One Thing There Is To Say About How Language Evolution Helps Writers


If we know only one thing about the English language we’re probably counting wrong. Most of us know four things about English. Professors of English know even more. There are some who know well enough to explain to the lay audience six things. Still, one is the minimum number of things people know about the English language, if they know anything at all. And I’d like to see you get out of that one.

But one thing we know about the English language is that words change meaning. They often do this without warning, despite the custom that they do not do this without warning. That is, that they do it with warning. I’d like to see me get out of this one myself.

There are neat ways that words do change meaning. The most exciting way they change is through a graphitic fission. One thrilling example of this was in 1378. A team lead by Geoffrey Chaucer subjected the word “deer” to high-participle bombardment in a gerund-lined chamber. It split the word “deer” from its earlier meaning of “anything that isn’t a bird or fish but that people are still willing to eat, as long as it isn’t a plant or shoe”. All that remained was “Bambi-like life-form”. We’re left without a word for the earlier meaning of deer. We make do with the circumlocution “eh, I don’t feel like that” while standing in front of the fridge.

Still, the experiment was worth it. There were flurries of syntax over southern England for years, accelerating the evolution of the language. That’s not to say this is always without its perils. A 1752 attempt to fragment the word “meat” — applied back then to animal flesh, the innards of peaches, or large enough trees — resulted in war with Spain. In fairness, that sort of thing happened a lot in those days. Spain didn’t even know about the war for two more years. They just thought the English were being all snippy, again.

Another kind of word evolution is reverse mitosis. In this a word shoots out a cytoplasm-dissolving compound to envelop and absorb some other word’s definitions. The shorter words are better at this, wowing to surface tension. It might seem unfair to you that “run” has now taken over 80,954 distinct words and yet it doesn’t show any signs of breaking up. In fact, it is deeply unfair. There’s nothing we can do. But we aren’t expected to do anything either. That itself is a kind of relief.

And while this process can obliterate an old word, there’s no reason new words can’t join up. Any new conglomeration of letters can join the English language. The franchise fee is perhaps objectionably low. It hasn’t changed form its 1663 level of “five groat, a tuppence, and three cloves of onnyons”, which is obvious gibberish. A lost word can just re-form and try again. English is on like its fourth “gossip”, for example, and it’s not going to stop however hard we try.

Another bit of word evolution that’s a really hilarious freaking joke, guys, is protective camouflage. In this, we notice that a word means something. But if we actually meant that thing, whoever we called that would get angry and maybe slug us. So we use the word but get all arch and wry about it. This keeps other people from knowing whether they want to slug us or kiss us. The worst they’ll do is think we’re being witty. This frees up our time and saves us social anxiety. But it does mean that any word is at most three generations away from meaning the opposite of what it now means.

An awareness of this gives writers exciting new chances, though. Sentences are made up of words, I think you’ll agree. If you won’t then go ahead and make your argument. It won’t work, because every word in your argument will mutate to every possible meaning. I just have to look back at the right time and your literal words will mean what I want them to, so I win.

But the opportunity for writers. It’s hard finding the right words and stringing them along the right way. But it’s also unnecessary. Write absolutely anything and, someday, it’ll be what you wanted it to be. This should make all writers’ lives easier. It does not.

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Statistics Saturday: Some English Words That Amazingly All Share A Common Proto-Indo-European Root


  • father
  • paternal
  • fraternity
  • pitter-patter
  • pastie
  • infatuation
  • contrapunctual
  • spats
  • twelve
  • pantropy
  • paddleboat
  • burrito
  • fatuousity
  • potato
  • waters
  • expropriation
  • factithesis
  • disappearance
  • burritino
  • Thursday

Reference: Report of the Apollo 13 Review Board [ The Cortright Commission ]

Statistics Saturday: Some Useful Triplets Of Words


Proximate Form Demonstrative Form Interrogative Form
here there where
hither thither whither
hat that what
he the whe (*)
hence thence whence
horn thorn worn (**)
hen then when
his this whis (*)
hack thack(*) whack
hit thit whit
hump thump whump
heir their wheir (*)
herefore therefore wherefore
heretofore theretofore wheretofore

(*) denotes a word which theory indicates should exist but which has not been confirmed by an independent word laboratory.

(**) the ‘h’ was lost during the Algeciras Conference when it rolled under a table at the end of the room and was too much trouble to salvage.

Reference: The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune, Richard Kluger.

