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Grammar: Magnetorheostatic, not magnetorheological November 11, 2015

Posted by federalist in Language.
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Magnetorheological is often used to describe fluids that change viscosity in response to magnetic fields.  And this is why engineers should be required to have some basic training in language: Magnetorheological is as nonsensical as it is unwieldy.

Let’s apply some etymology:  Magneto is fine; the phenomenon is a magnetically controlled.  Likewise, rheo makes sense: the phenomenon applies to flow.  But logia?  That’s the study of a phenomenon.  Magnetorheology is a field of study, not a description of the things being studied.

So what is a reasonable word to describe something whose flow characteristics can be controlled through magnetism?  English has a precedential term: –stat is a suffix for regulating devices.  In fact, a rheostat is a device for regulating flow.  So a magnetorheostat would be a device for regulating flow using magnetism, and the adjective for the substance and/or device so controlled would be magnetorheostatic.

Grammar: Misuse of “optics” to mean “appearances” or “perceptions” August 9, 2012

Posted by federalist in Language.
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In recent years I have noticed a common misuse of the word “optics” by business professionals. For example:

Taking the corporate jet to testify at Congress would create a problem of optics.

The speaker meant “it would look bad.” But what he actually said suggests there is something wrong with the optical equipment of the jet, or that the jet adversely affects the projection or perception of light during Congressional testimony.

Employees can’t accept gifts from vendors because of optics.

Here the author meant accepting gifts “could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

“Optics” refers to the science of light, or to the mechanisms that transmit, alter, or perceive electromagnetic radiation. It is incorrect, unnecessary, and often confusing to try to use the word to describe figurative “perception” or “appearance.”

Another reason not to use “optics” as a metaphorical synonym for “appearances:” harmonics.

Why Isn’t Sign Language Ubiquitous? February 26, 2011

Posted by federalist in Language, Open Questions.
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Deaf children instinctively develop sign languages during the same critical periods for language development as other children develop spoken language. And these sign languages have complete analogs to the linguistic characteristics that distinguish and define all spoken human languages. (My favorite book on this is Pinker’s The Language Instinct.)

Given this innate instinct why don’t humans develop full-fledged sign languages unless they are deprived of hearing? The advantage of having a gesticular language to back up a spoken language seems compelling, as Matt Ridley suggests:

At loud parties, on trains or during ambushes, we could resort to signing, instead of having to shout, distract fellow travelers or alert our quarry.

No Wonder I Hated English Classes January 6, 2011

Posted by federalist in Education, Language.
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As soon as the study of “English” in school graduated from Reading, Spelling, and Writing to Literature, Grammar, and Composition I began to hate it. At some point after taking an early course from the Yale English department I recognized that my irritation stemmed from the conflation of these three separate subjects by teachers who were themselves only amateur writers. I didn’t realize how bad it really was until I came across this essay by Geoffrey Pullum lambasting the supposed bible of grammar, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Yes, even the textbooks are wrong!

No wonder I struggled with grammar at the same time I was acing geometry, algebra, and computer programming: Complete rules of English grammar are too complicated for non-technical teachers, and so for generations they have resorted to oversimplification and then tried to ignore the vast exceptions and holes in their theories. I was baffled by a grammar that “didn’t compute,” but they wrote the tests, so I lost and just moved on. (When I later dabbled in college-level Linguistics, where they don’t take shortcuts, I found it both engaging and facile.)

If I have become a good writer it has not been thanks to any English teacher. Composition should be taught along with Rhetoric — a sister subject that the education establishment left at the side of a road sometime in the twentieth century. Instead English departments have tied composition to literature, perhaps because it doesn’t seem scholastic enough to simply read and discuss great literature. No, a student must then go and carry on a discussion with himself for x number of pages, and his grade is determined by that essay. If he is not inspired to expound upon a particular book it reflects not on the book or the teacher but supposedly on his own writing skills. And here it gets even more confusing: Occasionally classes would undertake an exercise wherein students exchanged papers and I would get to read the final draft of someone else in the class. I don’t remember if I ever got a full “A” in an English class, but I did read papers of students who were getting full “A”s. And they were riddled with grammatical errors. I never did figure out what it takes to get an A on an English paper, but I did learn that English teachers value something that they couldn’t teach me.

