Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

I respectfully disagree

Monday, January 8th, 2007

Not with the posts I’m about to link to–but maybe, in the future, a little more clearly in some other cases.

The posts: Rochelle Hartman says “Politeness? Overrated” at Tinfoil + Raccoon.

There’s a companion post by Heidi Delamore at Quiddle (or “quiddle”–the site uses the latter, but the HTML title is apparently the former).

And wisesmartass Steve Lawson posted “Drama vs. criticism” at See also…. (Sorry, Steve, but you really did ask for that one.)

They’re not all saying the same thing, but the Venn diagram has a large degree of overlap, especially between the first two posts. I won’t attempt to summarize or interpret them: They’re not long, all three write clearly, and it’s a civil discussion–oddly, encouraging slightly less civil discussions at times.

Lawson’s take (I’m trying very hard to avoid first-naming except when I’m joshing someone–no, Neff, that wasn’t aimed at you) is an interesting one. I’ve certainly seen (and endured) cases where people are much more emphatic and even mean-spirited in comments on other posts than they would be on their own blog. Very few bloggers YELL WHEN THEY’RE POSTING, for example. But there’s something else about arguments and criticisms made only in comments (and I do this as much as anyone):

Comments may not have the impact of posts, for two reasons:

  1. Lots of us (I suspect) don’t automatically click through from our aggregators for each post that we find interesting–especially if it’s on (for example) a blog that uses white text on a black background or that we know won’t print out a long post cleanly. I, for one, am more inclined to read the post entirely within Bloglines–and, in the latter case, to email it to myself from Bloglines, since the email’s always printable. So, we don’t necessarily see the comments.
  2. Very few of us sign up for comment feeds, even if blogs offer them. Unless a particular post is just incredibly compelling, we’re unlikely to go back a day, a week, a month later and go through the comment-conversation that’s ensued.

I think this is a shame, actually–but I also don’t see myself revisiting dozens of posts to take advantage of the comments. Increasingly, if I’m writing about a post, I will visit it to save retyping, and may encounter some fascinating comments that I didn’t see the first time around–but the number of people who revisit substantive posts a month or two later in order to write post-hoc commentaries can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Answer? I don’t have one. I love the semi-conversational aspect of (some) blogs–you may note that I still haven’t activated full-time moderation, and hope I never need to, and I’m probably prouder of the >3 comments-per-post average at W.a.r. than I am of the growing number of daily visits (where are all these people or machines coming from?) But I agree that substantive criticisms and extensions will probably have more impact if they’re in a post with links, rather than or in addition to a comment.

I also agree that it’s possible to neuter ourselves through excess politeness or dislike of heated discussions or being piled on. And that we need to be willing to state criticisms and different ideas–ideally, by criticizing the statement rather than the person making the statement. And that, once in a while, we may need to be less polite about the whole thing.

There is, on the other hand, a difference between candor and rudeness. It’s possible to sharply disagree with someone without calling them names or telling them to shut up or get over it. It’s also desirable, if you ever expect them to respond rationally. (I don’t remember ever finding these three to be rude.)
No resolution here, but I appreciated the nicely-stated candor in this trio of posts, and thought I should fourth it.

Does that mean I won’t state arguments in comments that I don’t state directly in posts? Nope. Does it mean I’ll always say exactly what I think and damn the consequences? Nope. I’m as human as anyone, and probably as inconsistent as anyone. It does mean that I understand and generally agree with what’s being said here, even if I don’t always put it into practice.

If you disagree, feel free to say so.

Editing other people’s words

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

…is so much easier than editing your own, at least in some cases.

Trivial example: (this is a trivial post, with probably more language-related posts to come)

Reading the October 13 Chronicle of Higher Education–the fun part, Section B–I get to the letters, one of which is about deadly sins of bad writing and adds two more, one of which is “wordiness”

(For example: “Here it is very important to note that in this case the hippopotamus in question was a midget.” How about: “Note that, in this case, the hippopotamus was a midget.”) [Stacey C. Sawyer]

Very good–and I wish I could consistently do as good a job with my own prose. But looking at the particular string of words and any plausible context or meaning, I found myself saying:

This hippopotamus was a midget.

From 18 to 10 to 5. Don’t expect me to do as well on my own stuff. But then, neither have outside editors (although they almost always improve “my” prose).

Sophisticated argumentation

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

New headnote: I’m reverting most of the other changes because the post gets too confusing. I’ll add my caveats at the end. However, it is now clear, thanks to this excellent comment from Phil Bradley, that I misinterpreted the situation based on sketchy reporting. I’m restoring the original post so that the comment stream makes sense [End of new headnote]:

It seems that a big-name speaker in a big-name conference settled the issue of whether terminology matters, at least within one current movement/set of tools/hypefest/truly good idea set, by displaying a slide containing the Answer:”I don’t care.”

Presumably implying that nobody else should either. Where I’ve seen this noted in reports, it’s with considerable enthusiasm.

It strikes me that sophisticated argumentation at this level deserves appropriate response. To wit, those who think that language doesn’t matter are, to some extent, telling us that their words don’t matter. So an appropriate response to their posts, articles, whatever, might well be

“I don’t care.”

