Archive for the 'Language' Category

Mortal Sins (Friday edition)

Posted in Language on January 14th, 2011

First there was Farhad Manjoo, the Apple fanboi technology columnist for Slate and lots of other places. It increasingly makes me nervous to agree with Manjoo, but in this case…well, definitely overstating the case, but I agree.

As of now: 941 comments!

Some of them, naturally, saying there are more important issues, get a life, whatever.

One thing Manjoo gets absolutely, dare I say inarguably wrong:

He uses two spaces after every period. Which—for the record—is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

I see several hundred comments in that stream making it clear that “inarguably” is laughably erroneous. And countless typing teachers and countable style manuals that emphasize the arguability, at least, of using two periods.

Then there was John Scalzi–who has the ability to be concise (an ability that Farhad Manjoo and certain other idiots seem to lack). Here’s his post, entitled “Farhad Manjoo is Right and I Will Go to This Barricade With Him,” in full:

The vile perniciousness that is the second space after a period. If you do this, you are everything that is wrong and bad in this world. That is all.

Only 88 comments–although, on a comments-per-word-in-original-post basis (a metric that I just created out of that orifice from which most good social science metrics emerge), he’s getting more comments than Manjoo. Well, why not? He’s a much better writer…

And now there’s me. Noting that it’s Friday, and we’re allowed to offer up silly posts on Friday. Heck, if we’re Farhad Manjoo, we even get paid for them.


Quick clarification: The “He uses…” in the quoted material is part of Manjoo’s text. It’s not that Manjoo uses two spaces after each period; that’s what he’s saying about someone else. Who? Not important.

Transliteracy and Chess-Playing Bears

Posted in Language on November 5th, 2010

In an odd and interesting FriendFeed thread today, I included this comment:

Derailing further, I find myself wanting to do a post about semi-related issues (the distinction between getting and liking)…and what I might call the Walter Carlos Williams problem (*not* Wendy Carlos Williams on later albums), or “is this a dancing bear?” Probably won’t; even that description is all over the place. [Oops: My bad. I've removed "Williams." Sorry.]

OK, I wrote “Walter Carlos Williams” and “Wendy Carlos Williams,” somehow having conflated William Carlos Williams–whose poetry I read in college–with Wendy Carlos (orig. Walter Carlos), whose synthesized classical recordings I was, at one point, very fond of. If you go to the thread, you’ll just see the right names–I don’t know how to do overstrikes in FF.

Now, as to the post itself, which isn’t directly about transliteracy but may be about new forms and whether you should be able to enjoy or even understand all of them…

Well, I didn’t mean “dancing bear” but “chess-playing bear,” where the marvel isn’t that it’s done well but that it’s done at all (if it is).

As for fleshing out that post: Not gonna happen. My thoughts there are too confused, even by my standards, and I’ll just leave them that way. If you take the implication that, when I went back to it 10 years later, I no longer found Switched-On Bach either revelatory or very enjoyable–well, that’s true. If you do find it either one, good for you: Tastes do and should differ.

How about plain old literacy?

Posted in Language on November 5th, 2010

It’s an ad–but not some tiny little offhand ad or a local ad.

It’s a two-page color ad, on special heavyweight slick paper, in a very large circulation national magazines.

The ad’s from British Airways. It’s about an impressive program, one in which BA flies “hundreds of small business owners” to meet with potential partners…for free.

And here’s the first sentence of the first paragraph of the actual ad copy:

Last year British Airways launched it’s Face-to-Face program and awarded hundreds of small businesses free flights and other services to nurture their business growth.

The. very. first. sentence. Yes, I know, British English and American English differ in some ways. Not this way, however: “It’s” is not a possessive in either language.

Is this stuff that hard? Shouldn’t copywriters at least have a basic command of the language?

Time for a tract?

Posted in Language on May 16th, 2010

Just a little post about a wrong word choice that seems ever more omnipresent in journalism–and it may be one where the reporters and editors (and proofreaders, if newspapers still have such functions) are more at fault than the people being quoted.

Track housing.

I suppose there might be such a thing as track housing:

  • Housing built adjacent to a track, just as there’s golf-course housing.
  • A house with a track around it? Or a house that has a track inside it?
  • Perhaps a house in which runners change clothes before going out to the track?

But I’m guessing that, oh, 99.99% of the time “track house” or “track housing” appears in print, what’s meant is…

Tract housing

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of “tract house”:

Any of many similarly designed houses built on a tract of land.

