Microsoft gobbledegook

February 26, 2009

Last month Microsoft laid off 1,400 staff, then discovered that they had given 25 of them too much severance pay. The company blamed this on an administrative error and asked the recipients to return the money. Microsoft subsequently backtracked, admitting that it wasn’t worthy of them to make such a request.

A statement by a company spokesperson said:

“We are reaching out to those impacted to relay that we will not seek any payment from those individuals.”

Compared to the finest gobbledegook this is modest enough, but gobbledegook it is; in plain English it seems to mean:

We’re telling those affected they can keep the money.

which conveys the message directly and succinctly, reducing the word count by more than half.

Word count reduction per se isn’t a holy grail, but we tend to use a lot more words than we need. This is especially true of Irish people, bless our wordy ways. Editing a document typically reduces its word count by at least 5–10%.

How to use quotation marks

February 24, 2009

This is a general overview of current usage and guidelines.

Quotation marks, also known as inverted commas in British English, can be single (‘) or double (“). WordPress is determined to curl them, sometimes the wrong way, but no matter. In British English, single marks are traditionally preferred, with double marks inside them as required, then single again and so on:

‘He asked me, “Will you pick up a copy of ‘The Echo’ for me?'”

The reverse order is equally standard. Typeface is a factor. Double marks outside are generally preferred in U.S. English:

“She said to me, ‘What does “autopoiesis” mean, anyway?'”

Both systems are fine, as long as you’re internally consistent. Quotation marks are used in the following ways:

1. When you quote someone directly:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

2. When you refer to song titles, short stories, short poems, book chapters, plays, magazine and journal articles, and radio and television programmes:

David Attenborough’s “Trials of Life”
“To the Evening Star” by William Blake

3. When you refer to a word as a word, or to a phrase as a phrase:

The word “television” is a hybrid of Greek and Latin forms.
In America, inverted commas are called “quotation marks”.
What is the origin of the phrase “skeleton in the closet”?

Italics can also be used for this purpose. I use them throughout this blog because they’re preferable to excessive inverted commas.

4. When you introduce a new, unfamiliar or technical word:

“Avidya”, meaning ignorance of ultimate reality, is related to “maya”, which is the false perception of separateness.

“The designation ‘aperspectival,’ in consequence, expresses a process of liberation from the exclusive validity of perspectival and unperspectival, as well as pre-perspectival limitations.” (Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin)

Once such a term has been introduced, it is assimilated; the inverted commas are not needed after this.

5. For nicknames, e.g. Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, James “Wild Bill” Hickok.

6. As “scare quotes”. These are placed around words or phrases from which writers want to distance themselves. Maybe the usage is colloquial, slang, technical, inaccurate, euphemistic, misleading or inappropriate, and the writer wants to distance him- or herself from it, or to suggest irony, scepticism, distaste or outright derision:

Death metal “music” (The writer sarcastically questions its musicality.)
Pedestrian “facilities” (The writer implies that they don’t necessarily facilitate walking.)
“Josephine” and “Daphne” join an all-female band to escape the mob. (The writer signals false identities in the film Some Like it Hot.)
The sun “goes down” in the west. (The writer draws attention to the conventional perception of the sun’s apparent downward movement relative to an earth-bound observer.)

quotation_marksSince scare quotes can and do get out of hand, some style guides advise against using them, or at least against doing so excessively. The Wall Street Journal has been criticised for “promiscuous use” of these marks as a way to convey political cynicism. The Oxford Manual of Style provides a couple of examples in which scare quotes function “simply as a replacement for a sniffy ‘so-called’, and should be used as rarely”. It contends that they are used “merely to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer’s finer sensibilities.”

Sir Ernest Gowers, writing in Plain Words, takes a similar view:

Few common things are more difficult than to find the right word, and many people are too lazy to try. This form of indolence sometimes betrays itself by a copious use of inverted commas. “I know this is not quite the right word”, the inverted commas seem to say, “but I can’t be bothered to think of a better”; or, “please note that I am using this word facetiously”; or, “don’t think I don’t know that this is a cliché”. If the word is the right one, do not be ashamed of it: if it is the wrong one, do not use it.

Nonetheless, scare quotes remain very popular, especially in journalism.

Quotation marks and punctuation

In American English, full stops and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of the sense, i.e. whether or not they are part of the quote. Colons and semicolons go outside, and the position of question marks and exclamation marks depends on the sense.

In British English, the position of full stops, commas, colons, semicolons, question marks and exclamation marks relative to inverted commas generally depends on the sense. The emphasis is on grammatical logic – see the quote by Gowers, above, for examples. Some British publishers and authors prefer American convention, always placing full stops inside inverted commas for aesthetic reasons, but most advice on British English usage follows Fowler.

A completely logical system seems impossible, such as when certain multiple stops appear (e.g. “Were you asked ‘Why did you do it?’?”). Obviously one of these question marks has to go, but there isn’t unanimous agreement on which. A detailed examination of inverted commas and punctuation would require several pages. The most important things are to avoid confusing the reader and to avoid changing the meaning of the quote.

One last thing, in passing: Quotation marks are commonly used to emphasise quoted material, but this is not standard usage.

