Let’s Be Clear

 


There is only one rule of grammar, and that is “Be Clear”. All the rest of what people think are hard and fast rules of grammar are really only guidelines in the service of the supreme rule, “Be Clear”. Placing a comma or period outside of quotation marks may violate the guideline for American usage (though not necessarily British usage), but if doing so serves logic, and therefore clarity, then there’s nothing wrong with the practice. If you’re writing a diary purely for your own eyes, then by all means write however you please. If you’re writing to be understood by other human beings, however, then it’s simple courtesy to convey your message to them clearly.


Humpty Dumpty
“I said it very loud and clear: I went and shouted in his ear.” Humpty Dumpty recites from his poem in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Illustration by John Tenniel.

 


Stop confusing “complement” with “compliment”, “affect” with “effect”, and “their” with “they’re”. There are many other examples of writers being lazy about the meanings of the words they use. Ignorance is not an excuse, not when a print dictionary can be had for a few dollars, and an online dictionary is usually free. A complimentary breakfast is free; a complementary breakfast is something else entirely, if it exists at all. Readers are affected by the effects of a writer’s word choices. They’re struggling to make sense of a lazy writer’s meanderings, and their poor understanding is all the fault of the lazy writer.



From the 1972 “Password” episode of the television series The Odd Couple, starring Tony Randall as Felix Ungar and Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison, with Betty White, Allen Ludden, and Abbey Greshler. Part of effective communication is keeping your listeners or readers in mind.

 


Dangle participles at your own peril, and don’t expect all readers to divine your meaning despite the muddled sentences you present to them. Some readers will find some of your dangling participles humorous because of the incongruous images they evoke. Convulsed with laughter, your writing will not be taken seriously by your readers. Your readers will also get a few laughs, along with your writing. Like other grammar guidelines, the one about not dangling participles is best understood as a logic problem, as a challenge to making meaning clear. There’s no magic involved. Look at what you have written. Read it aloud if that helps. Does it make sense? After doing your best to serve your readers by being clear, then if you wish you can add details and stylistic flourishes. Remember B.C. (Be Clear) before A.D. ( Add Details), and everything will be OK.
— Ed.

 

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Speaking Volumes

 

What kind of English word is “Winnemucca”? How about “taco”? “Fond du Lac”? People who get bent out of shape over other people speaking languages besides English while out in public in this country probably fail to realize how many English words have their origin in other languages. As much as 30 percent of English words are borrowed from the world’s thousands of languages. It would be difficult or impossible for the average English speaker to use only Anglo-Saxon words.

 

In the United States especially, where nearly 100 percent of the population comes from elsewhere in the world, the English language is a polyglot mixture made up of additions from languages everywhere, and yet it stands apart in its diction, its spelling, and in other ways. Place names preeminently use some version borrowed from the many Native American languages that have all but disappeared otherwise. What does it mean to send somebody back where they came from, when almost everybody came from somewhere else at one time? Send them back where? To Ohio? To Florida? If we go back far enough in time, almost everyone will have to leave, and the Native Americans – what is left of them – will no doubt feel immense relief, as of an oppressive burden lifting away from them.

The Tower of Babel 2443
The Tower of Babel, a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1525/1530-1569).

Exclusionary talk is loco chauvinism. It is meshuga, and yahoos who go on about sending others back where they came from are clearly non compos mentis. They should examine their own origins, which in the latest generation or two or three might be in places like Tulsa, Santa Fe, Tennessee, or Baraboo, but going back further could be traced to Scotland, or Frankfurt, or Sarajevo, and ultimately to Africa. White folks weren’t always white, and anyway no deity ever descended from the heavens to declare whiteness a superior trait. It only matters to people who are terrified of losing their imagined superior place in society, and must have Others to look down upon. Ordering Others to speak English when they are conversing among themselves is not only high-handed, it ignores how immigrants have enriched and informed English itself with words and expressions from everywhere. The proper remark for an English-only speaker to make in that case, if any is necessary at all, is gracias, or merci, or danke, or mahalo, or arigatô, or . . .
— Ed.

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) sang a North American version of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, a song written in 1959 by Australian country singer Geoff Mack, and which in the original version included all Australian place names, many of them originating in the languages of the Australian Aboriginal peoples.