Statistics Saturday: Some Highfalutin Words And Their Better Alternatives


Highfalutin Word Better Alternative
multiple many
compartment bin, box
utilize use, make usable
systematize lose
initiate burn
harbinger warning
transpire distract, confound
adverse anthony
ubiquitous unavoidable
effluvium acetominophen
detrimental trimental [ “de” is here etymologically an intensifier to “trimental” and not, as carelessly assumed, a negation ]
hinder (as in to restrict, limit, or make worse) hinder (as in tuckus)
perpetuate paint
fluctuation fluctoid, inventory
eventuality [ best dropped altogether and never replaced ]
anomalous strawberry-flavored, bumpy, wiggly
dilettante Ben, at it again
fastidious plaid
ostracize ostrich-size
untenable not rounded off

Reference: A History of Mathematical Notations, Florian Cajori.

Spelling And Why Not


I want to talk about spelling as we know it. I don’t mean the kind of spelling where, like, you end up with a potion of eternal width or with magic shoes that won’t let the person wearing them stop dancing. I mean the kind where you end up with a word, by putting together word components. You know, consonants, eyes of a vowel, gizzard of gerund endings, that stuff. Please adjust your expectations accordingly and report back when they’re settled down.

Spelling as we know it began in 16th century France, where the regular consistent coding of words served as a way for persecuted Hugenots to acknowledge one another without detection by the King’s agents. With the Edict of Nantes temporarily resolving that whole fight about how much everybody loved God more, the need for the secrecy faded. So the idea went looking for more exciting spots. It spread first to Holland. Then to Poland, where it got lost and ended up back in Holland. Next time around it set out for Italy, but misunderstood the directions through the Swiss Alps and ended up right back in Holland. Having had enough of ending up in Holland, spelling jumped into the English Channel and swam furiously west. Fourteen days later it washed up in Holland, where it threw up its arms and said, “Fine, then,” and got all sullen.

Spelling might have remained in the United Provinces forever except for the Great Fire of London of 1666. Samuel Pepys, renowned for his diaries and how fun it is to say his name and probably other stuff I’m guessing, realized the use of regular, consistent spellings during this disaster. His first warning of the fire came from a young boy of laddish age who ran past yelling out, “Taike kare! Taykke kaire! A graette Fyren cowmes here frum Puddenge-Lain!” Pepys had no idea what the kid was talking about. He asked the kid to repeat it, and it didn’t get much better. The child added, “Rayce the allarum! Phire raigges throo the Citty!” This left Pepys feeling awkward. So he let the child go and figured if it was all that important he’d hear about it.

The still-smoldering Pepys figured nobody needed that kind of brush with death. So he figured maybe the city could be built fireproof. Also maybe write things down in consistent ways so it doesn’t take four tries to understand people. His friend John Evelyn considered this series of events, pointing out that if the child had said all this, the spelling shouldn’t matter. But why would the child have written out such a message about the Fire when he was running around and talking to people about it? Pepys eloquently shoved his friend into the Tyburn river. Evelyn conceded the point.

And so consistent spelling caught on in English. It did well, thanks to early breakthroughs like “silent E” and “n-apostrophe-t” charming the population with their elegant whimsy. “Onk” was also a big selling point. We still live in a world where it would be fun to see many people get a bonk on some appropriate bonk-absorbing part of their person. For a while there was a market in switching out “ks” for “x”, or vice-versa, but that’s gotten to be seen as old-fashioned. And don’t get me started on how you can’t just write “connexion” anymore without being accused of cheating. Also everybody follows the “q is followed by a u” rule, but they don’t understand it. It’s a pun. Once you see it, you’ll never un-see it. I hope to see it myself someday.

This is not to say that spelling in English is perfectly consistent. It couldn’t be, not given the need of aristocracy to show itself as better than real people. Thus would Spelling Book authors compose all sorts of new and exotic letter patterns. This led to many never-before-suspected innovations, like “hiccough” or “untowardsmanship”. Long after the fad for ostentatiousnessocity had passed, we were left with the remains. Most of the worst offenders slid out of the English language, owing to foreign tourists taking oddities home with them. And the rest are a reminder of how far we have come, or have yet to go, or have ended up where we are. Granted this describes many things, but only because they are like that.

There Is No News About Our Rewards Program


Very sorry. We had hoped to have another update about the rewards program, but then someone got us going about prefixes. Specifically, like, if we have a “re-ward” then what is the “ward” that we are doing again? Everybody agreed that it’s got to have some kind of link to an “a-ward”, although given how the “a-” prefix usually means lacking something so what the heck? Probably it’s something like some other meaning of “a-” as a prefix, right? Anyway, that got us to giggling about how there must be an “unward” where you take some award out of someone’s hands, cackling and laughing meanly, before you give it back to them as a reward. And then we wondered about a “pre-ward” where you’re all set up to get awarded something. And then we realized oh, some stupid advertising business probably does that, teasing people with the promise of imminent rewards to make them click some stupid banner ad somewhere or sign up for a stupid card they don’t want or need. And that’s got us all cranky and upset. So you’ll excuse us please for not having anything.

