Not Sort Of Serious, But Sort Of Clear

I can't stand it anymore. There are always words and phrases floating around that make me cringe, but one phrase in particular is really making me crazy. It's the two-word phrase sort of. Frequently, these words together are used to denote an approximation, or something less than 100%; you also see kind of used in the same way. It's a common, almost slang, usage.

That double bacon cheeseburger left me feeling sort of queasy.

That double bacon cheeseburger left me feeling kind of queasy.

And in some sentences, the same two words are used to mean something more along the lines of not really. It's still a reduction; it lowers the value to something less than 100%.

I'm sort of looking forward to my vacation next week.

Originally, sort of and kind of were used to indicate type, or category—more accurately, a subset—and the phrases are still used in that manner, too.

Like the Cottonwood and Poplar, the Aspen is a sort of Willow tree.

I think the word type would have been a better choice than sort in that sentence, but the meaning is the same nonetheless.

Anyway, that's how the phrases are typically used, and the strictest of grammar rules aside, everyone understands the intent of sentences like the ones above. Nothing momentous about that. But amazingly, to some people, sort of has somehow become a modifier used not just to water down or diminish a related word, but to actually contradict it! I've heard this abomination uttered twice in as many weeks now, and I just can't understand why otherwise articulate, intelligent people would want to do this sort of thing. Especially not on a national—make that global, because of streaming audio—radio program.

I'm not sort of seriously studying that right now, but . . .

What can this mean? If seriousness is already diminished with sort of, then negated with not, we're left with the opposite of partially serious study. If not is negating sort of, I guess we'd be left with some fairly serious study, but I don't think that was the speaker's intent. Maybe it's all about intermittent study with a flippant attitude. I don't know. But the more recent example really made me get up and snort, possibly because it was spoken by someone of education and influence, and worse, on a program noted for the thoughtful commentary of its panel.

He sort of clearly looks like a man who . . .

Since the original context of the discussion had to do with politics, I suppose murkiness isn't out of the question, sometimes. In any case, I feel better now. Rant closed.   


We Never Talk Anymore

Speedy CommunicationListening to This American Life on NPR yesterday, I heard a comment that triggered a sequence of thoughts about communication, or more to the point, the lack of it. This particular show was about unusual pen pals; specifically, Manual Noriega corresponding with a ten-year-old American girl. A great story, as usual. Anyhow, someone on the show commented that the ease and frequency of worldwide communication has generally resulted in brief, impersonal contact with others. It's so commonplace, and so easy, that we no longer put forth the effort that used to characterize mailed letters, and other forms of personal communication, before global electronic networks were ubiquitous. When people wrote letters that relied on a physical delivery system, weeks or months might go by before receiving a reply, so the content was richer, and more sustained. Phone calls, especially those with friends or relatives living far away, were of a similar character.

But maybe there's another reason, too. Maybe we spend so much time dealing with computers and phone calls—because our jobs require it—that there's little desire to type on keyboards or hold phones to our ears when we don't have to. If your inbox is flooded with hundreds of work related messages, the thought of going home to more e-mail probably isn't a huge thrill. And although cell phones are as common as rain in Seattle, they've become more of a leash to many people; you can't ever really escape, no matter where you go. By the time your daughter calls from college, you're too burned out from all those other calls to utter anything beyond primitive grunting sounds. Technology was supposed to set us free, but it seems to have mostly freed up more time for more work.

If my own experiences with e-mail are any indication, most of the time you're lucky to get a few hurried sentences; I haven't seen too many full-length letters in my inbox. Phone calls are generally better, but that may have more to do with the ability to accomplish something else at the same time—shopping, driving, eating, whatever. There's no easy solution to this problem; it would require a pervasive cultural shift. Personally, I'm not planning to give up my cell phone, much less my computer, any time soon. But every once in a while, I dream about pumping all my electronics full of lead, then taking a pen and some paper with me to a mountaintop somewhere.


Citizen Journalism Done Right

A+My passing allusion to the value of citizen journalists in a situation such as New Orleans triggered a search for the blog I read daily during that time. As usual, I found it where I least expected: in a folder named NOLA right here on my C: drive. I wasn't sure if Michael Barnett's original blog was even in existence anymore, but it is, and he's still adding to it even now. Although there are plenty of examples of citizen journalism gone terribly wrong, this one was done exactly right. Running on diesel power, this guy—with a lot of help from his friends—kept the incisive reports coming, video and all. Disturbing news, and frequently appalling images accomplished what the professional journalists could not. Rounded with his own able commentary, Barnett's blog goes beyond mere reporting and squarely into the realm of bona fide journalism.