 

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This Just In

 

Website headline writers like to insert the word “just” in their copy for the sense of immediacy it conveys. They have room to insert the word because website headlines are usually sentence length descriptions rather than the terse summations newspaper copy editors used. Longer descriptions can be good teasers and also boost the rank of a website post in search engine results because that’s the way Google has decided sites and posts should be ranked, and Google sets the bar for search engines and for the internet generally. Ask them why.

 

Search engines don’t like the short headlines common in newspapers. The reason many headlines on the internet read the way they do is because writers are responding as much to what search engines like as they are to what they believe their readers like. It’s not easy keeping up with the Kardashians, and the only way websites can do it is to couch everything in terms of immediacy, as if it were all breaking news worthy of readers’ attention. To generate clicks on their posts and get them ranked highly in search engine results, website writers must tease about the content using descriptive headlines, and then make sure to give whatever they’re describing a sense of happening moments ago by tossing in “just” at least once.

War Ends
Residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, fill Jackson Square on August 14, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan. Oak Ridge was one of three main sites of the Manhattan Project, and was responsible (though those working there did not know it) for refining uranium to be shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be fashioned into atomic bombs. Photo by Ed Westcott, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The newspaper headline “War Ends” might not fly with today’s internet and social media news headline writers, who would be tempted to write “War Just Ends”, even though it would be open to multiple interpretations.

The tendency is to hype everything, even inconsequential matters. Add news sharing on social media, and the hype gets amplified to 11, as a member of the fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap observed. Trust and references build credibility on social media, even if common sense and a little digging into sources reveals there are no grounds for credibility. Google hones search results based on what they know about users, and Facebook and Twitter follow Google’s lead while juicing results further by adding the finer details they know about their users. Facebook and Twitter set the bar in social media for how posts get pushed to the front for sharing on their platforms, and as long as readers keep clicking the wheels keep rolling, no matter how worthless are the posts everyone shares.

This clip from Sesame Street could serve as a metaphor for what the internet and social media have become.

A word such as “just” is a fine, serviceable word in most cases. Unfortunately, once some influential writers, platform arbiters, and readers on the world wide web and in social media adopt it as a manipulative expression it gets overused, abused, and misused on its way to becoming trite and tiresome. Just sayin’.
— Ed.

 

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A Dose of Gobbledygook

 

“Gobbledygook” has three syllables, making it a suitable candidate for the brand name for a drug since they often have names that length, names such as Cosentyx and Myrbetriq. “Gobbledygook” doesn’t have any rarely used consonants, however, consonants such as “x” and “q” and “z”. Marketers also like to end their invented words for products with a vowel such as “a” or “o”, a practice they have followed with automobiles as well as drugs, as in Elantra, Levitra, and Toronado and Lexapro. Are they cars? Are they drugs? Manufacturers and their marketers spend millions of dollars to persuade prospective customers to feel good about their products and to feel they are unique, but it all ends up muddled together as gobbledygook.

Inspector George Larrick and the "American Chamber of Horrors" Exhibit (FDA 110) (8228181026)
George Larrick was the last investigator to rise through the ranks to become Commissioner (1954-1965) of the Food and Drug Administration. Inspector Larrick assembled an exhibit of dubious and even dangerous food and drug products, dubbed by reporters an “American Chamber of Horrors”, which effectively documented the need for what became the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Photo from the Food and Drug Administration.

 

The pharmaceutical companies are under much greater restraints in product naming than the automobile manufacturers, who apparently invent their names merely from the results of market research and internal spitballing. All those names ending in vowels, a fairly rare occurrence in English, but more common in the Romance languages such as Spanish, may be intended by automobile marketers to make buyers feel they are getting something faintly exotic. Drug makers have to submit brand names of new products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has rules to ensure drug names are sufficiently distinct from one another to minimize the risk of confusion which, in the case of drugs, could lead to serious complications or death for patients if doctors or pharmacists mistakenly substitute prescriptions. There is no comparable risk involved in driving an Elantra instead of a Celica.

Using a drug’s scientific name is not an option the drug companies seriously consider because those names are often more polysyllabic and unpronounceable than the silly brand names they ultimately invent. In a very few instances, a shortened form of the scientific name becomes generally recognizable, as in ibuprofen or acetaminophen, but those can’t be trademarked. Therefore we have the option of buying Advil or generic ibuprofen, Tylenol or generic acetaminophen. It’s no accident, by the way, that both of those brand names are simpler and easier to pronounce than more recent drug brand names, since both of them were developed over thirty years ago, when competition in the pharmaceutical market hadn’t heated up to today’s incandescent level.