Or is it only language that they disagree with that should be dismissed in such a manner?

Actually, I’m charmed by librarians arguing that language and wording don’t matter. It sets such an interesting tone for the future.

OK, that’s the original post. I did not name the speaker, deliberately…in part because I saw this as another example of what I’d seen much earlier from another source (see the comments for links), and thought it was possible that I was misinterpreting the speaker. It is now clear that this was the case. It’s also clear that the misinterpretation was based in part on the reporting of the session, specifically this commentary:

“My favorite slide was Phil Bradley’s, in response to all the discussion about semantics and buzzwords. It simply said:

“I don’t care”

I LOLed”

[The link is in the comments.] Note “in response to all the discussion about semantics and buzzwords.” Note the lack of “After a slide saying ‘So what do I think?’ and a commentary that made it clear that both sides had merit.” At that point, as Bradley says, the slide wasn’t intended as argument; it was a personal comment. And entirely appropriate as such. I probably would have laughed too.

Note that I did not name Phil Bradley, deliberately. It was a blind item because I was noting a problem I’ve seen more than once. This did not happen to be an instance of the problem.

As for the courtesy of always asking someone before commenting on anything they’ve said in public, or that has been reported that they’ve said, or before interpreting what someone says…well, that’s an interesting idea. It’s certainly not a courtesy I’ve been provided. In fact, I’ve seen deliberate rewordings of what I said. For example, the post above does not say “someone at some conference in some speech attempted to preclude discussion of the language/term.” Nor did I “deny the man a slide with his personal opinion”–where above do I say “The speaker should not have been allowed to put up that slide”? Those are both deliberate misstatements, not just misinterpretations.

To sum up: I misinterpreted what went on at the conference based on (a) selective reporting and (b) my own long experience with the person who’d done the selective reporting. It was a reasoned comment that happened to be wrong. I did not mention the speaker by name because it was used as an example (and because I knew I might be wrong). I wrote a short and angry post because I’m tired of the real instances (which this wasn’t) of argument-by-trivialization.
Again, my genuine apologies to Phil Bradley–not for failing to contact him, but for misunderstanding the sketchy report. And my genuine thanks for his clear, calm, lucid commentary. Next time I see reporting on his speeches that seems askew, I will check first.

What’s wrong with “combination”?

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

This isn’t original–credit goes to James Fallows’ “Homo Conexus” in Technology Review–but when I saw it I had a little “aha!” moment.

To wit, “mashup” has always struck me as an odd term within the x2.0 environment. To me, “mashup” on its own has some negative connotations–you mash things together and wind up with a mush of mess.

That’s not what so-called “mashups” do, at least not when they’re done right. They combine information from two or more web resources to create a new resource. They do so discretely (note spelling: I suppose if they hide where the information comes from, they’re also doing it discreetly) and in an orderly fashion. You wind up with new and presumably useful, interesting, or entertaining stuff based on what you wanted.

Here’s what Fallows says, in the context of trying to do as much using “Web 2.0” services as possible:

(The single most annoying aspect of the annoyingly named Web 2.0 movement is the use of the term “mashing up” to denote what in English we call “combining.”)

I know this one’s not winnable, but I do wonder at the urge for an apparently needless neologism–more particularly one that has a third-grader feel to it. “Hey, let’s go mash up some stuff!” (Exclamation point, of course, mandatory.)

Back when I used to like Reese’s Cups, a classic combination, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have liked them as well if they were just chocolate and peanut butter mashed together.

All I can say is: This library professional plans to use web 2.0 and “library 2.0” services whenever they make sense. This library professional won’t actually wince when someone uses childish phrases or sentence structure. This library professional doesn’t have to like it, though.

Update: Maybe “mashup” does make sense. Separately, I’m seeing (a few) more examples of childish syntax/repetitive structure (made mild fun of in the preceding paragraph) becoming a hallmark of (certain high-profile) Library 2.0 advocates. I have no idea what to make of that. Nursery rhymes as the new paradigm?

A grammar post!

Monday, June 12th, 2006

Once in a while, I glance at “Web pages that suck.”

Usually very well-chosen examples of utterly horrendous web techniques.

Today’s, though, is an oddity: The Oak Ridge Boys site.

Not that the site doesn’t suck–but Vincent Flanders, proprietor of WPTS, usually excludes musical groups and artists from consideration, because such sites are expected to push the envelope.

So why did he make an exception? Because of this “incredible grammar error”:

The Oak Ridge Boys is one of America’s best known country acts.

I sent Flanders email saying that, by my standards, that’s not a grammatical error at all. The Oak Ridge Boys is a musical group; it takes the singular, just as The United States of America or The Beatles or … (at least in American English, given that corporate entities are “people” in the U.S.).

Would you say “The United States are the world’s leading exporters of pop culture”? No, you wouldn’t,

The members of The Oak Ridge Boys are musicians. The Oak Ridge Boys is a group.