Fortunately I discovered sometime in high school that I love to write, and that I do so easily and naturally when I have something to say. I once spent over 20 hours trying to draft an essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, one of half a dozen major works we were covering in one semester of an English class. Finally I went to the teacher with many pages of dense notes and drafts, threw up my hands, and asked how a student could possibly be expected to fully read the book in the few allotted weeks, much less put together a short essay making anything other than banal observations about such a work. The teacher was sympathetic to my pleas, and apparently sufficiently impressed by my effort to give my final thousand-word essay an A-. In contrast, when I took a Spanish Composition course to satisfy my language requirement I was often free to pick my topics, so I could focus on writing instead of contriving. I regularly irked the other students by bringing in essays that were 2-3 times the assigned length and that were frequently excerpted as model examples for the class.

Missing Words July 23, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.
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What is the word for a parent whose child has died?  There seems to be no standard term; the best I have found is “child-bereft” or “bereft parent.”  But researching the question did lead me to this excellent discursion by Arnold Zwicky on “Missing Words:”  Concepts that are important enough to a culture that they should have words to describe them, but that don’t.

In our culture, people’s sex is important, and, for relatives, it’s important whether they are related to us by blood or by marriage (whether they are consanguineal or affine kin, as the anthropologists put it).  Yet, the marking of these features in the ordinary English vocabulary of kinship is a puzzling patchwork.

Ideally, we’d have both more specific words, distinguishing relatives on these dimensions, and also more general words, disregarding one feature so that relatives can be grouped together. Parent vs. mother/father and child vs. daughter/son come close to this ideal situation.   Sibling vs. brother/sister is a more dubious case, since for many people sibling is a technical term.  Then we get to cousin, which is undercoded (there’s a sex-neutral word, but no sex-specific ones), and niece/nephew, which is overcoded (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one).

And to aunt/uncle, which is overcoded on one dimension (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one) and undercoded on another (there are no words distinguishing consanguineal aunts/uncles from affine aunts/uncles).

Then there’s sister-in-law/brother-in-law, which are overcoded on the sex dimension, but undercoded in another way.  These words encode both an affine and a consanguineal relationship, but with two different scopings: brother-in-law is either spouse’s brother or sibling’s husband.  Many people feel that these two relationships are not equally close — in marrying, your spouse’s family is joined with yours, but when your sister marries, her husband’s family is not joined with yours in this fashion — so that these people find the use of a single word for them uncomfortable.  (As a result of the familial closeness of spouse’s brother, some people — I am one — are willing to extend sister-in-law to spouse’s brother’s wife.)

Read the whole thing for some good answers to my original question.

Grammar: “Different from,” almost never “different than” June 10, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.
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Different is an adjective form of the verb to differ.

If one thing differs from another then we can say “One thing is different from another.”

We cannot say “One thing is different than another” any more than “One thing differs than another.”

Generally different from is correct and different than is not.

But of course one thing can differ more than another, in which case we can say, “One thing is more different than another.”  It is correct to use different than when different is part of a comparative adjective.

The strange exception to the general rule: Use different than when different modifies an elliptical clause (i.e., a clause in which words have been omitted).  For example, “The path follows a different route than the map shows.”

According to this page, the Collins Cobuild Bank of English shows that Americans have developed a tendency to butcher these rules in normal speech.  Meanwhile, the British are prone to use the absolutely incorrect formulation different to.

Grammar: Against Backward Compound Nouns May 19, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.

English has acquired a small number of compound nouns that violate rules of grammar by putting an adjective after the noun.  Because these are not used frequently enough to form canonical exceptions they result in errors and confusion when people try to form their plural.  Examples (followed by the correct plural form) include:

  • Attorney general  (attorneys general)
  • Court martial  (courts martial)
  • Notary public  (notaries public)
  • Mother-in-law  (mothers-in-law)

These exceptions also make plural possessives downright unwieldy — e.g., the attorneys general’s conference.

There is no good reason to preserve these exceptions.  Putting the adjective first always makes the compound more wieldy:

  • General attorney / general attorneys / general attorneys’ conference
  • Martial court / martial courts / martial courts’ guidelines
  • Public notary / public notaries / public notaries’ council
  • In-law mother / in-law mothers / in-law mothers’ meeting

Grammar: Don’t Use “Woman” as an Adjective May 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.

Is it grammatically correct to speak of “woman doctors?”

