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Posts Tagged ‘language’

Label directions improved, but I have mixed feelings

Posted by Richard on March 11, 2015

As a technical writer, I’m always interested in the instructions, directions, or other user assistance provided for various consumer products. I’ve always admired the person who first came up with the simple, brief, three-step directions for shampoo use: “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” A more recent version I’ve seen changes the last step to “Repeat if necessary.” (It sacrifices a bit of brevity for more accuracy and is less encouraging of overuse. I bet the sales/marketing types hated it.)

As a gum disease sufferer, every so often I develop a particularly bad area, and my periodontist prescribes spot treatment with chlorhexidine gluconate. It’s a prescription oral rinse that comes in a pint bottle and is intended (by the manufacturer) to be used like a mouthwash. I’m told to dab it around the problem area with a cotton swab for a week or so (swishing it around in my mouth would stain my teeth terribly). Then I put the remaining 95% of the bottle under the sink for the next several years. By the time I need to repeat the process, it’s expired, and I get a prescription for another pint bottle. Pretty wasteful, but this last time it only cost me $4, so I’m not complaining.

I did notice that the directions had changed since my previous purchase four or five years ago. The label used to instruct you to swish it around in your mouth and then “expectorate.” On the new bottle, it now says to “spit out.”

The technical writer within me applauds this change as being much clearer and more user-friendly. But the high school Latin student in me is somewhat saddened.

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The New Yorker and “Postmodernism Lite”

Posted by Richard on July 30, 2012

In The New Yorker, dance critic Joan Acocella wrote an essay, disguised as a review of Henry Hitching’s The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, on the dichotomy between prescriptivist and descriptivist theories of language. At Slate, Steven Pinker, a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, dissected and demolished Acocella’s “topsy-turvy understanding of linguistics.”

If you’re interested in language and linguistics, read both. Pinker’s is by far the better, but reading Acocella’s first allows you to appreciate his response all the more, and especially the connection to what he calls “The New Yorker’s attitude toward science, which might be called Postmodernism Lite. “

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Passive Voice Day is to be celebrated today

Posted by Richard on April 27, 2012

It was announced by Shaun the other day that today is a special day:

It has again been decided that April 27th will be passive voice day. Fun will be had by everybody as the passive voice is used for tweets, blogs, and casual conversation. The active voice will be frowned upon. The hashtag #passivevoiceday should be used when passive voice is used in social media, so the fun can be shared by all.

Why is this being done? Simple. It’s considered fun. No point is being made. It’s just enjoyed when things are taken to an absurd extreme.

It seems to be a good idea, so it’s my pleasure to be calling attention to this occasion. It will be tweeted about momentarily and my colleagues will be alerted. A good time will be had by all.

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Apostrophe dropping condemned

Posted by Richard on January 16, 2012

British bookstore Waterstone’s is now Waterstones, and some people are upset:

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, said in a statement, “Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling. It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.”

The BBC reports that the move has been condemned by the Apostrophe Protection Society. John Richards, the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, told the Telegraph, “It’s just plain wrong. It’s grammatically incorrect. If Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s can get it right, then why can’t Waterstones. You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.”

Those wacky Brits! Who knew that there was an Apostrophe Protection Society? I bet some of its members are also in the Village Green Preservation Society.

 As for why Waterstone’s would thumb their noses at the Queen’s English like that, here’s the real explanation (emphasis added):

Waterstones also has a new logo, which is a capital W in a Baskerville serif font. Waterstones was acquired by Russian banker Alexander Mamut last May.

It’s the Russkies! Damn their Slavic souls! 🙂

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Through the Looking Glass

Posted by Richard on February 26, 2010

At The Corner, Veronique de Rugy asked the question, "Is That Really What Free-Market Means?"

This morning, the New York Times reported that the president "defended his spending, tax and regulatory initiatives as the natural response to a historic economic crisis," and declared himself an "ardent believer in the free market," challenging "a line of criticism that has fueled discontent with his presidency." Obama said "the policies of his first year in office . . . 'were about saving the economy from collapse, not about expanding government's reach into the economy.'"

If the president's policies are the policies of a free-market president, then I will never call myself free market again. I have to say, I've felt this way often in the last eight years, especially when President Bush declared "I've abandoned free market principles to save the free market system."

Also, according to Bloomberg News:

President Barack Obama said he and his administration have pursued a “fundamentally business-friendly” agenda and are “fierce advocates” for the free market, rejecting corporate criticism of his policies.

Why yes, this is what free-market means. At least when it's used by Barack "Humpty-Dumpty" Obama.

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

Impenetrability, indeed.

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Blogging with a grammatical focus

Posted by Richard on April 16, 2008

My blog would undoubtedly attract more readers if (besides posting more regularly and frequently) I were more focused — posting on one topic, not 20 or 30. But that's just not me. I may go through periods of focus on a topic, but eventually my attention — and therefore my posting — turns elsewhere.

I recently encountered a few examples of truly focused blogging, however. As something of a language maven with a prescriptivist bent, I admire the single-minded dedication these bloggers exhibit:

Typo Hunt Across America — The chronicles of a road trip across America by the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), making this a better world one typo correction at a time.

