Archive for the 'Language' Category

The case against overgeneralization

Posted in Language on January 15th, 2013

I have to give a shout-out to Jon Carroll’s column today in the San Francisco Chronicle (available on SFGate, the Chronicle‘s website).

You may or may not find his primary topic–the bizarre new logo for the University of California that is no longer the bizarre new logo for UC–all that interesting. Heck, you may even love the “UC’s a hip dotcom” replacement for UC’s established, conservative, effective logo that suggests one of the world’s great universities.

That’s not why I’m giving Carroll a shout-out. Instead, it’s this (after quoting a portion of a piece from a designer complaining about the complaints about the logo, that includes this: “But throughout this controversy, no one wrote about the strategy behind the new identity. In fact, no one wrote about the identity.”)

First, a word of advice: The phrase “no one wrote about” is, in this Internet age, inevitably untrue. Somebody writes on every side of every issue. Since an individual human cannot read everything on the topic, it is almost certain that you’re going to miss something that makes your statement untrue.

Once you’ve made one unsupportable claim, the other claims seem a little less convincing. This very newspaper, for instance, in its news story on the issue, quoted university officials with regard to what the thinking was behind the new branding campaign. So did other places. Perhaps the story was not covered the way Simmons would have covered it, but the issues he brings up were discussed.

Emphasis added in the second quoted paragraph, to be sure–and that’s what I’d hope that some library folks given to hyperbole would pay attention to.

The rest of the column’s also good stuff, of course. (I’m admittedly biased: Carroll–who I met when we were both at UC Berkeley and who convinced me that I shouldn’t be a humor writer–is one of the reasons why we still subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle, albeit now as a Kindle app. I think he’s one of the best writers around.)

But that’s the message. When you say “every academic library has drastically falling circulation and reference,” change that to “most libraries” and you may be right; “every” is almost certainly and demonstrably wrong. When you say “Everybody’s using smartphones as their primary computing tool” (I’ve seen variants on this) you make yourself look foolish.


Beyond Confrontation: An Editorial Experiment

Posted in Language on October 26th, 2012

Since I grumped about and reacted badly to the tone of Michael Ridley’s Introduction to Beyond Literacy, I started thinking: OK, hotshot, how would you do it better?

With that in mind, here’s a quick editorial experiment: Ridley’s introduction, modified to avoid inevitabilities and confrontation while encouraging conversation. Something like 98% of the text that follows is Ridley’s; a tiny little bit is mine.


Imagine a future in which reading and writing are doomed and literacy as we know it is over. Let’s call it the post-literacy future.

Beyond Literacy is a thought experiment about the demise of literacy and the rise of other capabilities, capacities or tools that would effectively and advantageously displace reading and writing. While the prospect of the end of literacy is disturbing for many, it need not be a decline into some new Dark Age but could rather the beginning of an era of advanced human capability and connection.

I’ll even argue that the post-literate world is to be welcomed not feared. Of course, getting there could be a bit disruptive.

Writing about the end of literacy is certainly ironic and probably slightly foolish. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll assert that literacy is doomed and this is the best way available to chart its decline and replacement.

Literacy or “visible language” is a profound capability. The ability to read and write is a transformative skill that fundamentally changes the way we think, act, and engage with each other. The power of reading and writing is undeniable. And yet there are challenges to the human condition for which literacy seemingly fails. Has literacy run its course? Has our allegiance to its capabilities blinded us to its failings?

This project explores something which I’ll assert to be inevitable but for which we have grave misgivings. The alphabet is simply a tool, and a relatively recent one in terms of human evolution. Humans excel in making tools. It only seems reasonable that we will create a tool that will work better than the alphabet does.

And so this book will explore that possible inevitability: that literacy will be displaced or replaced by a capacity, capability or tool more powerful, valuable and useful. The premise for this possible future is that literacy is doomed.

Beyond Literacy is also an experiment in participation. The issues and ideas presented here are intended as the starting points for a larger and wider discussion. I hope these chapters will encourage you to engage further by commenting on specific posts, adding your own posts, or by publishing commentary on your own sites and linking back to Beyond Literacy. The objective is to nurture a distributed dialogue across many venues and in many formats.