The constant is that we fight. In fact, right here in New Orleans, as soon as the winds began to abate, the social order collapsed and looting and skirmishing picked up. And the looting wasn't limited to people in need who were searching to meet their needs for survival; rather, residences and businesses were looted of everything from food to plasma television sets by people ranging in class from the cyclically poor to the political class and their enforcement agencies. It seems like man is never more than one thunderstorm away from turning on his neighbor.

An editor at the Metro Times in Detroit, Sarah Klein does a fine job of summarizing Michael's story here. I don't think there's anything I could add, except perhaps that, unlike so many connected with the New Orleans fiasco, his story has a happy ending. You can immediately see that from recent entries to his blog. All the best, you two!


Half Jocular Mode

One word I've seen floating around a lot lately is pundit. Mostly, the word seems to be used in connection with bloggers, and not in a flattering way, either. It also seems it's frequently used by journalists, so I decided to see if I could educate myself in this matter. Out on the Net, I immediately ran across a few comments apparently made by Michael Shear of The Washington Post while addressing a roomful of bloggers, and quoted at the Beltway Blogroll.

You are pundits. You are aggregators of other people's work. You are analysts. You are political activists. You are gossips. You are agitators. You are not journalists.

Ouch. When I typed define: pundit in the Google search box, the results I got back were a bit confusing. A learned man, and an honorary title. A Hindu priest. Someone considered highly knowledgeable in a particular subject area, most typically political analysis and the social sciences. The presiding expert on a subject. Someone who has been admitted to membership in a scholarly field. None of these definitions seemed particularly disparaging, so I began to wonder if I had somehow misconstrued the intent.

Approaching from the other end, I got even less information for my journalist definition. A person who practices journalism, the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues and people. Someone who works in the news gathering business, such as a photographer, editor or reporter. A writer for newspapers and magazines. No more enlightened than before, I decided to try elsewhere. At The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, things began to uncloud a little.

These are variants of the same Sanskrit word, meaning "wise or learned man." In Hindi it is a title, an honorific, as in Pandit Nehru. English uses the pundit spelling (and pronunciation) half-jocularly: a pundit is someone who has or claims to have expert knowledge, perhaps even wisdom.

I suppose there are a lot of words that, used in Half Jocular Mode, take on attributes of satire. No longer full inhabitants of the realm of earnest expression, they become two-edged swords whose victims rarely notice their subtle arc until it's too late. Someone who has, or perhaps only claims to have . . . wait, what's that swishing sou . . . aaaaiiiiii!!!

Anyway, a quick trip to nicely rounded out the definition, leaving little doubt about the word's multipurpose identity.

In politics, the word pundit has been assimilated into English as a reference to someone who is very knowledgeable on a particular subject, usually in social sciences. Pundit is also a slang term for politically biased people pretending to be neutral. The term achieved mainstream use, partly by the popular blog, Instapundit.

In the English-speaking west, the pundits are those who are the presiding experts on a subject and write signed articles in newspapers or appear on radio or television to opine on current events. Television pundits are sometimes called "talking heads".

By extension, the term pundit is also used to refer to individuals that express opinions in the media without necessarily being a recognized expert on a particular subject matter. Pundits are often accused of being politically biased and for using informal logic in fallacious ways; in this sense, the term is also used as a term of disparagement.

Disparaging indeed. At least in a half-jocular sort of way.   


Blogging Eyeballs

The Eyeball

Wednesday's release of the results of a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project hasn't gone unnoticed by the media, old or new. The summary report—A Blogger Portrait, on their site—finds that "the ease and appeal of blogging is inspiring a new group of writers and creators to share their voices with the world." While this seems encouraging and upbeat, the survey also seems to have uncovered some disturbing truths about who's really doing all this blogging, and why. I think the resulting commentary—based on what I've seen so far—from various corners is interesting. In some ways, it's far more interesting than the results of the survey itself.

Since a survey is intended to reveal statistical trends, I generally don't expect the survey to analyze its own results, or otherwise interpret its own findings. I like to do that myself, although it's helpful, sometimes, to find out what others think. In this case, the thoughts of others really illuminated the polarity that seems to characterize the discussion of blogging right now. On one side are those who see the phenomenon as an irritating—and hopefully transient—exercise in delusional thinking: hordes of pajama-clad wannabe journalists, glassy-eyed and ignorant, storming the gates of tradition. The opposite polarity accommodates the more optimistic, who believe any communication is good communication as long as it isn't censored, or otherwise regulated.

Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large, and he wasted no time launching his own commentary on the Pew survey. In his Who Are All These Bloggers? And what do they want? article, he breathes what can only be described as a sigh of relief at the survey's results.

I'm not disparaging bloggers, so please don't treat me to a high-tech lynching. But this study shows that at this early point in the blog era, the great mass of bloggers aren't set on replacing reporters. The top 100 or top 1,000 may consider themselves "citizen journalists" of one sort or another, but the survey finds that 65 percent of bloggers don't consider their output journalism at all.