Setting The Styles


Is there an easier way to attract readers and get engagement than to prepare a set of Usage Guidelines and insist everyone follow them? No, probably not. Although everybody likes to make Usage Guidelines, the United States is the world’s undisputed leader in this trade. The average American will make over 14 Usage Guidelines per year. We’ll generate policies to cover everything from how many spaces should follow the end of a sentence to under what circumstances one may double up the use of those little paper cups when gathering Horsey Sauce at Arby’s. And under what circumstances these can be substituted for one another. Compliance with these policies will rise, some years, to as high as 0.4 people per year. This gives us all the chance to seethe at how people are messing up what would be a neat orderly life.

So I’m leaping in to this racket. I want to express my idealistic hopes about how the world can be easily made much better. Plus if I can get enough people feeling like they should pay attention to me I can start selling guidebooks and retire on the profits from How To Do Stuff So It’s Not Wrong Already or whatever I end up titling it. Let me give you a tease of some of the first couple good ideas.

First: we’ll need a policy about acronyms. Acronyms were introduced to English during the First World War, as war planners feared the Germans might overhear what we were saying about them as if they couldn’t guess already. This way, if they did overhear they wouldn’t know what the subject was. The fears proved unfounded, as postwar analysis indicated the Germans spent most of their time in Germany and/or Belgium, out of earshot. Still, they’ve remained as popular linguistic roadblocks to comprehension. My guideline: on first use, expand the acronym into full words. For example, “NASA, the National Acrobatics and Slurry Accordion, announced today it is not sending anybody to Mars, as investigation showed we had enough in the pantry to last until the weekend”. Exceptions: ISBN, GIS, HONClBrIF, MRxL, NJIT.

Second: we should clear up dangled participles. I admit I’m fuzzy on just what makes a participle or how one dangles it. But I hear it’s a thing people keep doing. Since I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the dangling is correct I say let’s set a rule that people submit a clear plan to dangle participles to a specially appointed participle coordinator. This will be a small office staff in Syracuse, New York, whom we will be able to catch completely by surprise with our subissions. The statements of intent should be sent by postcard, rather than letters in envelopes, as an economy measure; we can put the time that would have gone into opening envelopes to something more urgent. Put a strip of clear plastic tape over the proposed participle so that it will not get smeared in transit.

Third: alarm clocks should refrain from being so alarming. We have frayed enough nerves these days, what with how everything is alarming and most of it is terrible and about the only good things left anymore are anecdotes about small pets that had problems that looked serious but were actually funny. They should phase down to being responsible-concern clocks and maybe we could go without them altogether.

Fourth: we need to identify the people responsible for iTunes and hold them accountable.

Fifth: we need to better organize scheduling of the city’s summer concert festival series. There’s always the trouble of deciding whether to support the community’s summer concert series or to save ourselves the hassle of going out and finding parking and pushing through the crowds and does it look like rain? Shouldn’t it? If we squint can we make it look like rain? Also, are they going to search our bags? Are they going to search the camera bag even though it’s just big enough to hold a camera? It always feels so good to have gone somewhere, but it’s so much hard work to go there. We could make our lives better if we just had the summer concert series scheduled for the week we were going to be out of town anyway.

I should have some more later on, but if we could get on this we’ll have a world that’s better in easily two, maybe three ways.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose three points today on rumors that while it was going to rain over the weekend it wasn’t going to rain anytime we needed to be outside and it probably wasn’t going to rain hard enough to mess up the satellite TV reception.

215

Something To Celebrate, But How?


My love was looking for something and so found something else, which is the way it goes half the time. This was a partial box of birthday candles. Nice ones, too: they’re hand-dipped rainbow candles. My love remembers the only store that sold those boxes and so can date their purchase. They must be 21 years old, and have to have survived being moved at least four times before the handful of remaining candles were put in the Scary Closet and forgotten.

Five rainbow-colored hand-dipped Cheerlites ``candles for celebration''.
The box offers no hints about who made it or when, other than that it was “Made In USA”. Nevertheless my love found what looks like the company that made it, and which according to its web site the company started … four years after these candles were bought. We have no explanation for this phenomenon. (Well, maybe their web site meant they started in their current location four years after my love bought these candles. It’s still weird.)