The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks — This one's even more narrowly focused. No broad grammar focus, no quest to make corrections. Just pictures of "signs" with "inappropriate" quotation marks and "snarky" comments about "them."

Apostrophe Abuse — Another blog dedicated to a single punctuation mark. Apparently one of several that rail against the greengrocer's apostrophe and other inappropriate sprinklings of apostrophes.

If you're into writing and language, and especially if you're the nitpicky compulsive editor type, you'll get a kick out of these.

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Bill Buckley, wordsmith

Posted by Richard on February 28, 2008

On the TECHWR-L mailing list for technical writers, Yves Jeaurond noted the passing of William F. Buckley and pointed out that Buckley's last National Review column (about a Clinton-Obama debate) drew heavily from and profusely praised Henry Fowler's  Modern English Usage, a work much revered by us tech writers. The column, Jeaurond observed, was "a fitting end piece for a fan of the English language, articulate speech and voluptuous prose."

Buckley was a big fan of Fowler:

My reluctance to quote at such length from the great Fowler is mitigated by my serious wish that students of the English language would themselves take the initiative of familiarizing themselves with the profundities and niceties of the points being made by Mr. Fowler.

I wasn't a big fan of Bill Buckley, but did admire his erudition and humor. Here are a couple of quotes I particularly like. The first demonstrates that he wasn't the snobbish elitist he sometimes appeared to be:

I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

The second reminds me of a much longer John Stuart Mill quote ("War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things…"). Buckley's take is marvelously succinct and powerful:

World War is the second worst activity of mankind, the worst being acquiescence in slavery.

Buckley apparently passed away at his desk, writing — an entirely fitting and proper end for an outstanding wordsmith.

UPDATE: One of the most important things Buckley did for the conservative movement that he helped grow and shape was to insist that there was no room in that movement for racists, anti-Semites, and kooks like the Birchers. And that reminds me of another great Buckley quote. The John Birch Society's Robert Welch accused President Dwight David Eisenhower (among others) of being a communist. Buckley's reaction: "Eisenhower isn't a communist. He's a golfer." 

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Maybe this should be a crime

Posted by Richard on May 25, 2007

Yesterday, I wrote disapprovingly about the criminalization of hateful speech. I'm pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist, really. But today, I read something so horrendous and pain-inducing that I'm tempted to call for criminal penalties. The material in question is shareholder information from ICICI Bank of India (I own some ADRs in it). To cope with the rather happy burden of a 40% annual growth rate, the bank's board wants shareholder permission to make some changes in capitalization and the articles of association pertaining to that. There are three proposals before the shareholders (see this PDF if you dare). It's the third one that brought me to my knees:

RESOLVED that pursuant to the provisions of Section 81 and other applicable provisions, if any, of the Companies Act, 1956 (including any amendment thereto or re-enactment thereof), and in accordance with the provisions of the Memorandum and Articles of Association of ICICI Bank Limited (the "Bank") and the regulations/guidelines, if any, prescribed by the Government of India, Reserve Bank of India, Securities and Exchange Board of India and United States Securities and Exchange Commission or any other relevant authority, whether in India or abroad, from time to time, to the extent applicable and subject to approvals, consents, permissions and sanctions as might be required and subject to such conditions as might be prescribed while granting such approvals, consents, permissions and sanctions, the Board of Directors of the Bank (hereinafter referred to as the "Board", which term shall be deemed to include any Committee(s) constituted/to be constituted by the Board to exercise its powers including the powers conferred by this Resolution) is hereby authorised on behalf of the Bank, to create, offer, issue and allot (including by way of Preferential Allotment, Private Placement (including allotment to qualified institutional buyers by way of Qualified Institutional Placement in terms of the Chapter XIII-A of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Disclosure and Investor Protection) Guidelines, 2000) or Public Issue, with or without provision for reservation on firm and/or competitive basis, of such part of issue and for such categories of persons as may be permitted), in the course of one or more public and/or private offerings in domestic and/or one or more international market(s), equity shares and/or equity shares through depository receipts and/or convertible bonds and/or securities convertible into equity shares at the option of the Bank and/or the holder(s) of such securities, and/or securities linked to equity shares and/or securities with or without detachable/non-detachable warrants with a right exercisable by the warrant-holder to subscribe for equity shares and/or warrants with an option exercisable by the warrant-holder to subscribe for equity shares, exchangeable bonds and/or any instruments or securities representing either equity shares and/or convertible securities linked to equity shares (all of which are hereinafter collectively referred to as "Securities"), to all eligible investors, including residents and/or non-residents and/or institutions/banks and/or incorporated bodies and/or individuals and/or trustees and/or stabilizing agent or otherwise, and whether or not such investors are Members of the Bank, through one or more prospectus and/or letter of offer or circular and/or on public and/or Preferential Allotment and/or private/preferential placement basis, for, or which upon exercise or conversion of all Securities so issued and allotted could give rise to, the issue of an aggregate face value of equity shares not exceeding 25% of the authorised equity share capital of the Bank, as amended by the resolutions of the shareholders of even date such issue and allotment to be made at such time or times, in one or more tranche or tranches, at such price or prices, at market price(s) or at a discount or premium to market price(s), including at the Board's discretion at different price(s) to retail investors defined as such under relevant rules, regulations and guidelines of the relevant authority, in such manner, including allotment to stabilizing agent in terms of green shoe option, if any, exercised by the Bank, and where necessary in consultation with the Book Running Lead Managers and/or Underwriters and/or Stabilizing Agent and/or other Advisors or otherwise on such terms and conditions, including issue of Securities as fully or partly paid, making of calls and manner of appropriation of application money or call money, in respect of different class(es) of investor(s) and/or in respect of different Securities, as the Board may in its absolute discretion decide at the time of issue of the Securities.