Whew. They know they aren't journalists; they realize it themselves! Maybe they don't really want to take over after all. Maybe they're just hobbyists. But then, forced to contemplate the prospect of budding adolescent bloggers, the angst flickers again.

Will teenagers give up navel-gazing when they graduate from MySpace to the greater Web? If all these people really want from the Web is a hobby and to talk to their friends and family, they'd be better off taking pottery lessons and purchasing more cell-phone minutes.

Joe Garofoli, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, weighed in with what also seemed to be a measure of relief. After noting that the Pew survey dispels the popular perception that bloggers are pajama-wearing partisan ranters making up facts, he uses a Philadelphia woman as an example of the more typical blogger, then goes on to quote the president of the Media Bloggers Association.

"Many bloggers have a certain degree of disdain for journalists," said Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association ( "When people talk about bloggers influencing the media, or politicians, you're talking about maybe 200 bloggers."

Influence may be their reward for now. The Pew study found that only 7 percent were blogging to make money.

"That's good," said Cox, "because a lot less than 7 percent of them will make any money doing it."

But maybe that's exactly the point. If most bloggers aren't in it for the money, and don't answer to anyone but themselves, isn't it also more likely those 57 million American adults who read blogs—according to the Pew Survey—find something reliable about them? Sure, a lot of blogs are personal diaries, social outlets, or otherwise make no attempt to sway public opinion. But every blogger has the potential to become the eyes and ears of their own local sphere, if that's what he or she wants to do. There isn't a news agency, regardless of resources, on the planet that can consistently drill down to that level every day. And in a rapidly developing situation—New Orleans comes to mind—bloggers are already in place. The professional news teams may not arrive for days, and even then, they can't be everywhere at once.

In the role of impartial reporter of truth from ground zero, it may not make much difference how the sentences are put together, or whether that amateur journalist has the proper credentials. I've never been big on the quantity over quality school of thought, but the sheer number of potential reporters out there in the blogosphere—12 million in the United States alone, according to the survey—could mean the difference between learning the facts, and wondering what really happened. That's a lot of eyeballs.

One interesting point concerning the Pew survey is the size of the statistical sample. While it's certainly possible this survey's findings accurately mirror the reality of cyberlife in the US, it's also possible the 233 people interviewed for the study don't completely define the 12 million bloggers in this country.

In any case, the worried journalists may find the solution to their problems lies in the self-regulating nature of things. If a blogger's readers can't understand what the blogger is trying to say, or if the opinions are so outlandish—or so plagiarized—as to be virtually pointless, the blogger won't have any readers before too much time goes by. The blog will just fade to black.   


Delusional Blogging

Some say blogging is journalism by definition, but not everyone agrees. Professional journalists in particular may roll their eyes at the insinuation, often firing off a list of differences between the average blogger and someone schooled and experienced in the business. One recent commentator expressed irritation at "so much passing for 'incisive comment' in the blogosphere," and no doubt many share her view. I know I do. Competence with language is mandatory for effective communication, but it doesn't guarantee thoughtful opinion, or even veracity.

As the title of her article suggests, it's probably delusional to assume that blogging makes someone a journalist; there's a big difference between the communicator, and the communicator's tools. I think the blog is a remarkable communication tool, although it's more evolutionary than revolutionary. Web pages have been used for public communication for many years, but before the Web leaped into popular consciousness, the Internet already allowed public, global discourse in group environments such as Usenet. And before the Internet appeared in popular consciousness, electronic bulletin boards on smaller networks—e.g. Fidonet—and public forums on larger networks such as CompuServe allowed the same one-to-many, and many-to-one communication for which blogs are commonly used today.

I think what makes a blog attractive isn't so much the ability to reach out to the planet—that isn't new—but the ease of doing so. It's the same reason that brought the Web into such widespread use in such a short time: click click, instead of the sweat-and-swear of the text-based computing environment. Since virtually every computer these days has the ability to display Web content and blogs are made of HTML, it's very likely one's blog will be just as easy to read as it was to post.

Of course, there's some irony in a statement about moving away from a text-based environment, considering most blogs hinge on something many people probably thought they'd never see again after the Web took over the Internet. Namely, a whole lot of text. Obviously, it's possible for a blog to contain nothing but photos, or music, or video, or pretty much whatever the proprietor thinks it ought to contain; it doesn't have to be a collection of words. But for all the simplicity and ease of use afforded by the graphical world of the Web, it's back to the keyboard for most bloggers now. Heaven for those who like to mess with words, and somewhere between annoyance and utter torment for those who do not.