What has changed since then has been the increasing average age of the population and the consequent increase in demand for medicines to treat their growing health complaints. Drug manufacturers are also not above boosting demand with lengthy and frequently repeated television commercials urging prospective users to pressure their doctors into prescribing the advertised medicine. They cover the other end as well by sponsoring junkets and giveaways for doctors, nudging them toward prescribing the latest drug they have developed.

A most excellent reading by Irene Worth and John Gielgud in 1983 of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The entire book is presented in this video, but the part that concerns us here is the first poem, “The Naming of Cats”, which proceeds up to the 1:45 mark.

It’s a high stakes game for pharmaceutical companies that have spent millions of dollars on research and development for a drug, and then millions more on shepherding it through FDA approval, and finally marketing it. Notice how television drug ads are 60 seconds long instead of the usual 30 seconds, and how often they are repeated, particularly during the day when their target audience of older people are presumably at home watching. There’s gold in them thar hills of retirement, and pharmaceutical companies mean to get their share. Whether the residents of the golden hills are better off with the latest heavily advertised gobbledygook drug or something else, or with nothing at all, is up to them and not to marketers, no matter how warm and fuzzy the television ads portray their lives can be, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, an old song the human targets of drug ads might still remember well.
— Ed.

 

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The War on Economic Disadvantage

 

12 Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee.
13 But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
14 And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.

— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Luke 14:12-14, the King James Version of the New Testament.

The current presidential administration has declared an end to the War on Poverty, and a victory for someone or other, certainly not the poor. Perhaps the rich, who can now go on plundering the nation without any nagging concerns for the poor. Not that the poor were ever a great concern for the rich, a disconnect that has been made easier over the past half century with sociological euphemisms like “economically disadvantaged” and “low income”. Sociologists and others with a bureaucratic and academic inclination to their thinking supposedly applied euphemisms for the words “poor” and “poverty” out of consideration for the feelings of people mired in “low resource” neighborhoods, among other things, but really they were doing those folks no favors. Good intentions merely made it easier for everyone in the “upper income brackets” to look the other way.


Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans
Orphans, an 1885 painting by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916).

The War on Poverty is over then, and up is down and wrong is right. Two plus two equals five. “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” saith Supreme Leader. None of that rhetorical nonsense fills the bellies of the poor with nutritious food. It’s all sophistry. Anyone with eyes that see and who acknowledges the world as it is can attest there are poor people everywhere in need. Those poor people are more than “food insecure”, they are hungry, even starving. Academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and the wealthy can argue forever about how best to deal with the problem of the “economically disadvantaged” or “underprivileged”, and in the end they will only increase their own advantage and scrupulously preserve their own privilege. Stop the jibber jabber and get down to a soup kitchen and start dishing.
— Ed.


George Carlin talks about how euphemisms erode meaning in his 1990 concert Doin’ It Again. Warning: foul language.

 

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The Good, the Bad, and the Unpunctuated

 

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, seems to be less in evidence every year. It’s difficult to understand why many people don’t like to use it, and it may be that they simply don’t understand what punctuation is all about. Punctuation is like musical notation, or at least the parts of it that indicate to the players where the rests are and indicate the rhythm in a piece of music. The players are the readers. If there were no commas or periods in writing, readers would not know where to take a break. Imagine listening to a piece of music played that way. For that matter, imagine listening to someone who runs on and on without a pause!

 

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), Chippewa Co., WI (6270394051)
If it’s confusing trying to sort out punctuation marks on the written page, try differentiating all the butterflies named for commas and question marks. This one is an Eastern Comma butterfly, Polygonia comma, from Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Photo by Aaron Carlson.

Take the title of the 1966 Italian movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which in the original is rendered as Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (the order of the nouns in the original Italian is good, ugly, bad). Never mind the difference in capitalization conventions for titles between English and Italian, and the change in word order from Italian to English, the key point is the inclusion of the serial comma in the original Italian and its absence in the English translation. It’s a simple thing, that comma. Why leave it out? Perhaps the translator was thrown off by the missing conjunction “and” in the Italian, which would have been rendered “e”, as in Il buono, il brutto, e il cattivo. In English, we are used to “and” coming before the last item in a series. It would not sound quite right to our ears if the title were translated as The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. That sounds choppy and abrupt. Throw in “and” before “the Ugly” and we have a rhythm that sounds right to the ears of English speakers. Except for one little thing.


The Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sarah Hicks, perform a suite of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (main title)” and “The Ecstasy of Gold”, a piece from near the end of the film.

 

What happened to the last comma? Without it, not only the rhythm, but also the sense of the film title is off. Are we to rush through when we speak the last part of it? Instead of saying “The Good [pause] the Bad [pause] and the Ugly [full stop]”, are we meant to say “The Good [pause] the Bad and the Ugly [full stop]”? No one talks in the rhythm given in the second example. Does the phrase “the Bad and the Ugly” refer to one person only, in the same way that “the Good” refers to one person? Is that person both bad and ugly? Absolutely not, as is clear from the original Italian title and from the movie itself. There are three separate characters referenced in the movie’s title, and each is named by his outstanding characteristic.

In another rendition of the same suite, the composer himself, the great Ennio Morricone, conducts the Munich Radio Orchestra. The soprano soloist is Susanna Rigacci. The musical notes are the same in both renditions, but it’s interesting to hear the differences in their presentation.

It must be the “and” that throws people off when they write out a series. They must think “and” stands in for the serial comma, making it unnecessary. But it doesn’t. Listen to the music: TheGoodtheBadandtheUgly slowed down a bit is The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and slowed down a bit more in the right places, rendered in the way we actually speak, becomes The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That wasn’t very hard, was it? We speak in words, and the words are like music, with rhythm and tempo. When we write down the words we speak, we need a way to convey to readers, to listeners, that rhythm and tempo, and that’s where punctuation comes in. That’s all it is. There’s nothing greatly mysterious about it, though semi-colons befuddle many, and the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut disdained their use, remarking of them “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Homer, who of course spoke his poetry for listeners and never wrote it down himself, would probably have agreed.
— Vita


In this scene from Sergio Leone’s film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Eli Wallach’s character, Tuco, encounters an adversary and ends up succinctly admonishing him that it takes too long to speak, shoot, and leave.

 

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Words from the Unwise

 

This past year the editors at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added “word salad” to their list of terms since it has been in the news lately as a way of describing how the current president speaks. It’s a term that is not quite the same as “gobbledygook” or “gibberish”, two older words used for describing nonsense language, the first in writing and the latter in speech. “Word salad” leans more toward describing the nonsensical speech of the mentally ill, and a more technical term for it in that case is aphasia, the jumbling together of discrete words and phrases such that the whole becomes incoherent.

To gain an understanding of what word salad is while steering clear of the real thing as uttered by the current president, which can imperil your well-being, listen to this approximation from the “Word Wizard” segment of the Bob and Ray radio show.

When Sarah Palin appeared on the national scene in 2008, people described her way of speaking as “word salad”, and that first gave the term widespread attention. Now the current president has become the best known spouter of word salad, and it has become difficult for the unfortunate citizenry – who already have enough awful language usage to deal with – to listen to the news on radio or watch it on television without being subjected to it and its brain scrambling effects. Reading a literal transcription in a newspaper or online can be even worse, because the human brain tries harder to make sense of words in print, while it has an easier time tuning out auditory nonsense as so much “Bwah, bwah, bwah” noise, like that made by the adults in the Peanuts television specials, where the sound effect is created using a muted trombone. Concentrating on word salad in print can be detrimental to a reader’s mental health, or at least cause a bad headache.

Դոնդող
Heart shaped jello salad from Yerevan, Armenia. Photo by Chaojoker.


Aaron Copland borrowed the melody from the 1848 Shaker song “Simple Gifts” for part of his score to the 1944 Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring. This rendition is from a 2001 album by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and is sung by Alison Krauss.

Stay safe in the new year and avoid consuming word salad in any form. Peace.
― Izzy

 

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Name Calling

 

There are thousands of colorful place names in the United States, and some go beyond colorful to denigrate one group of people or another, though it’s questionable whether all of them were intended to do so originally. Ideas of what’s acceptable in society change, and place names don’t have to be unchangeable. The history of a place can be kept alive in books and museums; it’s not necessary that a name given it long ago out of ignorance, malice, or a misguided sense of humor be kept despite its deleterious effect on people of today.

Adams The Tetons and the Snake River
Ansel Adams took this photograph, The Tetons and the Snake River, in 1942, at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, while he was employed by the U.S. government. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service.

