrated that I haven't changed their plain prose into words that sparkle or burn, and in the second place that I have proposed changing too much. They will take a comma correction as personal criticism. Then they will look at me sideways, suspiciously, and say, "It doesn't really matter, anyway." And then they'll ask, even more suspiciously, whether I really get paid to do this.

Which is why I stick with copy editing for textbook companies, who (or which?) know exactly how much they want me to do -- or, usually, not to do.

As with many seemingly simple questions, this one's answer is unhelpfully complicated. Simply put, though, language matters because it is how we communicate. Even that statement seems to garner plenty of criticism, met as it often is with the grumbled, "I can understand you just fine." Yeah? Have you ever tried to decipher London cockney?

Bryan Garner wrote an excessively long essay in Harper's several years ago (partly to introduce his new Modern American Usage) in which he printed the entire lecture he gave to every university student who complained to him about his grammar and language corrections on their essays. His short answer? If you want to be taken seriously, if you ever want to go anywhere, you've got to speak the language well enough to know how the game is played.

This love for language is often misinterpreted as wanting to make everyone speak and write absolutely the same. Quite false. It's about understanding one another. The rest is just the toothsome gooey fudge left in the bottom of the pot. Any true philologist gets their true pleasure in exploring the potentials of words and dialects and the infinite iterations of meanings. Heck, I get a kick out of looking up the names from J.K. Rowling's books in my Oxford English Dictionary because I know she draws heavily from Old English and Celtic mythology when coming up with them.

Personally, I have a love for learning other languages in general, and not just the ones with different alphabets. When my English husband and I first met, he told me one evening as I was going to bed, that "I'll knock you up at about 8." You think you understand English? I stood open-mouthed and red-faced for a good few seconds before I remembered that my study-abroad survival dictionary (kindly provided by my home college) defined the Britishism "knock [someone] up" as "to wake [someone] up." Nine years into marriage now and we're still working out the niceties of being, as my mother-in-law puts it, "divided by a common language."

As certifiedprepwn3d said in her post below, our ways of communicating are changing at eyeblink paces. Online conversation has (partly due to its replacement of the spoken word, I'd argue) made written communication more demanding than it was before. How often did people feel the need to put winking smiley faces in their handwritten letters to make sure the recipient knew they were "just joking!"

None of this means that language matters to you. We're not here to proselytize --I swear! -- but to revel in a common love for the ways in which we can use and abuse and mold language. We read grammar books for fun. We delight in finding new words, or new meanings for old ones. We're just kids playing in word-mud. Get your mucky clothes on and come on in.

What are we here for?

As described in the first post, this Chocolate Interrobang was born out of a discussion at Glenn Greenwald's blog on Salon. So - a group blog (being done by people who have only met online), arising from a comment page (inhabited by people who have only met online, some of whom are there only to disagree), hosted at a blog (itself hosted at a magazine that exists only in digital form, expressly non-print) . . .. That we are here is one example of the evolving iterations of connection and communication that exist only online.

I had a professor in college who was fond of saying, among other things, that you can't have two things without having three things -- this wasn't what he was getting at but the situation we are in with all of these online forums is that there is written English, there is spoken English, and now there is online typing.

Online typing. Is it talking? Is it letter- writing? Assuming you are at a comment board to have a real conversation: how much will you rely on tone and context, and how much work will you do to get your point across? How much work will you expect the other participants to do in attempting to understand you?

As to the origins of this blog, I was glad to see comments from people who care about clear communication achieved through careful and disciplined writing.

Comment boards are fun and interesting - informal, lively and immediate, much like speech. On the good side, we ditch the preoccupation with physical presentation and the need to leave the house or actually talk to people. On the bad side, we lose all the non-verbal clues and other meta-data that is inherent in speech. The passionate comments about language and usage in the middle of a non-language-oriented blog suggested to me that there are plenty of people who want to retain (at least when helpful) the rules and conventions of written English even in this digital context.