Thing is now we have a problem. What could we ever use these candles for? For that matter, these candles are now over two decades old! At this point we should be throwing a birthday party for the candles, in which case we could make a cupcake and light the candles to celebrate themselves. Sick? Maybe. Also a bit of a busman’s holiday. That could be what really stops us. They’re cute candles, though.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose three points as traders got to arguing about whether pop culture’s fascination with zombies reflects social awareness that Baby Boomers are retiring and often require long-term medical care, placing them effectively outside the “economically productive” bounds of society and making demands on the rest of society that can be read as fitting base, immediate needs. The large number of Baby Boomers represents how zombies in these kinds of story often outnumber, or at least compete with, the number of “living” humans. And any person, even one young and apparently able, can be suddenly strick by accident or trauma that leaves them similarly outside “economically productive” society, joining the “zombies”. Even if they don’t suffer accident, they will eventually by merely living long enough join this post-living set; it’s unavoidable. Anyway, it’s a good, lively debate, suggesting many of the Another Blog, Meanwhile trading floor really missed something not pursuing English degrees. Maybe even Masters’ degrees, because this analysis sure seems like it could be made compelling.

193

The Top Ten For 2016


As it’s the time of year when we run out of time for the year let’s review the Top Ten of the year gone by.

  1. August 22. This is usually a pretty solid 24 hours of the year and once again we really nailed it. Everyone involved with the production of August 22nd should give themselves a round of applause, although not in so unseemly a way.
  2. once-in-james-joyce.com. The rare follow-up project that builds on the brilliance of the original, this scrappy web site allows us to quickly look up all the words which appear precisely one time in the collected works of James Joyce. The site’s designers admitted they thought nothing might top once-in-shakespeare.com but found new challenges and delights in working with another author considering they want to be thought of as the kinds of people who’ve read Joyce without actually going to the trouble of doing it.
  3. Flatware. Although much flatware these days extends into a third dimension and so falls short of being actually flat, it nevertheless remains the best-known way to satisfy the need to have flatware. Besides, flatware can be made much more like itself if one simply is on good terms with one or more steamroller operators or possibly pile-drive drivers. You are on good terms with one or more of them, I hope, lest you have no way of slowing down that determined cartoon cat who’s been chasing you all through the construction site.
  4. Mellifluous. One of the English language’s top words for sounding like what it is without falling into an onomatopoetic trap. It’s especially good for saying out loud in case you ever need the feeling of being a comforting voice actor or movie trailer voice-over person. Rated PG-13, warnings for language use.
  5. People being buried with their cell phones. “I’m sorry, you’re breaking up — I’m entering a long, dark tunnel with a bright light at the end.” I probably accidentally stole that joke from somebody and I hope it was a friend.
  6. Simple home-recipe syrup. Despite the breakthroughs in solving higher-order syrup polynomials that make complex-valued syrups an exciting possibility we can still do quite nicely without anything but real numbers, syrup, and a trio of pancakes with blueberry that turn out to be rather more food than anyone had imagined. Also they come with eggs for some reason. And six pieces of toast. It’s getting to be a little much, but at least it’s a simple much.
  7. Adverbs. These bread crumbs of the English language have stuck on well past their expected end-of-support date. But they’re just too useful in meeting a mandatory word count. And we realize now there would be too large and too noticeable a hole if we did finally get rid of them. The hole would be where the wrong form of “a” or “an” were used.
  8. Swiss IV. This, one of the most exciting cheeses in years, overcomes nearly all the problems inherent in the original Swiss cheese. No longer are its holes too large nor too small. Thanks to the latest of aerogel dairy technology we can just have chunks of cloudlike foam that have within them the potential to be sandwiches. It’s great as it is, and promises to be only better in 2017 when we start to see rooms full of cheese air that let us finally eliminate the difference between eating and breathing. Not for the Vegan or lactose-intolerant eater, but they’re used to that. Do not ask about Swiss II or Swiss III. Everybody involved is still very sensitive about the side effects.
  9. The following Wikipedia Statement: “The Tasmanian rainforest is considered a Gondwanan relic.” Though there have been many unsettling and struggling and disturbing things about the year, to know there is still a general consensus on some rainforest somewhere being a Gondwanan relic is itself a great relief. To know that it is Tasmanian simply adds to the relief, then squares it, then doubles that result, reverse the numbers, subtracts the original number and gives us the result of 17. Is that not amazing?
  10. Chrissy the Christmas Mouse. Despite the proliferation of 24-hour Christmas music stations this chipper little ditty continues to not be overexposed. In fact I don’t remember hearing it at all since 1999 so at this point I have to suppose I just made up this little tune about a mouse that lives in the floorboards of Santa’s house and loves being around all the Christmas activity and finally one year gets to ride in Santa’s sleigh. I can’t have made that up, can I? But nobody ever plays it. So that’s good. Or maybe I did imagine it in which case I’ve got a great idea for a catchy Christmas tune that’ll become horribly overused inside of like two years. Let me know.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose five points when everyone resolved they had indeed eaten too much over the eating holidays this year and they were going to start a serious diet come Monday.