You know: Shady Acres, Magnolia Pines, all those named (and nameless) developments where the houses either look alike or can be recognized as permutations of the same two or three floor plans. The developer purchases a tract of land–“a defined area of land” (boy, there’s a thrilling definition)–and builds tract houses on it. (At one extreme, cue Malvina Reynolds’ love song for Daly City: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky…and they all look just the same.” And yes, I love Tom Lehrer’s line, as quoted in a pretty good Wikipedia entry on the song, that it’s “the most sanctimonious song ever written.”)

Is this so difficult?

I suppose it is if a reporter (or editor) has no idea what a tract of land is and somehow thinks that “houses built along the same tracks” (I’m stretching here) may be “track housing.”

Mostly, though, I suspect it’s just plain ignorance.


I should note that I don’t deride tract housing. Our neighborhood in Mountain View consisted primarily of minor variations on two or three house designs (so, for example, before they remodeled it, our next-door neighbor’s house was an exact mirror image of ours). They were and are good houses; we liked our house a lot.


Followup, later that day, which most folks may not see: Steve Lawson commented (on FriendFeed) that he gets a lot of “tact” for “tack” at his place of work. That’s another one–rarely the reverse (“he showed a distinct lack of tack”) but way, way too often the misuse of “tact” when “tack” is meant, primarily “time to take a different tact” or the like.

As I noted there, if you really wanted to reach, you could suggest that people think of “tact” as short for “tactic”–but that’s reaching way too far. More likely people know nothing about sailing and have never really heard of “tack” except as a kind of pin or nail with a broad head, and they know that’s not what they mean.

If you’ve seen a sailing vessel tack (or “take a different tack”)–turning into the wind–it’s quite a lovely sight.

Language grumps

Posted in Language on April 28th, 2010

Feel free to ignore this post. I’m a little grumpy–partly because it started raining just as I was on my way to the Wednesday hike (and then stopped after it was too late), just as it did last Wednesday. Strange: I think I only missed a hike once during the proper rainy season because of weather–and here it happens twice in a row in late April, with most other days being beautiful. [These are real hikes--4 to 6 miles, significant vertical in most cases, with hiking sticks. My wife & I also do afternoon walks every day when it's feasible, but that's only 1.25 miles with a couple dozen feet vertical. Those are walks, not hikes.]

Anyhoo… a couple of grumps about language, not that they’ll do any good:

  • The singular of media is medium. TV is a medium, it is not a media. I’m hoping this one isn’t lost just yet…
  • Conversely, unless you’re talking about a psychic convention or a stack of clothes that are neither small nor large, the plural of medium is media, not “mediums.” I’ve seen “mediums” a few times too often lately; I autocorrect it in blogs that I’m citing for C&I, but it’s maddening. When you put TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, the web together, you’re talking about media, not mediums. [Gaah. Looking at Merriam-Webster, I see that advertising folks talk about "media" as singular and "medias" as plural. Gaah. I might buy "media" as a mass noun in certain cases--"the news media"--in which case you could reasonably use the singular. But medias? Really?]
  • The verb that results in something being lost has the same number of os as the condition–it’s lose, not loose. This should not be difficult; I have yet to see anyone assume that “loost” is a correct spelling. I would love to say “loose is not a verb,” but that’s not true, although it’s a fairly quaint verb. On the other hand, when used intransitively, there’s no question: Loose is always a transitive verb. You can lose (“you lose” is a perfectly good sentence) but you can’t loose, you can only loose something.
  • The word for a flashing of light produced by a discharge of atmospheric electricity does not have an e in it. The word is lightning. Yes, lightening (with an e) is a word–but it only applies if a color or burden or something becomes lighter/lessened.

Enough grumpiness for today. I don’t think I’m a stickler for grammar, and I know language changes and believe it should. (I regard “data” as a mass noun taking singular formation except when used in a scientific sense, for example, and I deliberately use “they” as a genderless singular third-person pronoun.) These ones don’t represent changing language, though, I don’t think–just sloppiness.

I won’t even start on less and fewer. I’d like to think there’s still hope for the distinction, but I’m not very confident.

A brief post with only 2% plagiarism

Posted in Language on March 8th, 2010

I was working on the draft of a future Online column (based, as they mostly are, on edited & updated material from previous Cites & Insights) on the uniqueness of everyday language–taking the two-year-old test I ran, doing a new, slightly smaller, test and updating the commentary.

One piece of commentary had to do with the likelihood that people would use the same actual words to talk about the same thing–as someone commented, “after all, how many ways are there to discuss Hamlet’s ambivalence?” Two years ago, when I checked Google for the two key words, I came up with “around 57,000,” and didn’t see that any of the first 100 seemed to be the same text.