The best personal way to remember a place may be to have memories of it, and for that purpose the name of the place can be anything. It is in describing the place to others, in pointing it out to them on a map, that it requires an official name, of course. So it is in social intercourse that a place name becomes relevant, and when relating to others it helps not to insult them at the very first, if at all.

Barns grand tetons
A 2004 view of the John Moulton Barn on Mormon Row at the base of the Grand Tetons, Wyoming. Photo by Jon Sullivan.

Unless that’s the point to exclude some others, possibly, and to announce that the name of this particular place is only understandable within the communications of a certain group, and it is not meant for everyone. In that case, it’s name might as well be “Keep Out”. A better name, one which would eventually improve the outlook of a place’s inhabitants besides giving encouragement to visitors, would be “Welcome”.
― Izzy

 

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Selective Hearing

 

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Heather Heyer (died 12 August 2017, at age 32)

People hear what they want to hear. Actual mishearing of a word or phrase is called a mondegreen, and commonly occurs when listening to song lyrics. Choosing to interpret words in a way you prefer rather than in the way words were meant by the person using them has no special term. Perhaps willful stupidity fits. It goes beyond inferring something in a self-serving way, which is behavior children adopt in order to do what they want even though it goes against a parent’s wishes, express or implied. More likely it is laziness in the form of confirmation bias. We hear what we want to hear because we are too lazy to dig deeper to find out things on our own.

The way you hear it
A circa 1665 painting by Jan Steen (1625-1679) titled The Way You Hear It, Is the Way You Sing It.

 

Some people have adopted the attitude that the media is liberal, despite all evidence to the contrary, and therefore treats the Oval Office Doofus unfairly. The Doofus himself has adopted this attitude. He tweets, he says, in order to bypass the media and speak directly to the public. He tweets stupid and callous remarks. That, somehow, is still the fault of the media, because they make him do it in response to their stupid and callous stories about him.
The most cowardly thing in the world is blaming mistakes upon the umpires. Too many managers strut around on the field trying to manage the umpires instead of their teams.

Bill Klem (1874-1951)

Poor Doofus. He can’t catch a break from the dastardly liberal media, which behaves toward him at all times like Snidely Whiplash. He is not, as you may suspect, Dudley Do-Right in this melodrama, but whimpering Nell Fenwick, tied to the railroad tracks by Snidely. It is the core supporters, the ones for whom he (Doofus as Nell) can do no wrong, whose tweets are not the insensitive bleating of a sociopath, but cries for help, it is they who take on the role of Dudley, declaring heroically “I’ll (we’ll) save you Nell (Doofus)!” as they pummel some reporters.

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

― Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And everyone else, if they determine someone arrived at an opinion without reference to the facts and solely out of a lazy or misguided reliance on prejudices, is entitled to discount that opinion. In the future, pay attention – you might learn something.
― Ed.


In the event you hear a mondegreen in this song, you can find the lyrics here.

 

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It’s the Same Mistake All Over and Over Again

 

When the hot water heater breaks and there’s no cash money readily available for fixing or replacing it, a trip to the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) machine is necessary. Not everyone is a fully funded rich millionaire, after all. Enough is enough, however, and a full complement of compliments are due for a job well done once the mended or new hot water heater is heating up good and plenty.

 

There’s no news like good news, that’s for sure, and there’s no news like Fox News. Watching it is like having a complimentary complement of all the news and news makers that are fit to be tied. Irregardless of a person’s political associations and assignations, there has to be a better way, and that way should probably be the highway. In consequence, never in a million years could there be something better than sitting down after a session of emergency home repairs and getting informative with the television.
Cognitive Hazard by Arenamontanus
Cognitive Hazard by Arenamontanus.
Die Elster auf dem Galgen
The Magpie on the Gallows by Pieter Breugel the Elder (c.1525 – 1569).

It’s like deja vu when things break over and over again repeatedly, because no sooner is the hot water heater heating up water again than the television breaks down. That must be why it’s called the idiot box. Fixing a television is no small task, but is indeed a big job of work. Looking inside a television, it may appear there is nothing there. Looking far ahead, though, things appear. The idiots then are not inside the box, but appearing from a distance, and chattering constantly they make no sense but make lots of cents. Watching idiots appear from afar in the television can be hazardous, and is best left to the experts, who will fairly complement each other with their unctuous compliments, and always to the utmost maximum.
― Ed.

 

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