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Beer today, gone tomorrow

February 16, 2009

Tenants: People who rent land or property. From the Anglo-French tenaunt (1292), from Old French tenant (12C), from Latin tenēre (to hold, keep).

Tennent’s: A popular Scottish lager.

Tennants: The apparent confusion of the above terms:

Stan Carey - tenants tennants

An expensive typo

February 16, 2009

Yesterday’s Sunday Times has a short article about a typographical error that cost the Irish government more than one million euro. The beneficiaries were two barristers working for the Moriarty Tribunal, which is investigating financial transactions between certain Irish politicians and businessmen.

The same newspaper has an article that begins with a typo, albeit a less expensive one. It appears in both the print and online editions:

“Paracetamol should no longer be sold convenience stores”

I agree. There should be no more shops sold to pharmaceuticals.

The financial effect (in the UK) of poor spelling and grammar is hinted at here.

The strange case of the disappearing apostrophes

February 4, 2009

In grammar news from across the Irish Sea, Birmingham city council has decided to phase out the apostrophe from its street signs and place names. Apparently this has been going on for decades, but only recently was it made official. It happens in my town too:

Stan Carey - St. Paul's Road apostrophe

Erratic and missing apostrophes abound in display writing and unedited writing, such as in shop signs, handwritten notices and internet blogs. A couple of weeks ago I saw a block of cheese in a shop with the incorrect plural cheese’s – the notorious greengrocer’s apostrophe – typed on the packaging.

The overwhelming majority who voted in the online poll in the Birmingham Post are in favour of retaining the apostrophe (and, presumably, removing it if it doesn’t belong). This is unsurprising.

It’s not a difficult punctuation mark to learn to use properly, but it evidently presents widespread difficulty and probably always has done. The official guidelines on apostrophe use are current conventions rather than eternal rules, and they have changed considerably since the apostrophe’s introduction to English in the sixteenth century.

Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson all used what would now be considered errant apostrophes, presumably without raising too many contemporary eyebrows. George Bernard Shaw, who raised many an eyebrow, referred to them as “uncouth bacilli” and tended to avoid using them at all. In 1985, the renowned lexicographer Robert Burchfield said:

The apostrophe was only a moderately successful device, and it is probably coming to the end of its usefulness, certainly for forming plurals and marking possession. It may only be retained for contractions.

Don’t presume that this gets you off the hook though – better to understand and apply the current guidelines than to use and abuse the mark haphazardly.

Less than two husbands

February 2, 2009

In Typee, Herman Melville wrote:

No man has more than one wife, and no wife of mature years has less than two husbands, – sometimes she has three, but such instances are not frequent.

One set of readers might object to the use of less than with count nouns; another might object to the unconventional matrimonial arrangements in the Marquesas Islands. I’d like to see a Venn diagram that shows the relations between the two sets, if only out of idle curiosity.

For more on the difference between less and fewer, see this post.

‘Reality’ and ‘the facts’

February 2, 2009

The word reality has many uses in fictional, technical, philosophical and pseudo-philosophical contexts, where it can distinguish between different kinds of “reality” or show contrast with what is imaginary, ideal, dreamt or otherwise “unreal”. Typical uses are: fantasy versus reality, virtual reality, consensus reality, phenomenological reality.

Even in these contexts, its meaning is generally mutable and sometimes contentious. Such is “reality”: it is not a homogeneous collective experience, the mere mention of which connotes a unanimously understood truth.

Nonetheless, the term is very popular in rhetorical clichés, especially in spoken English:

The reality is that…
The reality on the ground is that…
Let’s deal with (the) reality here.
We have to face the reality of…

These stock phrases, like the bottom line and the much-reviled at the end of the day, are hackneyed and all but meaningless. And although an expedient in fact can sharpen a good point, the term fact(s) is often used more dubiously:

Let’s face facts.
We can’t ignore the facts.
The fact of the matter is…
The facts speak for themselves.

This kind of verbiage is beloved of talking heads, who use it to lead in to their point. But referring to “reality” in this throwaway manner does not foster constructive dialogue, since everyone’s “reality” is unique, subjective and always changing. Wheeling it out only raises the questions: Which reality? Whose reality? What information are you leaving out, and why? Can you get to the point?

descartes_diagram1Vladimir Nabokov wrote that reality is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes”. It’s a good point but a severe one, since the word’s meaning in certain contexts is clear and justifiable. But if it prefaces an opinion without supporting or illuminating it, as in the examples above, it may instead depreciate the point and delay it unnecessarily. This is far more likely to occur in spoken than written English, but habits in the former can become habits in the latter, so it’s one to watch out for.

Footnote: “All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.” This is according to the Principia Discordia, a playfully satirical faux-religious text (or a work of guerrilla ontology, according to Robert Anton Wilson). The implication, of course, is that this statement itself is true in some sense, false in some sense, etc. Most germane is its inclusion of uncertainty in any interpretation of reality and the facts.

Words are just symbols, and cannot map directly onto the things they signify, any more than Magritte’s painting of a pipe can be smoked. In the battleground of public debate, however, uncertainty is anathema. And in reality, the fact of the matter is that I’m now well off the point, so I’ll stop here.

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