89

Statistics Saturday: Twelve Typos That Ought To Be English Words


  • puctures
  • gon
  • stor
  • toyble
  • crowbell
  • jeaded
  • gerat
  • hremor
  • denetistry
  • plasteroid
  • etimate
  • lemonal

Here, if you’d like to put in some deserving would-be words of your own, enjoy.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose seven points over the day. Traders are naturally thrilled, not just because they could also say it rose seven percent and be exactly as right. Anyway everyone’s agreed that there’ll never again be a disaster like the index dropping below 100 ever again. So goodness knows what Sunday is going to bring but if it’s 99 it’s going to get so many people acting smug.

107

Robert Benchley: The Word “Three”


I’m a know-it-all. By this I mean simply that I assume you have an opinion about David Rice Atchison, and whatever it is I am prepared to argue that you are wrong. It’s amazing that I don’t spend more time running away from people meaning to slap me. But I credit that for my always loving the mock-explanatory essay. I love the real things, certainly, but the humorist who can capture the rhythms of explanation while producing nonsense — well, that’s wonderful. Robert Benchley in My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew provides one of the most perfect examples of this. From the fourth paragraph on there’s barely a misfired word or a weak sentence, and the first three paragraphs are a good warming up. The antepenultimate paragraph alone is worth learning what “antepenultimate” means.

The Word “Three”

I don’t know whether you care or not, but etymological circles are in an uproar. They have just discovered what the word “three” comes from.

They have known the derivation of all the other words in the number-table (as, for example, “two” from “Tuesday,” or the second day in the week if you don’t count Sunday as the first, and “five” from the god Woden, or Thor, or Buttercup, and so forth and so forth), but they have never been able to figure out where the word “three” came from.


A little fellow from the University of Welf discovered it. He doesn’t speak English himself, but he is awfully interested in people who do. It was during one of these periods (I should have told you that he has periods when he looks up words) that he found out about the word “three.” He was looking up the word “tree” and, not speaking English well, he thought that it was pronounced “three.” You can see how that might very well be.

The word “three” comes to us direct from the French, collect. The original word was (and still is) tri, which means a sorting, or, as in card-playing, a deal. Thus, one would say: “Give me a tri,” or “How is your tri?” meaning “Give me a deal” or “How is your deal?” If one were really speaking in French, of course, all the other words in the sentence would be French, too. (i.e., “Donnez-moi un tri” or “Votre tri, ça marche?”)

Just how the word tri got into the French language is a mystery which occupies practically nobody’s attention at the moment. It is supposed to have come from the Creole patois of New Orleans, and was used to signify hurry or lethargy. The old form of the word was blo, which gradually was shortened into tri. Later the whole word was dropped from the language by a rising vote.

The Normans brought the word into England just before the Norman Conquest. In their use of it an extra syllable was added, making it triouille, meaning white-bait or Roger crab. We still are no nearer than we were to finding out how it came to mean three of anything. Don’t think that I’m not just as worried as you are.

With the advent of water-power and the subsequent water-pistol, Luke (Luke was the fellow I was speaking of a few yards back) didn’t know what to do. Unless I am greatly mistaken, this paragraph belongs in another article.

Well, anyway, the people who are making up the English language found themselves with names for every digit except “three.” And, as there were three of quite a lot of things (Marx Brothers, blind mice, wishes and cent stamps) it got increasingly embarrassing not to have a word to express “three.” They tried using the word “four,” but it ended only in confusion, especially when addition or subtraction was at stake.


Suddenly someone said: “Why don’t we take the word tri from the French? They’ll never miss it, and they owe it to us anyway.” This seemed like a logical plan, and everybody but one man agreed to it. He later committed suicide when he found out how successfully it had worked out. “I was a blind fool,” he wrote.

As it sounded rather common to say tri, they put in an h and substituted a double e for the i. This made as pretty a “three” as you could wish, and from that day on it was a part of the language. They tried it out in a little rhyme: “One-two-three—buckle my shoe,” and it went so well that soon everybody was saying it.

Frankly, I don’t know whether I like it as a word or not. It still sounds a little slangy.

When It Comes Time For The Upgrade


Your computer’s been pleading for the system upgrade for a long time now. A very long time. It was never insistent, but it kept asking, pointing out how the current operating system dates back so so very far, back to primitive times when the Internet was a bare-bones affair, much of it conducted on teletype machines or by throwing rocks at one another, when technical limitations required the caption on a cat photo to be sent on a separate Vitaphone-printed record. Why, back when the current operating system came out people had completely different ideas about what made an acceptable desktop background picture.