“Woman” is not an adjective, but that fact does not mean it cannot modify a noun.  Nouns that properly modify other nouns are referred to as “noun adjuncts” or “attributive nouns.”  For example, “chicken soup” or “arms race.”

However, the use of “woman” as a noun adjunct is grating because there is an adjective (“female”) that almost always serves the same purpose.  One should never use a noun adjunct when a bona-fide adjective will do.

The only time “female” might not suitably substitute for “woman” is when one needs to qualify the noun not only as female, but also as adult and human.  I.e., one may prefer “woman friends” to “adult human female friends” (as distinct from, say prepubescent human male friends, or monotreme friends).

It is never correct to use “women” as a noun adjunct.  Hence, “women doctors” is as ungrammatical as “chickens dinners.”

Grammar: Symmetric vs Symmetrical May 5, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.

Unless you’re paid by the syllable or intentionally bombastic you should never use symmetrical instead of symmetric, or asymmetrical instead of asymmetric.  The only reason to add -al is to convert the adjective to an adverb, as in symmetrically.

Dictionaries seem to have given a pass to adding the extra syllable to these two adjectives.  But that is no more correct than turning basic into basical, or ironic into ironical (unless, perhaps, you’re speaking sarcastically).

These examples illustrate that you should only add -al as part of -ally to convert a -ic adjective to an adverb.

Music Is Torture February 20, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.
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Stop imposing your noise on me.  Don’t assume I want to hear it.  Whether you find it soothing, invigorating, or inspirational, odds are I find it distracting and disruptive.  Apparently I’m not the only one who knows this.

“Mightn’t” and other negative contractions December 2, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.

Last week I started to see the contraction “mightn’t” used all over the place in the Wall Street Journal.  It struck me as a little archaic, so I contacted their style editor, Paul Martin, to see what the deal was.  He claimed there was neither a rule change nor an explosion in its use.  In any case, I found their style guide on the subject compelling:

Negative verbs are contracted whenever possible: didn’t instead of did not. (Exceptions are made in cases such as formal declarations.) The contractions help prevent errors where not is accidentally dropped or typed as now.

Hence in these cases we mightn’t need to respect the old rule against using contractions in proper writing.

[Addendum: Paul checked the WSJ database and confirmed that mightn’t has appeared 44 times in the past year and 24 in just the past month, so I wasn’t imagining it!]

Babies: Call Them “It,” Not “She” or “Her” June 22, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.
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There is a bizarre and pervasive custom in the maternity/baby industries to refer to babies using only female pronouns — even in gender-neutral contexts.  This is really weird.  I thought the refusal to accept “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun was limited to the most fanatical left-wing feminist circles.

Consider how absurd it would be if you employed this convention in instructions for changing a newborn’s diaper: “Be sure to clean under her scrotum, and if she is circumcised remember to cover the tip of her penis with a liberal dollop of ointment on a cotton gauze pad.”

I grew up in a large family and our convention was generally to refer babies with non-gendered pronouns.  E.g., “Where’s the baby? I need to change its diaper and put it to bed.”  Babies didn’t earn their gendered pronouns (or their name) until they could start to interact and understand language.

Stop Saying WWW! June 10, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.

“WWW” should never be spoken. It stands for “World Wide Web,” but while easier to type it takes three times as many syllables to say “double-u double-u double-u.” WWW is neither an acronym (which must be a word) nor a spoken abbreviation (which presumably must be shorter than the thing that is abbreviated). It is an abomination.

Attempts to abbreviate the pronunciation of WWW have been valiant, and at times clever. Germans and other speakers of Eastern-European languages can say “veh-veh-veh” without any ambiguity. “Dub-dub-dub” has caught on in some English-speaking countries. “Sextuple-u” is an amusing improvement, but still one syllable too many.

In any case, “WWW” is obsolete. There was only a brief period in the early 1990’s, before the web and browsers were mainstream, when there could be any ambiguity regarding URL’s. Those days are long gone: You don’t open an Email application and specify that it send your messages using the SMTP protocol, or look up the MX record for the domain you’re Emailing to resolve the destination IP. So why do you open a web browser and specify HTTP, or prefix your URL with “www”? That’s the domain administrator’s job.