Although a blog is frequently equated with at least the most basic premise of journalism—i.e. keeping a journal—it doesn't have to be used that way, and in fact many are not. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the journalist's goals in general; it doesn't hurt to keep a few pointers in mind as we type out our thoughts and opinions. The article I mentioned in the beginning had quite a few links imbedded in it and I didn't follow them all, but there was one in particular I liked. It was to a brief article titled 10 Journalism Tips For Bloggers, Podcasters & Other E-Writers by a guy named Spencer Critchley. I'll just quote one of his tips here; you can click to the whole thing at your leisure if you're interested.

Fact-check. Reputable pro media outlets use professional fact checkers, and they still manage to make mistakes frequently. People may be citing you as a source, so try to get the details right. Related to this: spell-check!

That's a little creepy when you think about it. I doubt anyone is citing me, but I guess anything is possible. It may be a small world, but since the blogosphere gets bigger every second, you never know who might be mentioning what. Food for thought.   


Sucks Syntax sentences, it seems, are written specifically to wreak havoc on the reader's sense of logic. Missing or misplaced punctuation does it, but the order of the words in a sentence can do it, too. In a previous post, I structured a sentence in a way that virtually guarantees more than one possible meaning. The sentence is still true either way and the context wasn't crucial in this case, but it's a nice, simple example of meaning due to word proximity, which is just another way of saying syntax.

One final word from the dictionary that made me laugh: Lolrus.

No punctuation to cue the reader; the syntax is all there is to go by. As it stands, the sentence would really mean something along the lines of, "I'm going to give you one last word from this dictionary, which is the dictionary that caused laughter on my part." Rearranging the word-groups a bit, I could rewrite the sentence in an attempt to shove the meaning in a specific direction.

One final word that made me laugh, from the Urban Dictionary: Lolrus.

Better, but not great. Best to get the reference to the larger, encompassing item out of the way first, and then narrow it down as I head toward the end of the sentence. If this is beginning to smell a little like Set Theory, your nose isn't far off the scent.

From the Urban Dictionary, one final word that made me laugh: Lolrus.

I like this version now, and I'm keeping it. But for discussions like this, it's useful to have some way to indicate word grouping, and one way is to use braces. I've made mine a groovy shade of teal, although they may or may not show up as exactly the same color on your end, depending on how your browser interprets such things. Anyway, going back to the original problematic sentence, I can use my braces to arrange the main ideas into groups.

{One final word} from {the dictionary} {that made me laugh}: Lolrus.

If I disassemble my original sentence according to this grouping, I can also arrange the five pieces vertically, which may make them easier to identify and work with here on the blog page.

One final word
the dictionary
that made me laugh

As you can see, I still have the same five chunks. Three of the chunks carry with them a bit of additional information, but there are five basic components: word, from, dictionary, laughing, and lolrus. (In keeping with my stubborn refusal to turn this blog into a grammar primer or otherwise technical discussion of language, I'm calling them chunks, not subjects or objects or nouns or whatever. There are lots of great language-education resources on the Web already.)

The first rewritten sentence had the same five concepts arranged in a slightly different order; the comma and addition of the word Urban don't alter these concepts in any significant way. The second rewrite uses exactly the same five chunks as the first; only the order has changed.

the Urban Dictionary
one final word
that made me laugh

Crud. One too many syllables for Haiku, but it was close. In any event, there are a lot of sentences out there that need regrouping—probably quite a few of my own, actually—but this is a simple example. I'm sure I'll run across something more complicated one of these days, something I can put to good use here. Legal documents are excellent candidates for this sort of thing. Mind bending, but excellent.



Someone commented—directly, not in the blog—about my presumptive take on the key identity of snark as a contraction of snide remark in my previous post. Since I do have the bad habit of firing something off the top of my head and then going back to do more research afterward, I thought it best to clarify my intent here, where my presumptuousness reared its ugly head in the first place.

The word is used in a variety of ways, and has, of course, a history that considerably predates any recent slang adaptation. Aside from the familiar Lewis Carroll animal, it has been—and no doubt is—the name of many boats, probably the most famous being Jack London's oceangoing home in the early 1900s. According to
Wikipedia's snark entries, it's also a graph, an IT term, the name of various fictional characters or species, and at one time a diving regulator, a computer game, and even an ICBM.

The derivative snarky makes an appearance in the fourth edition of 
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, where it's defined as a slang adjective meaning irritable, or irascible. It comes from snark, snork, snore and snort, derived from the Dutch and Low German word snorken. Last time I checked, the folks at Oxford English Dictionary Online were adding new words to the p section, so if indeed there's going to be any reference to a snide remark contraction during the current update cycle, it's still waiting in line.

Anyway, when I wrote that snark is more than just a popular slang expression for its own sake, it was with the idea that, should the word make it into the authoritative dictionaries, it may have more to do with the word's identity as a contraction than with simple appropriation by slangsters. But we shall see.  