OK, that's enough — I'll spare you the remaining five RESOLVEDs. I really did try. I made it almost half-way through that first paragraph, desperately hoping to reach a period soon, before my eyes became totally unfocused and my lip began quivering. I believe at the time I was inside three levels of nested parentheses.

If you can get further and would like to advise me what to think of this proposal, I'd appreciate it. I'd wash my hands of them, but my ADRs are up 110% in 10 months, and the way they're still growing…

Does the CIA know about Indian attorneys? Do the interrogators at Gitmo? Forcing prisoners to listen to this probably violates international law, but I'll bet it breaks them faster than Christina Aguillera music. 

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The shifting meaning of child

Posted by Richard on October 16, 2006

Just about everything worth saying regarding former Rep. Mark Foley (and a lot not worth saying) has been said already thousands of times. But, since I’m a bit of a language pedant, allow me a bit of a rant. A Google search for "foley pedophile" (minus the quotes) returns 1,860,000 hits. The first few pages of results suggest that the vast majority of those hits accuse Mark Foley of pedophilia. And that’s simply wrong.

From Psychology Today’s Diagnosis Dictionary (emphasis added):

Pedophilia is considered a paraphilia, an "abnormal or unnatural attraction." Pedophilia is defined as the fantasy or act of sexual activity with prepubescent children. Pedophiles are usually men, and can be attracted to either or both sexes. How well they relate to adults of the opposite sex varies.

From the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders (emphasis added):

Pedophilia is a paraphilia that involves an abnormal interest in children. … Pedophilia is also a psychosexual disorder in which the fantasy or actual act of engaging in sexual activity with prepubertal children is the preferred or exclusive means of achieving sexual excitement and gratification. …

Britannica Online says pedophilia is a (emphasis added):

…psychosexual disorder in which an adult’s arousal and sexual gratification occur primarily through sexual contact with prepubescent children. The typical pedophile is unable to find satisfaction in an adult sexual relationship and may have low self-esteem, seeing sexual activity with a child as less threatening than that with an adult. Most pedophiles are men; the condition is extremely rare in women.

And Wikipedia helpfully describes the origin of the term (emphasis in bullet item added):

The term paedophilia erotica was coined in 1886 by the Vienna psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his writing Psychopathia Sexualis.[3] He gave the following characteristics:

  • the sexual interest is toward children, either prepubescent or at the beginning of puberty
  • the sexual interest is the primary one, that is, exclusively or mainly toward children
  • the sexual interest remains over time

Mark Foley seems to have been attracted to and exchanged sexually explicit instant messages with one or more males who were (depending on whom you believe) either 17 or 18 years old. Now, the parents of a 17-year-old boy undoubtedly consider him their child, and the law may treat him as a child in some ways (or as an adult, if he’s committed a crime). But biologically, boys and girls who are 16 or 17 are fundamentally different from boys and girls who are 7 or 8.

[Note to readers getting angry: I’m not defending Foley’s lecherous and contemptible behavior. I’m just saying it’s not pedophilia.]

Are there gray areas? Of course. Kids mature at different rates. There are some 13-year-old girls who are barely beginning puberty and others who are quite physically mature. But that’s no reason to lump someone attracted to boys or girls in their mid to late teens in with the guy who gets turned on by little kids on the elementary school playground. Because of sloppiness or legal/political considerations, people are using the word pedophile for both those categories, and as a consequence, we’re losing the ability to make an important distinction.

Interestingly, a news story from Sunday suggested that the blurring of that distinction — and the insistence that a 17-year-old is a child — is either recent or selectively applied. Former Rep. Gerry Studds, whose name came up quite a bit during the Foley brouhaha, coincidentally died on Saturday. Here’s how the AP described the scandal involving Studds having sex with a boy of 17:

In 1983, Studds acknowledged his homosexuality after a 27-year-old man disclosed that he and Studds had had a sexual relationship a decade earlier when the man was a congressional page.

At the time, Studds called the relationship with the page, which included a trip to Europe, "a very serious error in judgment." But he did not apologize and defended the relationship as a consensual one with a young adult. The former page later appeared publicly with Studds in support of him.

So in the 80s, actual sex with a 17-year-old was a consensual relationship with a young adult and not a big deal. But today, just talking sex with a 17-year-old is child molestation on such a monstrous and horrific scale that having been even vaguely aware of it without calling the cops is unforgivable.

Maybe it’s the New Puritanism. Can we blame Focus on the Family?

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