This time, I came up with more than ten times as many results (which I regard as having more to do with Google’s increasingly silly initial result numbers than anything else–yes, the database continues to grow, but by >10x in 18 months?)–and, in looking through the first 100 results, I found two pairs that sounded an awful lot alike.

In one case, a Yahoo! Answer was almost identical to a paragraph in a Wikipedia article…but split into three paragraphs and with one or two word changes. Checking dates, it was pretty easy to conclude that the Yahoo! Answer was, shall we say, an innocent failure to attribute text to Wikipedia (text which was considerably older there). (Note: I’m not accusing Wikipedia of plagiarism–the text was pretty clearly copied from Wikipedia, not to it.)

The other was odder–a fairly long commentary on a scene from the play. One was from a signed, nicely formatted, set of discussions on Hamlet’s scenes (or, rather, on scenes from Act One, with the full set available as an inexpensive ebook). The other was from an ad-supported multiple-blog site, with no apparent authorship and with a bunch of HTML-like code appearing at the top of the “post,” and with no signature. I’m pretty sure I can guess which was copied from which–and in that case, since the original doesn’t include a copyright waiver, there’s more at stake than failure to attribute.

All of which is somewhat tangential to the original story. That story continues to be that everyday language is a lot less “common” than we may think–that, by and large, sentences at least 10 words long are likely to be unique even within a corpus as large as Google’s database. (The first test had relied mostly on my own writing and on first sentences of paragraphs; the new test uses the second sentence of the second paragraph of a post from each of 150 different blogs. Very similar results…) Basically, while one identical sentence (that is, a sentence in one work that’s also found in another) is absolutely, positively insufficient grounds to assert plagiarism–it may be enough to suggest that further checking is warranted.

Nobody in their right mind…

Posted in Language on February 18th, 2010

Once in a while, I get accused of uncharitable reading. Once in a while, the accusation is right on the money.

On the other hand, I will assert that, any time an article or column or post starts with the five words used as the title for this post:

  • The writer is itching for a fight.
  • The writer is not interested in logical argument.
  • The writer is likely to be wrong–unless, of course, the writer gets to decide who’s sane and who isn’t.

Heck, “I think most sensible people would agree” may be strong, but it’s in a whole different ballpark.

The particular story that prompted this mini-post? Not important. I didn’t read the whole thing. Why bother? The first sentence told me that the writer considers me to be insane or deluded.

And if that’s uncharitable reading, so be it. When faced with uncharitable writing–with monolithic, “my way or the asylum” statements, I’ll go for fisking and lack of charity.

Conversational intensity: Claiming a term

Posted in Language, Liblogs on February 16th, 2009

Here goes nothing:

I believe that I coined the term “conversational intensity” as applied to blogs, when I first used it in “Perspective: Investigating the Biblioblogosphere“–which was published on August 10, 2005 as part of the September 2008 Cites & Insights. (That essay, by the way, appears to be the second-most-frequently-viewed essay in the history of C&I, with just under 20,000 full-issue downloads and single-article pageviews to date.)

No, I’m not claiming credit for the term itself. It’s been used in social sciences for decades, but it’s related to things like the loudness of conversations within a party and the like.

Conversational intensity, if you’re new to this game, is a relatively simple metric for a blog: Over a period of time (I typically use a three-month period), it is:

Number of comments divided by number of posts.

That’s it. The higher the number, the greater the conversational intensity.

U’r doin’ it wrong

The earliest use of the term related to blogs that I can find, other than my own, is from Mitch Ratcliffe’s Ratiuonal Rants blog at ZDNet, as the title of a February 5, 2006 post. That’s half a year later (although I’m not suggesting Ratcliffe picked it up from me–that would assume that Big-Deal Bloggers pay attention to anyone else other than other Big-Deal Bloggers, which seems unlikely)–and his usage is, in my humble opinion, wrong wrong wrong.

To wit, he’s using this term as a synonym for Conversational Index, a metric proposed by Stowe Boyd. The problem with this metric is that it’s inverted (and includes something that I regard as peripheral to conversation, namely the number of trackbacks, which are frequently just spam). CI is

Number of posts divided by number of (comments plus trackbacks)

That’s counterintuitive: Lower is better. How many metrics do you know (other than error metrics) where lower is better, higher is worse?

Otherwise, if you take out the trackbacks, it’s exactly the same metric, but inverted: A Conversational Index of 0.5 is the same as a conversational intensity of 2.0.

So what?

So not much of anything. I explicitly disclaim any intention of trademarking the term, claiming proprietary rights, or hounding anyone who uses it without giving me credit. Period. It’s just a bit of recent history.