The Words Crawl In . . .

New words arrive in the language all the time, but not all survive long enough to become a new entry in the established dictionaries. Fortunately, there are places you can watch these new words writhe about, and occasionally even survive the incubation process. The Urban Dictionary is such a place. Self-defined as "a slang dictionary with your definitions," it's a breeding ground for new vocabulary that sometimes goes on to a life beyond the slang. Some of the words in this online dictionary are already familiar; you hear them in public and see them in print, or e-print. Although there's a voting process on this site that determines the relative rank of contributed definitions, some words have already become so ubiquitous that they're beyond the vote.

Snark has achieved a solid position in the language through widespread use, but unlike so many words that eventually slip into oblivion, it isn't just a popular slang expression for its own sake; it performs a beneficial service beyond mere coolness. A contraction of snide remark, the word has apparently—and fortunately—managed to bypass the awkward apostrophed-contraction stage and gone straight into adulthood. It's meaningful, it's utilitarian, and it's nice and short, too.

The Urban Dictionary lists 191 votes for, and only eleven against the definition occupying the top spot in the list.

Snark          191 up, 11 down


Combination of "snide" and "remark".  Sarcastic comment(s).

Also snarky (adj.) and snarkily (adv.)

Crunk may not be as widespread as snark, but it has its place nonetheless. Also a contraction, the word pulls together two frequently related concepts: crazy, and drunk. Unlike words such as snark, this one inhabits the narrower spectrum of drinking-related terms; it's less likely to achieve universal acceptance for that reason alone. Still, it's an evocative term in its own right. I note in passing that the German speaker suffering with a hangover may find some irony in this word. The German word krank, which means sick, happens to be pronounced exactly the same as crunk.

Carlocked probably won't catch on in any significant way, but I like it because it describes a situation so many of us are familiar with. Similar in meaning to landlocked but pertaining to automobiles, it has significance to anyone who's ever been boxed in by other vehicles in a parking lot, or during a traffic jam. I think carlocked is too much like "car locked" to ever really become a word in its own right, but it's fun just the same.

Not every word or term that appears on the site reflects modern culture; some have been around for a very long time. Swanky makes an appearance, and although I'm not sure when egad was first used as an exclamation, it was already in circulation during the 1950s. Whoever posted it on the Urban Dictionary site rendered it as E-gad, but I'm guessing the original was used as a substitute for Oh God, certainly an inappropriate exclamation in many circles during the 1950s, and even today one that wouldn't go over well in most church-related settings.

Just in case you're away from your computer, or if you just happen to like books for their own sake, there's a print version of the Urban Dictionary as well. Whether or not these examples—listed in the book advertisement on the Web site—ever truly become part of the language, it's fun to think about their origins and the changing world that spawned them.

Compunicate - to chat with someone in the same room via instant messaging service instead of in person

Business provocative - attire used to provoke sexual attention in the workplace

Dandruff - a person who "flakes out" and ditches their friends

Ringtone DJ - an annoying person who shuffles through all of their ringtones incessantly

Ginormous - the combination of gigantic and enormous

One final word from the dictionary that made me laugh: Lolrus. Defined as "a laughing walrus, usually high," it takes the edge off that infernal lol shorthand, replacing it with images of Beatles songs on vinyl records played in a cloud of incense. Goo goo g' joob, man! 


Parsing the Homogenous Blob

From time to time, you meet someone who at first seems normal enough, even easygoing, but who has the innate ability to start trouble; every so often, you run into a sentence that has the same ability. I encountered one of these problem sentences not long ago in a newspaper article. Apparently, the sentence had originally appeared in someone's campaign blog.

Most voters recognize that the candidate's hostility to rural schools, opposition to private property and pro-abortion stance isn't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

I think it's the kind of sentence that quite a few readers would have to look at more than once before the error becomes clear, and it's even the sort of sentence that causes conflict. In fact, this one did exactly that. The disagreement over the grammatical correctness of it went back and forth a few times, and in the end, it took the authoritative verdict of a well-read librarian to settle it.

Unless you're deliberately inspecting the sentence for error, it's easy to just read through it and go on to the next. No glaring faultsnothing that slaps you in the face. But one astute reader thought the correct word should be aren't, not isn't, which is how the whole thing got started in the first place. This resulted in a couple folks e-mailing back to tell him they disagreed: they thought the use of the word hostility required the use of the equally singular isn't, just the way the sentence was already written.

Because of the way the sentence is laid out, the list of things getting this candidate in trouble is lost among the descriptions of the items in that list. Although the list really consists of only three pointshostility, opposition, and stanceit seems much longer. For some reason, as soon as the reader hits that candidate's hostility to phrase, it's like everything that comes after is part of that hostility; the word to acts almost as a mathematical equal sign, or the grammar-equivalent colon. So when the two people who e-mailed their protests parsed the sentence, it was as if those three distinct points had become one homogenous blob belonging to category hostility . . .