You click the installation button. The computer wants a password you never even knew you had. Maybe it’s the one you use for everything. Maybe you forgot to ever set one. Maybe you just have to hold a rock over the computer until it accepts the threat. The download begins.

In the old days you would wastefully go out to a store and pick up the operating system in a box large enough for a microwave oven, containing a cardboard box skeleton with a fascinating puzzle of cutout circles and rectangles believed to be landing instructions for ancient astronauts, and four sheets of paper offering stuff, you guess. Then you’d get caught between clerks who really, really want you to know that if you’re having trouble finding anything they can help you, until you curl up in a ball somewhere between flat-screen TVs and adaptor cables hoping all this social interaction will go away. Then a clerk would ask if you’d like a sports pillow. No more. Now you just download stuff for as few as 46 hours while you wonder if this was really a good idea, particularly given how your mail client growls like an riled tiger as you approach it anymore. If you want to curl up under a sports pillow nobody’s there to help.

In the new days finally the download is done and the computer asks you for permission to do the installing. You thought it was done already. It wants a password or at least a properly-held bludgeon. The mail client finishes growling and announces it’s going to shut down, which it will do over a course of three hours and a number of messages about how if you really cared about it you’d know why it was shutting down. There’s evidence the web browser might be going feral.

You shut down everything. Probably it’ll need to shut down anyway, right? You couldn’t do an upgrade like this without shutting things down. It’s just saving time. The computer is busy thinking about whatever it thinks about in the middle of a major upgrade. Probably it knows what it’s doing. You can sit there waiting for direction for a little while. Maybe a little longer. These are the moments when it’s easiest to believe the computer doesn’t actually need you to do whatever it’s doing. It couldn’t hurt to read reviews about what programs you use have conflicts with the new system so you’re ready ahead of time to feel the agony of stuff no longer working.

If the Internet is accurate part of the upgrade involves instantiating a small yet viciously quarrelsome demon who spends his days making the ‘find text’ function on your web browser no longer work right anymore, and occasionally will toss through the screen a used sneaker set on fire, plus they’re figuring before the end of the year they’ll have an update so your word processor doesn’t crash every time you use the subjunctive case. The programmers say it’s a very tough bug to track down because they keep mixing up which is the subjunctive and which is just petty arguing about “who” versus “whom”. It’s difficult to say just what the future will hold but you do consider whether the best action is to lie in the street and let a truck run you over. It turns out there’s less truck shipping on this street than you imagined.

The computer reboots, and spends some time before saying it needs to reboot again. Next, let it finish rebooting and reboot it again, and then finally reboot once for good luck.

E-mail doesn’t work anymore, the web browser is being cranky, and the chat client appears to be some manner of tire fire. But, you know, those are some lovely new desktop backgrounds. There may someday be joy back in life.

There’s a new major system update out Tuesday.

Writing To Be Read


It’s fair to say that writers are writing with the intention of being read. If it’s not then the umpires have been letting me get away with it for so long I could challenge a ruling to the contrary. But it’s not just being read at all that they want, it’s being perused, every word stared at and comprehended, ideally by a reader. But in the modern and endlessly distracted world the only things actually read in their entirety are the airline’s texts announcing flight cancellations and bitter arguments about the meaning of the word “peruse”, with side threads about “decimate” and “transpire”.

How can you get the desired sort of attention without starting your own grammar-quarrel-based airline? I’m not saying that isn’t a good idea, given that you could probably get a near-captive audience just over the question of what’s added by the flight attendant’s instructions saying people have to listen to these instructions “at this time”, but it’s a lot of work and it takes you away from the writing stuff. Also, if you pack a plane full of grammar-quarrel-oriented persons together you’re going to see the depths of human savagery and it’ll be over the number of spaces to put at the end of a sentence. The correct answer is “none before the punctuation mark and three afterwards”.

Unfortunately the best way to make sure you do get read is to accept modern reading habits and adapt your writing to them. People love having finished reading stuff, but not so much the actual reading, because that takes too long. If you write for the rapid and skimming way people expect to read, they’ll read the whole important parts of the thing, at least until they catch on that everybody’s started to write that way. Then they’ll change their reading habits so they don’t have to read stuff, and we can find out what they’re doing instead and shift once more. In this way the language evolves.