Literacy is a capability we privilege above all others. It is a universal good. It is widely viewed as a prerequisite for success and personal development. By contrast, illiteracy is understood to be an impairment. While I will argue that literacy is doomed, and while I will try to make the case that what replaces literacy will be more powerful, like you, I harbour strong allegiances to literacy. I have been transported by poetry; I have been enriched by lucid and complex arguments; I have been entertained, touched, moved, and enraged by the writings of great people; I have shared my thoughts with friends and recorded ideas for my great grandchildren. I have reveled in reading and writing.

Given our experiences, it is difficult to escape the perspectives imposed on us by literacy. As Walter Ong notes, literacy is a “pre-emptive and imperialistic activity” since it displaces other ways of conceptualizing (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982). While we are children of literacy, we are also prisoners of literacy. Marshall McLuhan has observed, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”(Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964). However, despite this, it is possible to conceive of a technology or a capacity that would replace literacy. “Post-literacy” is defined here as the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.

A Note on Terminology and Notation Systems

Obviously thoughts about post-literacy are purely speculative. This project is a thought experiment not an objective consideration of the facts. One can easily dismiss these speculations as mere science fiction; interesting but insubstantial and highly unlikely. Perhaps. The history of human communication suggests that literacy itself was unlikely. It is a fairly recent development and only in the past few hundred years has it become widespread (i.e. mass literacy). This is in stark contrast to spoken language which is innate and universal in humans.

As a librarian, proposing that literacy is doomed is a provocative and challenging assertion particularly given that libraries and librarianship are fundamentally grounded in the acts of reading and writing. However, visible language is simply a technology, albeit a tremendously powerful and successful one, and technologies come and go as their value waxes or wanes.

Why is this idea so compelling? The process of thinking about it, talking about it, and studying it with the students in the courses I have taught has reinforced the profound value of literacy. Contemplating the end of literacy has magnified its importance. It is a reaffirmation of the fundamental power of literacy even as we contemplate its demise.

Do I really believe literacy is doomed? Yes.

Do I think this is a cause for concern? Yes. And No.

Will I feel a sense of loss when it happens? Perhaps.

I, like you, am a child of literacy. I have experienced the enormous pleasure and personal advantage of being literate. But I have also seen the complexities of the world challenge our ability to respond. In The Ingenuity Gap (2000) Thomas Homer-Dixon speculates on whether our world has become too complex and fast-paced. How will we deal with the emerging problems? Where will the new ideas come from? From this perspective, is it possible that our literate selves are one of the barriers to new thinking and to critically important new ideas?

People are quick to defend literacy against any threat. It is a universal good. It is the key to success and personal growth. While all these things are true, our passion for our literate condition clouds our view of alternatives and new possibilities. Just as we can experience the magic of literacy, so can we imagine the possibility of another tool that would bring with it even greater transformation and personal power.

Of course, post-literacy is not simply a new gadget or an innovative piece of technology. Neither computers nor the Internet are examples of post-literacy. Displacing literacy is going to require a capability or capacity far more profound than these. What that entails and how that will happen are central to this project and the commentaries of those who choose to engage in the discussion.

Now here’s the thing: I didn’t really change that much. I transformed the Big Brother statements into a less-confrontational paragraph. I changed two or three words in the first regular paragraph, added three words at the start of the second, and changed two words in the third.

Otherwise, I added a qualifier whenever some form of “inevitable” was used–because, you know, once you’ve stated that something is inevitable, there’s very little room for discussion other than “I agree” or “I disagree.” The claim of inevitability is the end of discussion: To me, it’s generally a sign that the case for a position won’t stand on its own merits.

An interesting thing happened when I made these changes and read through the rest of the introduction. Namely, I noticed that Ridley’s hedging his bets. His definition of post-literacy is not at all that portrayed in the first two BIG STATEMENTS. Instead, it’s “the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.” [Emphasis added.]

That’s a very different thing. You could make the case that we’re already in a post-literate society if you use that definition: At least in terms of bandwidth used, TV and movies (including various web visual media) far outweigh reading and writing, if only because text transmits so efficiently.