Most voters recognize that the candidate's hostility {to rural schools, opposition to private property and pro-abortion stance} isn't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

. . . instead of the three individual items that actually exist in the sentence.

Most voters recognize that the candidate's {hostility to rural schools}, {opposition to private property} and {pro-abortion stance} isn't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

It probably doesn't help that there's no comma after the word property, but the article may have been designed for rapid consumption; it may have been a hostile environment for the nonessential comma. Nevertheless, there's clearly more than one item in the list, so the appropriate word should have been aren't, as the original commentator noted.

Most voters recognize that the candidate's hostility to rural schools, opposition to private property and pro-abortion stance aren't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.


Words Make Noise

When it comes to making choices concerning proper English, you're usually forced to recall some sort of rule that's applied to the structure of a sentence or the individual words therein. But although the process of writing seems more visual than auditory, every word makes noise. Whether it's within the reader's mind or in a more tangible way—converted to sound waves in the air—the final result always has an echo of its own.

Somewhere within my first years of elementary school, the teacher wrote the vowels on the chalkboard: a, e, i, o, and u. Then, almost as an afterthought, she wrote and sometimes h. I didn’t like ambiguity then any more than I do now, so that h was relegated to Vowel Purgatory, where I left it for future contemplation. At the time, it didn't dawn on me that the problem had everything to do with sound, and nothing to do with the letter's established identity as a consonant. Although I had no trouble with an apple, an elf, or an understanding, certain words beginning with the letter h caused my pencil to stall while I evaluated the letter's disordered personality.

If the sentences I see floating around out there are any indication, the question over whether to treat the letter h as a vowel or a consonant continues to confuse. This is unfortunate, because unlike many English-related questions, the answer to it is delightfully uncomplicated: if you can't hear it, it doesn't exist.

Paul had been an honorary member of the club since 2004.

She thought the painting was a horrible example of watercolor technique.

As you can see, both sentences contain a word beginning with the letter h, followed by the same vowel, o. And as you can hear, the h in honorary is silent, so all you hear is the vowel that follows. On the other hand, horrible begins with a very definite h sound; there's no doubt it should be treated as a consonant.

Some words, such as herb, are pronounced differently depending on where you live. If you're British, you almost certainly pronounce the h at the beginning of this word; if you're American it's more likely you do not, although regional dialect may prevail. But the delightfully uncomplicated answer to the question remains the same: treat it as you hear it. Unless you're writing for a foreign audience or living abroad, you won't go far wrong.

There are a few words that persist as examples of words commencing with h, but which are often treated as though they begin with a vowel. Hysterectomy, hereditary, and historical continue to receive special treatment in many cases, usually those that require above-average formality.


Salvation by Blog

The Key

Poking around on the Web late last night, I ran across a blog that stopped me in my e-tracks. It was the journal of a London woman who had been living in her car for some nine months, yet had somehow managed to post to a blog during that time. Her story was picked up—somewhat by accident—by a New York Times journalist researching a related subject, and things just went from there. Two BBC articles and a media-award nomination later, she has a book deal with a major publisher, and, finally, a place to live that doesn't require windshield wipers. At one point, her Wandering Scribe blog was attracting somewhere on the order of 11,000 readers per week from all over the globe.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Call and Response

I feel like I have been found and hoisted up and out of this laneway by angels. Silently, continuously, one after the other after the other of them coming into the darkness this past few weeks and lifting me further out of the laneway. Ian Urbina, the New York Times journalist, who just happened to be writing an article on people living in their cars in the US, was the first. Just when I was at my lowest point, almost giving in to thoughts that things were over for me; when every step and every breath became almost a prayer, there, thousands of miles away, he wakes up one morning and decides to write an article on people living in their cars.

Anya's story is compelling, and at the same time frightening because there are so many in similar circumstances, and not everyone's story has a happy ending. But while I'm sure it isn't exactly commonplace to go from blog to book deal, the idea that it's even possible for absolutely anyone to reach out to the planet at large is intriguing to say the least. So thanks, Google, for making it possible. And thank you, Anya, for putting that possibility to such good use.  


One Elegant Word

Call it vulgar if you must, but ain't is one useful little word. Used as the slang equivalent of am not, has not, have not, are not, and is not, this simple word is a triumph of multipurpose employment. Stop and appreciate: if you wanted to, you could put it to work in a sentence such as the world is made up of the haves and the have-nots. Replace those extraneous words at the end with just one ain't, and you have a new and much improved sentence.

The world is made up of the haves and the ain'ts.