The first thing is brevity. Your writing has to seem brief. I know if you write you look with admiration at those late 18th century writers who could compose single sentences that go on for twenty pages, and that read like particularly contentious sub-lease agreements between parties that don’t trust one another, or anyone else, and aren’t so fond of themselves, and so produce these awesome sentences with hundreds of comma- and hyphen-linked clauses, fighting for sun and water in a rain-forest of references, with antecedents and dependent clauses sprawled all over the text, until one can either read the entire thing in one big lump or admit defeat and wake in the middle of the night following unsettled dreams of being back in seventh grade English class and having to diagram sentences, and there’s no way of telling what the sentence began to be about by the time you finish it anyway. Stop that. Everyone hates it. The ideal sentence these days has between six and ten words, and some of those words should be hard-to-resist “eye candy” type words such as iris caramel or “macula taffy” put in quote marks or italics so they don’t look too intimidating.

Paragraph length is at least as important, though not as important as riboflavin in your diet. Everyone knows that the first or the last sentences in paragraphs are the key ones establishing the point, and the rest are just filler added to make the commercial breaks come at the right times. You can’t fight that influence, unfortunately, but you can write so that the stuff you’re actually interested in is the start and end of the paragraph. The rest can just be you indulging yourself, prattling on about whatever you want. You could even put a second writing project hidden inside the first, where it’ll be noticed by literature majors, in case any read you. They’ll write up nice articles about your subtle genius if you do, which would make you feel better if you read literature journals. So size your paragraphs to friendly, appropriate lengths.

We all know that adverbs are pretty useless. Where you write an adverb the reader knows to take it as “make whatever adjective or verb is nearby even more so, unless in context it should be less so”, so you don’t have to bother writing them. Just include a note about what the context should be in a commentary track, because people love seeing commentary tracks about how the thing was written even more than they appreciate the writing, except the people who never listen to the commentary tracks.

Italics. Stuff in italics usually doesn’t matter either, but it makes the text look thoughtful, so include some of that, but don’t bother putting your real content in there. This is a good spot to use, say, your Next Generation/Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic that’s been haunting a series of hard drives since 1997, since now you can get it published without anyone reading it and curling up in a whimpering ball of prose aversion. The same is true for block quotes, which are necessary for nonfiction works but, again, aren’t worth reading. The only reason to put stuff in block quotes is so you can show how someone else said the same thing you’re saying, or so you can point out how dumb they were to say that, so you can just go on to saying what you wanted to say or to making fun of them.

Bullet lists are a good way to make your text look like a PowerPoint slide, which is good for making sure all the text on them is read because the audience would be desperate for something to do while the presenter reads every … single … word on the slide, if they didn’t have their phones out to look at anything else on the Internet instead. Also if you use bullet points your readers are going to expect you to provide them with a presenter who reads every … single … word off the slide. Use bullet lists with caution.

  • Oh, footnotes. Footnotes are a great place for stuff you want to be read because people know they mean you’re showing how the thing you originally wrote was misleading if you let it stand on its own, so it’s like getting to see the author self-snarking, which is always fun. Except for readers who figure if it mattered you’d put it in the text. So you’re on your own here [4]. Me, I can’t resist footnotes and would read a whole book of them, except I’ve read books where it’s all in the footnotes and they weren’t worth it.

If you’re appearing in a real printed book instead of electronically for some reason probably involving ransom demands, you should know that readers are aware the middle of the page is usually boring stuff they don’t need to read either. This requires some attention be paid to the layout of your book but, again, put the real content near the top and bottom of pages and lay on those scenes of Counsellor Troi and Knuckles the Echidna quarreling for the middle. Make sure your editor knows what you’re doing so they don’t let the publisher switch things over to, say, 14 point and screw up all the formatting. Modern professional writing software should let you interweave the real text and the filler without much hassle on your part, but it doesn’t.

It probably strikes you that this means that whatever it is you really want to write is going to be sprawled out over a lot more pages than it would have, say, thirty years ago. That’s all right, because the huge size of the writing convinces readers they’re getting good value for their time, and especially good value if they’re buying books, which is why everything’s too bulky and discursive to actually read anymore.

If you find these tips of use, please let me know in an e-mail I promise to skim at least and might someday respond to. That’s a different discussion.


[4] Sorry I can’t give you useful advice on this one. Maybe we should’ve gone with the grammar-quarrel-based airline instead.

Bunny Snacking


The purchase of some “Green Goddess” salad dressing lead me inevitably to looking up Annie’s Homegrown — they make those organic Macaroni and Cheese packages with the cute pictures of bunnies all over them — on Wikipedia. Their symbol on the stock exchange is BNNY, and isn’t that adorable? So anyway besides learning about their various corporate takeovers and food recalls was this recent bit of corporate news:

On April 3, 2014 Annie’s opened their doors to their first bakery manufacturing plant purchased from Safeway Inc. located in Joplin, Missouri, that currently has an estimated 100 employees. [53079]

So I took that sentence to my seventh-grade English teacher, the one who made me, as best I can determine, the latest-born person to ever learn how to diagram sentences. She examined this soggy pile of words and explained that the “53079” is the ASCAP registration number, used to sort out royalties for when the sentence is played over the radio, so I’m glad to have that straightened out.