Library 2.0 – Like it or hate it, it’s public domain (an echo post)

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

Michael Casey posted this at LibraryCrunch last night. As one of those who suggested this to him, I’ll quote the whole thing as a way of reinforcing the claim against future foolishness:

O’Reilly has taken steps to consolidate use of the term “Web 2.0”, claiming it as a service mark. This has caused several worried library folk to contact me regarding “Library 2.0” and its usage.

I first published the term “Library 2.0” in September of 2005. I have always considered the term “Library 2.0”, used alone or in combinations such as “Library 2.0 Conference”, to be in the public domain, usable by anyone, and not subject to trademark or service mark registration. I would hate to see this changed by anyone attempting to turn the term itself into a commercial venture.

It appears well-established that “Library 2.0” is Michael Casey’s coinage. I believe his post should be strong evidence opposing any attempt by a company to register the term as a servicemark or trademark, by itself or in any generic combination such as “Library 2.0 conference.” Casey’s done the right thing here, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s dealt with him.

This may also be a good point to remind those who believe that Walt Crawford is the foremost “anti-Library 2.0” person around there: I’m not an anti-Library 2.0 person at all, as a reasonably careful reading of the special Cites & Insights should clarify.

I think I’ll adopt the same usage here that Peter Suber tagged me with as regards open access: I’m an independent. (Which really means largely in favor of the concepts, but choosing to continue thinking and writing about difficulties and refinements.)


Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

Rochelle Hartman posted this at the LJ Tech blog, pointing to a site that tests a website for readability.

Well, what the heck…

Here are the results for W.a.r., presumably just for the home page, not the whole blog:

Reading Level Results Summary Value
Total sentences 439
Total words 4738
Average words per Sentence 10.79
Words with 1 Syllable 3131
Words with 2 Syllables 1029
Words with 3 Syllables 380
Words with 4 or more Syllables 198
Percentage of word with three or more syllables 12.20%
Average Syllables per Word 1.50
Gunning Fog Index 9.20
Flesch Reading Ease 68.73
Flesch-Kincaid Grade 6.35

So I write at either a sixth-grader’s level or that of a high school frosh. Wonderful. Well, such is the charm of a pseudo-Asimovian writing style (much of Asimov’s simplicity, none of the grace or creativity).

This doesn’t come as a great surprise. One of my columns is based on word count, and the editor and I found that I need to submit about 20% more than the stated word count in order to fill the available space: I use lots of short words. Not necessarily because I don’t know any longer ones, but if you choose to make that supposition, who am I to argue?

Sometimes you just can’t win

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

I’m doing some early editing on pieces of the next Cites & Insights. In “The Library Stuff” section, I have this sentence:

It’s an interesting treatment, although I wonder about the seeming inevitability of, say, journals in art and architecture going all-digital.

[If you wonder about the context–well, the issue will be out within the next two weeks.]

I do leave Word’s real-time spell check and grammar check on. Sometimes, grammar check has a really good suggested alternative.

In this case, Word gave the evil green squiggle to “all-digital” and suggested “all digital” as an alternative.

So, OK, what the heck. I changed the hyphen to a blank.

And Word gave the evil green squiggle to “all digital.”

You guessed it: The suggested fix was “all-digital.”

Who needs editors when you have advice like that?

We need a new term? (As Huey Lewis didn’t say)

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

In my post celebrating this blog’s first year I noted, “I’m trying out a new neologism, since I’m as sick of biblioblogosphere as others: any takers?” while using “biblogworld.”

I have no problem with neologisms that serve a purpose and roll pleasingly off the tongue. I can get sick of overused, trendy, or pointless neologisms pretty quickly; the same is true for neologisms that are ugly or hard to say.

In this case, a number of people had noted that they really didn’t like “biblioblogosphere,” mostly because it really doesn’t roll pleasingly off the tongue or keyboard–it’s too Germanic for most tastes. (In construction, not in derivation.) More recently, there’s the other issue–a sphere implies a center, and the world of library-related blogs has no such center.

“Biblogworld” is a non-starter, as the comments have made clear. “Library blogs” has the problem that the part of the arena that most interests me doesn’t consist of library blogs so much as blogs by “library people.” Library blogs–those run by and on behalf of specific libraries–can be enormously valuable if done right, but they really fall in a different, if related, category. And “Librarian blogs” is a little tricky, although it would allow me to investigate as an interested outsider–but it would also eliminate great blogs by other library people who don’t (or don’t yet) hold the degree. (Sorry, but as long as I’m an ALA member and nobody’s chosen to give me an honorary MLS–and boy, is the latter improbable–I’m unwilling to call myself a librarian. Drives my MLS-holding wife crazy, it does, but there it is.)

Suggestions? Some short phrase or pleasing term that encompasses the field of weblogs written by one or a small group of “library people” (as identified by themselves) and at least in part vaguely related to libraries and/or librarianship?

I can even provide a Cites & Insights hook. Yes, I do plan to do a newer, larger, different version of the “investigation” I did last year, and I’d like to have a good name for it.

Family nonsense

Monday, March 20th, 2006

Today’s Jon Carroll column in the San Francisco Chronicle is well worth reading.

I don’t think additional comment is needed (and besides, when I think about how the honorable term “Family” has been hijacked by a bunch of extremist organizations…well, I start to lose it too).