It is glorious. Of course, the word has long been used to great advantage in lyrics, where it takes the place of various awkward combinations that don't time out well in song. For example, the popular Talking Heads anthem Life During Wartime might well have languished in obscurity if not for the ain't word.

This is not no party, this is not no disco, this is not no fooling around . . .

I know what you're thinking. It just doesn't have the same punch, not to mention all that negation going on now. Yes, this is a party, and yes, this is in fact a disco, and just in case you were wondering, there is definitely some fooling around going on here. It just ain't the same song. And countless Country and Western tunes would be ruined right down to their titles if not for ain't. Jessi Colter's You Ain't Never Been Loved would become You Have Not Never Been Loved, a confusing reference to having been loved at least once, but possibly more. It's icky.

Much as I appreciate the word, one thing has always confounded me. Generally, words with apostrophes in them are easy enough to figure out. The apostrophe is telling me that one or more letters have been removed—it's a contraction—or that it's indicating possession. But what could that apostrophe possibly want with the word ain't? After a lifetime of puzzling over it, I decided to find out. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English answered my question forthwith.

Am I not is the usually preferred Standard way of negating I am and I’m, although the expression often seems uncomfortably stiff and formal in Conversational use. Long a shibboleth for twentieth-century Americans, the negative contraction ain’t continues to be Substandard when used unconsciously or unintentionally.

Eureka! That apostrophe is taking the place of the m and the o in the phrase am I not! But where did this lovely word originate in the first place? The Columbia Guide had the answer to that, too.

Ain’t probably developed out of the differently pronounced, now rare, and Nonstandard an’t and a’n’t; but it may also have developed from other contractions as well (e.g., amn’t, from am not, or IN-it, a pronunciation of isn’t it?).

In fact, The American Heritage®Book of English Usage pinned it down even more.

Ain’t is a word that ain’t had it easy. It first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t seems to have arisen at the tail end of an era that saw the introduction of a number of our most common contractions, including don’t and won’t. Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers.

I knew it! No doubt ain't was used by upper-class speakers for a very good reason: it's one elegant word, baby! I'll leave you with a couple final reasons to coddle it, again from The American Heritage® Book of English Usage.

But despite all the attempts to ban it, ain’t continues to appear in the speech of ordinary folks. Even educated and upper-class speakers see that ain’t has no substitute in fixed expressions like Say it ain’t so, You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, and You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The stigmatization of ain’t leaves us with no happy alternative for use in first-person questions. The widely used aren’t I?, though illogical, was found acceptable for use in speech by a majority of the Usage Panel in an early survey, but in writing there is no alternative to saying am I not?  


In the Presence of Grand Punctuation

Grand Punctuation

Every once in a while, ready or not, the idea that the medium is the message really comes crashing in. The other day, I was just about to step out of the shower when my eye fell on the perfect image of a question mark on the toilet seat. Not upside down from my vantage point, or even missing the dot below; it was as if someone had deliberately arranged a hair and speck-of-whatever specifically to grab my attention when I pulled back the shower curtain. Since I was the only one here, rational explanations were quickly overwhelmed.

So what's the question? I have absolutely no idea, but maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe there is no question; maybe it's just a grand joke having no purpose beyond making me laugh. If that was the aim, it worked perfectly. So Ha! And thank you, Mysterious Prankster, wherever you are.


Rules and Conventions

One of the things I like about math is its predictability. The rules of engagement are plainly laid out, and you just follow the logic to its conclusion. Those rules don't change from day to day, or year to year; I can be reasonably sure that what I learned in high school or college is still true today. Math is a very rational thing, and sometimes rationality is comforting. On the other hand, too much comfort can be a bad thing, and for me the variability of English is the perfect antidote. Not that the underlying logic is variable; you can't substitute words and punctuation at random without also altering meaning, and obviously syntax is no mere contrivance. But conventions that existed years ago aren’t necessarily in effect today, and even among those that are, change is inevitable. Unlike math, it's change in popular usage that results in change to the language.

So who keeps track of these changes, and who decides what's right? Isn't there some kind of central authority, a Keeper of the Rules? I'm not sure, but I don't think so. For example, after poking around at AskOxford for a while I began to realize that what they're really doing is tracking—and illuminating—changes in convention. They aren't just doling out rules, although sometimes it does come down to that; there are a lot of situations that simply don't require anything more. But the larger picture involves the history of the language—not just a word's origin, but how and why it was used in a particular way—and that's where things get interesting.

As far as I can tell right now, the realm of English is essentially divided into two camps. One is conservative, believing destruction of the language is guaranteed by not following established rules. The other is more liberal, believing natural selection within the evolutionary process of the language is inevitable, and ultimately beneficial. Of course, you would expect a moderate faction somewhere between these two polarities, and I'm sure they exist as well. But realistically, if you're out there searching for the definitive answer to your grammar question, you're likely to run into differing viewpoints. How can this be?