Unbeknownst


I’m starting from the premise that you just can’t say “unbeknownst” anymore, not without sounding at least a little arch and like you’re making fun of the people who use words like “unbeknownst” without meaning to sound a little arch and like they’re making fun of (I’m sorry, I have to call this sentence off because of the recursion error). Anyway, if you’re not willing to give me that premise we’re just not going to get anywhere.

The thing is that “unbeknownst” was a perfectly good word, usable for all sorts of conditions when the beknownsting of things was aptly described as un-, and now it isn’t. At some point the comical uses of the word so overwhelmed the serious uses that the word had to be given up as part of the usable non-humorous vocabulary.

So that means there’s someone out there who was the last person to use “unbeknownst” without meaning it archly, and without expecting the audience to hear it a little archly, and given that arch uses of the word had to be on the rise then I wonder: was this last-serious-use of the word something the writer knew was going on, or was it unbeknownst to her? But if it was beknownst to her, doesn’t that keep it from being a legitimate use? Even a little bitty bit? Or did she refuse to think about that lest she lose the spot of last-legitimate-user to whoever used it just before she did?

To sum up, worrying about this nonsense is why I got like two hours of sleep last night.

Meaningless Awards


I see from the Institute for General Wordiness that “pusillanimous” has been added to the official collection of Words That May As Well Not Mean Anything, Because Nobody Uses Them Enough To Remember What They Do mean. I’m a little offended because I remember the word very well, as it was one of my favorites in the 7th grade vocabulary sheets that gave us words to learn how to spell and to define, and I was very good in those. Pusillanimous means, I believe, quarrelsome and unpleasant but not quite so much as the March 2011 inductee “lugubrious” does. Anyway, it’s a perfectly “vibrissae” day outside so I’m going to watch the lawn instead of worrying about it.
I mean words, not the lawn. I have people to worry about the lawn for me.

Fred Allen: Correcting Alphabet Soup


Fred Allen is a comedian I didn’t discover, outside his famous quips about how committees work and about television, until I was well grown and listening to a lot of old time radio. He’s not remembered as well as his rival Jack Benny, and if you wish to point out Jack Benny isn’t well remembered I’ll come over there and spit on your driveway. Besides, Fred Allen did get a cameo in an autographed photo on 30 Rock last season.

Most of his writing defies quotability, as he liked to be very timely, and enjoyed commenting on the other comedians of the day, and so he has to be flanked by footnotes. But some bits carry through, such as this one from the Salad Bowl Revue of October 6, 1933, which is available on archive.org as part of their old time radio collection, and which I believe to be out of copyright. I can’t convey Allen’s voice in print, and unfortunately there aren’t even any good cartoons that parodied him, but he came from Boston so take your guesses and this really is what YouTube is for.


Announcer:

And now Mr Allen’s help and advice on etiquette:

Good night, ladies and gentlemen. Well, our etiquette department is going like a blacksmith’s clientele in a one-horse town, and a postcard tonight comes from Professor Merrill G Clark of Detroit, Michigan.

Professor Clark says, quote, “I am an English professor at a local college and always have trouble eating alphabet soup in restaurants. Invariably the waiter serves me a plate of alphabet soup containing grammatical errors which he expects me to swallow. I have taught English for so long that a grammatical error even in this form upsets me internally. What should I do?” Unquote.

Alphabet soup has always been a problem to grammarians, Professor Clark. Many professors finding errors correct the soup and send it back to the chef, giving him some homework besides. Other teachers send for soup censors supplied by the makers of the illiterate broth. The censors will gladly remove any objectionable words that may have formed in your soup; but generally, by the time the censor leaves your soup is cold and, while you may enjoy a grammatical triumph, gastronomically you are defeated.

The best thing to do is to order your alphabet soup with the H’s dropped and eat it as English mutton broth. Since fully sixty percent of the soup consumed in this country ends up on men’s vests anyway, you are really swallowing nothing but your pride and forty percent of the liquid insult.

If you, too, have a problem in etiquette lying unsolved in your dumbwaiter, ladies and gentlemen, why not send me the spare parts of a possible faux pas and I shall be glad to spank my mind in an effort to help you as I know I have helped Professor Clark tonight?


A bit of Internet searching reveals to me there was a Canadian diplomat named Merrill G Clark, but I can’t figure out when he lived, or if there were any reason that Allen might have heard such a name, or whether he just made up something that sounded plausible and not distracting.