If you’re going to a web site, just enter the domain name (and any trailing URL data) in a web browser. Don’t worry about the protocol, and don’t put “www.” in front.  If the URL doesn’t work without a preceding “www.” then the site is misconfigured.  Tell the site administrators to join the 21st century:  Any competent domain admin will configure servers to automatically route internet requests to the correct service and port based on the protocol. If a domain is supposed to service HTTP requests, it should take them with or without a “www.” prefix. If a site demands secure HTTP the servers should forward plain HTTP requests to the secure URL and protocol.

Grammar: Me, Myself and I January 14, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.
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Abuse of reflexive pronouns has gotten out of control.  Collin Levy explains better than I myself could:  Read and heed.

Euphemizing Race February 3, 2007

Posted by federalist in Language.
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There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.  – Theodore Roosevelt

We have an amusing history of trying to euphemize references to the race and sub-culture of the descendants of American slaves.  Nobody pales referring to “whites” or “Caucasians,” but the analogous terms “black” and “Negro” have become somewhat taboo.  James Taranto highlights the conundrum for today’s polite society:

The term African-American–which Jesse Jackson put forward as a replacement for black some two decades ago–is less precise when referring to the descendants of people whose ancestors were brought to America in bondage centuries ago. One of the horrors of slavery is that it largely, and involuntarily, sundered the connection between slaves and their ancestral homeland; and a change in terminology cannot erase this fact of history.

But the usage in the Times story makes things even more confusing. Apparently African-American now refers to both the descendants of slaves and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa (though presumably only dark-skinned ones; it is still, as far as we know, politically incorrect to refer to Teresa Heinz Kerry, a white Mozambique native, as “African-American”). Black, at least if Debra Dickerson has her way, refers only to the descendants of slaves.

What, then, do we call members of South Africa’s formerly oppressed racial majority? After African-American became the politically correct term for black, we recall hearing stories (perhaps apocryphal) of copy-editors changing references to this group so that they read, for instance, “South Africa’s African-American majority.” Politically correct language often does more to obscure than to clarify–but maybe that’s the idea.

Granted, race and culture are nebulous concepts.  But they are still real concepts, which circumlocution will not abolish.

Learn the Phonetic Alphabet November 12, 2006

Posted by federalist in Language.

There are two types of people in America: Those who know the phonetic alphabet, and those who don’t.  And I’m sick of ending up on the phone with those who don’t.

How often do you have to spell out a name, address, or some other non-phonetic word or code?  Regretably, the standard alphabet is pronounced with a series of single-consonant sounds that are nearly indistinguishable.  “eh-ee, bee, see, dee, ee,” — it’s a cruel joke that we use these sounds to discriminate letters.

This has always been a problem with our low-fidelity wired telecom infrastructure.  The proliferation of even lower-fidelity cell phones and VOIP connections only exacerbates it.  So after trying to spell with the standard pronunciation, we resort to more distinguishing words to identify letters: “N as in Nancy, M as in Mary.”  Better than nothing, but do we really need to spend at least five syllables to identify a single letter?  Sometimes this ad hoc phonetic spelling charade gets even worse when people:

  • Can’t think of a word: “That’s N as in … um … Notorious?”
  • Use an ambiguous word: “E as in Err … no, not Air, Err — like Error.”
  • Try to switch it up: “A as in Apple, N as in Nancy, A as in … um … Adam.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just agree ahead of time on a concise but coherent way of saying letters?  Turns out we already have: Early radio operators dealt with this problem by establishing a standard phonetic alphabet.  And people who know the standard phonetic alphabet can efficiently communicate spellings with no more than 3 syllables per letter over very poor communications links.  (Why six of the letters were given three syllable names, instead of more concise two syllable names, I don’t know.  It would be an interesting exercise to come up with a two-syllable-only phonetic alphabet that’s as error-resistant as the standard one.)

When everyone knows the phonetic alphabet, it doesn’t require any preamble.  If someone says, “Alpha-India-Romeo” people understand that’s spelling out “A-I-R.”

Phonetic alphabet should be mandatory for all call-center workers, or for anyone who conducts business over the phone.  And nobody should graduate kindergarten without being able to recite the alphabet — phonetically.

Grammar: Indexes vs. Indices September 28, 2006

Posted by federalist in Language.

The plural of the noun index should always be indices. This handily distinguishes it from the present tense of the verb index, which can only be indexes.

E.g., “The investor indexes his many holdings so that he can easily cross-reference them against his benchmark indices.”

Regrettably, the Wall Street Journal, among others, does not follow this strict rule and will accept both indexes and indices as the plural of the noun index.