One answer is that there's a difference between mechanics and style. Some things you just can't change without risking the label of ignorance; you can't misuse words or punctuation and call it a matter of style. On the other hand, if you decide to ignore the rule about hanging an extra s on the ends of words that already end in s to indicate possession—e.g. Dr. James’ house, instead of Dr. James's house—you can chalk it up to style and walk away. The final authority in such matters is always your teacher, professor, editor, or boss, but if you're on your own, it's entirely up to you. At least that's what the language-liberals would say. The hardcore conservatives may say you're violating the rules and contributing to the destruction of the language in the process. But in matters such as these, I think you're just going to have to judge for yourself what's beneficial, and what isn't. Personally, I hate that extra s hanging on the ends of words like James; I think it's ugly, and useless. If there were some logical benefit to James's instead of James' when you're indicating possession I'd be all for it, but I just don't see it.

The subject of rules versus conventions is particularly interesting to me, but I arrived at it more or less by accident. The other day I had intended to post something about using ellipses, but decided to first research current wisdom on the subject. I remembered having seen the ellipsis hemmed in with brackets at some point, but also noticed more recent cases where it was rendered without, so I started poking around. I found reliable evidence of a change in convention regarding those brackets—it isn't necessary to surround an ellipsis with them anymore—and in the process a good discussion about putting some space between the series of dots referred to as an ellipsis. I've normally rendered the thing like this . . . a series of three periods with a space on each end, and also with a space between each dot. But in more formal publication the spaces between the dots go away, which is why I decided to research the subject in the first place. Although I found several sites that demonstrated the proper use of ellipses, one in particular went beyond demonstration and into the realm of insight.

Paul Brians is Professor of English at Washington State University, and he also runs a site dedicated to effective writing. Although Paul points out that his list of common errors isn't exhaustive, it seems there's enough material to answer most questions on the subject. But what I really like about the site is the explanation that goes with so many of the entries. Where similar sites merely point out the correct way to execute a particular word, punctuation, or other rule of grammar, this one often explains why. Sometimes the only thing that really helps is understanding the historical basis for a word's use, or the difference between hard-and-fast rules of grammar versus those you can safely ignore. From poking around the site, I gather he has received his share of hate mail from those who consider him a linguistic anarchist, but I also noticed more than a few awards and citations.

Personally, I would be uncomfortable with some of the things he dismisses as matters of style. As I mentioned in a previous post, I really don't see the logic in words like forwards and towards, but maybe it's just me. From the non-errors section of his site:

Although some style books prefer "forward" and "toward" to "forwards" and "towards," none of these forms is really incorrect, though the forms without the final "S" are perhaps a smidgen more formal. The spelling "foreword" applies exclusively to the introductory matter in a book.

I'm not an English professor, so there's no way I'm going to argue the point. Maybe this is just another example of popular usage altering the language, and not necessarily for the better. I also made a comment about using who instead of that in another post, which Paul considers misguided as well:

In fact there are many instances in which the most conservative usage is to refer to a person using "that": "All the politicians that were at the party later denied even knowing the host" is actually somewhat more traditional than the more popular "politicians who." An aversion to "that" referring to human beings as somehow diminishing their humanity may be praiseworthily sensitive, but it cannot claim the authority of tradition. In some sentences, "that" is clearly preferable to "who": "She is the only person I know of that prefers whipped cream on her granola." In the following example, to exchange "that" for "who" would be absurd: "Who was it that said, 'A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle'?"*

*Commonly attributed to Gloria Steinem, but she attributes it to Irina Dunn.

Praiseworthily sensitive: that's me. Anyway, I found more stuff on his site with which I do agree than the other way around. And besides, I think I learned more from reading through his explanations than I have in some time. Very interesting indeed.

And what of the ellipsis? As it turns out, I can keep my beloved spaces. At least that's what Paul says:

When text is typeset, the spaces are often but not always omitted between the dots in an ellipsis. Since modern computer printer output looks much more like typeset writing than old-fashioned typewriting, you may be tempted to omit the spaces; but it is better to include them and let the publisher decide whether they should be eliminated.

Thanks, professor!

I also followed some of the links on Paul's site, and at a place called Dr. NAD's prig page ran across something I thought was appropriate, especially in the context of blogging.

Writing on the internet, free from editors and so forth, may madden prigs and even annoy casual readers. There are no enforced standards. But to do it well is a fresh challenge for serious authors. Web surfers seek quick info and direction. A new brand of concise, effective, but not sloppy, writing must evolve. Language will change, but its aficionados will respect a moderate pace, and change does not permit writing errors that frustrate thought.

Change does not permit writing errors that frustrate thought. Now there's an encouraging idea.