If I’d read this modified introduction, I would have probably gone on to read the remaining chapters (which I have not attempted to revise nor reread). Would I have become a full-fledged participant in the discussion? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly wouldn’t have felt the need to vent about the project and its ACRL/OLA sponsorship.

Am I right to prefer this nonconfrontational, nonabsolutist, non-inevitable version? I’m not sure there is a right or wrong.

The I am / you are meme

Posted in Language on March 8th, 2012

Well, traditionally, it’s the I am / you are / they are meme. You know: identifying the same characteristic in three different ways–highly favorable for “I am,” neutral for “you are,” unfavorable for “they are.”

I’m seeing more of it but I’ll simplify to I am / you are:

I am precise. You are pedantic.

I am adding a different perspective. You are being disagreeable.

That’s enough for now.

A little Friday fun

Posted in Books and publishing, Cites & Insights, Language on May 13th, 2011

Minor (or not so minor) unrelated items:

  • Dear Academic Journals: Sending me emails (from specific journal “editors”) asking me to review specific scholarly papers within a week’s turnaround, after zero advance vetting, with no prior agreement on my part to serve as a referee–and on topics consistently well outside even the broadest scope of my possible expertise–serve mostly to remove any question about the nature of your operation. “Refereed by random email recipients” is not the mark of a quality OA journal, and I hasten to add that there are many quality OA journals that do adhere to proper standards.
  • Speaking of which, have I mentioned recently that everybody really should buy my terrific, world-changing, concise overview from ALA Editions, Open Access: What You Need to Know Now? 30,000 words of my best work–with the advantage of professional editing, copyediting and indexing–in a neat little package. You can buy an “eEditions” ebook bundle–a .zip file containg ePDF, ePub, Kindle and MobiPocket versions–or, if you’re so inclined, buy a Kindle edition as a direct Amazon Kindle download.
  • I was reminded again this week of that important internet truth: “Don’t feed the trolls.” And two corollaries: “Learn to recognize a troll” and “Don’t become a troll–at least not too often.”
  • An interesting week, beginning under the weather (some odd combo of upper respiratory virus/flu and something like food poisoning–I’m mostly better now) and continuing with crucial next steps in two Real Book projects. To wit, the first half of the advance for my 2012 project was deposited to my account (and the countersigned contract is in the mail), while the signed contract for my 2011 project (which might not actually appear until 2012) arrived yesterday (and the countersigned copy will go out in today’s mail). I continue to be excited about both projects…and am more than 1/3 of the way through the rough draft for the 2011 project, one I truly believe will be worth having for nearly every public library.
  • And there’s a new Cites & Insights issue…a two-month combo to leave some room to think about C&I and work on other stuff.
  • An odd little Slate article about rules for punctuation and quotation marks that asserts that British style is “logical” and U.S. style isn’t. The writer seems to be saying that stuff on the web represents better editorial practice than copyedited material. To me, the U.S. rule is the “flyspeck rule.” To wit: Too often, a period or comma following a closing quotation mark–especially when using proportional type, which today means “almost all the time”–looks like a flyspeck on the page, an accident rather than a purposeful mark. Yes, that’s an aesthetic argument; I also believe it’s a reasonable one. It’s fair to say that I plan to continue following U.S. rules here, and that I find the British practice no more logical than the U.S. practice. Oh, and as for the Oxford comma (properly the “serial comma,” what I think of as the penultimate comma, as it follows the penultimate item in a list)? Call me an AP man in this case–I prefer not to use the serial comma unless it’s needed to reduce ambiguity. (Note that: I do use serial commas when required to reduce ambiguity.) As it happens, I’m being inconsistent, since the serial comma is less commonly used in Britain and in other languages.

Hmm. Maybe not quite as random as I thought. Perhaps worth noting: I wouldn’t argue with a copyeditor on serial commas–and, in fact, I normally make a point of not going back to my original manuscript when reviewing galleys, assuming that professional editors usually know what they’re doing–but I think I’d be dismayed if I published through a UK publisher and saw a bunch of flyspecks at the end of quoted material.


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.

This blog is protected by dr Dave\\\\\\\'s Spam Karma 2: 105918 Spams eaten and counting...