Now, if someone was silly enough to write a Wikipedia entry on conversational intensity, I would expect credit (and the September 2005 C&I would be citable as a source). But why would anyone do that? (And no, please Gaia, don’t go the next step and try to create such an entry for the unnotable Walt Crawford.)

If anyone has an earlier citation of this term used in relationship to blogging, let me know.

Visitor: This I can live with

Posted in Language on September 19th, 2008

Credit where credit is due: I picked this up first in Andy Powell’s post at eFoundations–but I was reminded of it by Lorcan Dempsey’s longer discussion at Lorcan Dempsey’s blog.

Both posts point to “Not ‘natives’ & ‘immigrants’ but ‘visitors’ & residents” by Dave White at TALL Blog.

Here’s White’s suggestion (the same paragraphs Powell quoted, but I’m including a little more of each):

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain… the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there…

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off

I like this terminology. It’s not pejorative, it’s not generational or ageist, and–as White makes very clear in the post–it’s not black and white, it’s a spectrum. All three bloggers have identified the key difference as attitude, not age.

Different, not better or worse

That’s the biggest thing for me. As White says, a visitor may actually be more skillful in some online settings than a resident–but a visitor is less likely to gravitate immediately toward social-web tools and to be “connected” 24/7. I suspect visitors are also less likely to be dismayed when useful tools lack social components.

Mostly a visitor

As you can guess, I’m mostly a visitor. I say “mostly” because I certainly have a web presence, and I do spend some time in the LSW Meebo room (less time than I’d like to, probably more time than I can afford to, the latter because I’m a poor multitasker). My “visitor” nature may have something to do with my decision to leave Twitter–and while I’m still thinking about Facebook, that may also be a poor choice for a visitor. (It’s pretty clear that Ning just didn’t work for me because I wouldn’t provide the ongoing presence it seemed to require.)

In a time when respected organizations seem to delight in labels that are clearly pejorative–and when even some of my colleagues and friends seem only too happy to engage in casual ageism–I salute Dave White. Good terms, good explanation, good thinking.

I wish I’d said that

Posted in Language, Media, Writing and blogging on July 15th, 2008

Those of you who read Cites & Insights–and if you don’t, you really should–know that I’ve looked at Wikipedia off and on, from a number of angles.

One aspect of Wikipedia that’s always bothered me is, I believe, built into the model: The more important the entry, the less likely that it will have a coherent voice. From what I’m seeing, the situation at Wikipedia is getting worse as there are more efforts to assure that everything is properly footnoted. I was hoping Citizendium would be different–that requiring signed contributions would encourage coherent essays–but even Citizendium has procedures that work against editorial coherence to some extent, as I discussed in “Citizendium and the Writer’s Voice,” in the May 2008 issue. The essay starts on page 10, but the relevant discussion starts on page 17: “The writer’s voice, the expert’s mind.”

For a one-paragraph factoid, it doesn’t much matter. But for anything much more significant, I’d really like an encyclopedia article to be an essay, something that leads me to an understanding of the subject. My belief is that Wikipedia’s methodology pushes in the other direction, as it discourages commentary and encourages strings of documentable statements. Instead of essays, you get big long sets of sentences and paragraphs with little coherence or narrative flow.

But there you go: I’ve used two paragraphs and not really gotten at what I mean to say.

Then I read Tim Spalding’s post today at Thingology: “Wikimania 2008 (Alexandria, Egypt).” And this comment on an article that requires more than a factual paragraph (in this case, “Alexander the Great”):

It’s lumpy, unbalanced, poorly written and poorly sourced—a bright fourteen year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows.* Parts are good. Parts are bad. Parts are just off somehow—their correction requiring un-Wikipedia-esque virtues like restraint, proportionality and style.

“A bright fourteen-year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows.” That’s just about perfect.

I’ll add to “restraint, proportionality and style,” one more virtue that may be covered in “style”: narrative coherence.

An encyclopedia article on Alexander the Great should be a story. It should have voice, coherence, style, narrative flow. When I’m done reading it, I should understand something about Alexander the Great. I don’t believe you can get there from a series of factual sentences and paragraphs–and I believe it’s a lot harder when commentary is disallowed and writers are anonymous.

This doesn’t suggest that Wikipedia’s useless–and I’d guess the vast majority of its uses are for quick lookups anyway, where the lack of narrative coherence doesn’t much matter. It does suggest that Wikipedia has real limits and that, in some ways, it will never be as good as traditional encyclopedias, even if it may exceed them in other ways.

Thanks, Tim. I’ll use that elsewhere, and try to remember to give you credit.


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