So, a few tentative conclusions about the goals here:
  1. This is not about bossing people around and feeling like awesome smarty-pantses.
  2. This is not about asking each other whether we have any Grey Poupon.
  3. This is about enjoying our language in written form, online or offline, and deepening our own understanding of it.
  4. This is about continuing discussions and gathering information that will help people of good will communicate more effectively.
How does that sound?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

This is how we began...

First, with an innocent comment by IntrovertGirl...
Grammar Police: not addressed to anyone in particular

I'll probably get drowned for this, but I can't help it. It's been bugging me the last couple days. Its vs. it's: Its is possessive. It's is a contraction. Look! There's a dragon under the tree! Its scales are purple. It's going to eat some ball point pens. - IntrovertGirl
Then, I chimed in with...
Grammar police, Part II

I might as well pile on, too, IntrovertGirl, and keep you company in the water...

They're = they are
Their = possessive

There = not here

You're = you are

Your = possessive

Yore = not now, but before (that one is just for fun & symmetry)

Can't help it... they just jump out at me. ;~) Really. You can blame my (late) grandmother. - Karen M
There was some back and forth...
@ Karen M
Oh, no, don't get me started. I'll happily hijack any thread to babble about grammar and language. I like "yore."
We could start on ... nauseous v. nauseated disinterested v. uninterested which v. that socialism v. communism conservative v. liberal ... or, maybe not! - IntrovertGirl
We learned we had supporters...
Introvert Girl & Karen M - grammar police right on.
"disinterested v. uninterested" is one of my pet peeves. Rampant use of "dis" for "un" is only getting rampant-ier as days go by.
Current obsessions also include "different FROM" vs. "other THAN". ps - regards to sysprog on the auto-antonyms earlier, another one is "cleave" - certifiedprepwn3d
And other commenters began to offer us sites for jumping off purposes: - Paul Dirks
My starting point for grammar discussions is language log dot com, which has covered many of the points you talked about upthread. - Fraud Guy
@ Karen M "I object when nouns become verbs merely to serve jargon"
Oh, c'mon, Karen, surrender to the pleasures of anthimeria! What's wrong with verbing a few nouns? Or anthimeriazing them…or…something… - Jeff W
And a little later, in response to criticism that anyone could/would want to wallow in grammar, IntrovertGirl offered some personal, deep-seated reasons that could only inspire a blog like this one:
@Djinn, genie-ghost of 7th-grade Mrs. Sullivan ;)

This is absolutely my last word on the subject, promise.
My 7th-grade English teacher? She was a nice lady, but I don't think she knew that much about grammar. No, I wrote the original post in my professional capacity. I get paid to be nitpicky about grammar and language. And it's a job I couldn't do if I didn't absolutely love it.

That's the definition of a grammar geek. We love language. You don't read books like "The Deluxe Transitive Vampire" for kicks if you don't love grammar. And it's my endless enjoyment of the art that makes me push for precision. Half the reason I read this forum is because I enjoy the many ways the participants argue their points eloquently and often poetically.

As for English being a living language, that's absolutely true. My favorite poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nonsensical user of words if there ever was one. What I object to is muddiness and ugliness. When someone says, "I feel nauseous" when they mean "I feel nauseated," it expasperates not because it's incorrect, but because we're losing one perfectly good word and forcing another to perform two functions. As for the -izing, I just find most of them aesthetically unpleasing. There's objectivity for you!

Finally, certifiedprepwn3d validated my original point about words used merely as jargon...
jeff w and karen m

Karen - I see what you are saying -- I play with language the way my little niece plays with her cheerios (not exactly the way, sure), and feel joy in understanding how not following "the rules" adds meaning rather than taking it away. Holograph - i.e., multi-layered information, is the goal.

The bland, intentional spin, wonk-speak (including "we are tasked with") filters information out of the statement. It is like those drugs that mimic other substances and block receptors in your body -- so many speakers from power want to make noise that has the same effect as communication (the listeners shutting up and behaving) without actually communicating anything. [And, they certainly don't accept any attempts to communicate back at them, particularly not truth to power.] Their use of language is not fun. It does not add to the shared human knowledge and experience of the world. - certifiedprepwn3d
And now we have a blog... if we can keep it (w/ apologies to B. Franklin).