Watch your Person

rogersgeorge on May 18th, 2017

You see this mainly in informal English, especially spoken, but if you don’t want to cause that little jolt to your reader that comes from sloppy writing, don’t mix persons. That is, don’t start with something like “me” and end up with something like “you.” (Emphasis mine:)

This pair got an especially hard laff this morning because, for those of us who work at home, time off means time spent thinking there is  something more productive you ought to be doing.

This excellent example of gear-changing is from Comic Strip of the Day, by one of my favorite bloggers, Mike Peterson, who writes both thoughtfully and informally, occasionally providing me with something to quote. The quote is toward the bottom of the post, in a section labeled “Juxtaposition of the Day,” referring to two strips about people who work from home.

Don’t throw your readers this kind of curve. The statement isn’t literally true; (well, maybe it is, but) his meaning is probably about …something more productive that we ought to be doing.

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A Mathematician who Changed my Life

rogersgeorge on May 4th, 2017

Or at least had a profound influence on my life. This post doesn’t have much to do with writing, but I ran into a comic that serves as an excellent illustration of Gödel’s Proof. This proof also revolutionized mathematics, but that’s another story, which I’ll tell a little of next.

Kurt Gödel was a German mathematician who escaped Germany in time to miss being there for the second world war. He moved to Princeton and he and Albert Einstein were best of friends. A famous British mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, and philosopher Bertrand Russell had an ambition at the time to write a book that unified all of mathematics, beginning to end. The title was Principia Mathematica. The multi-volume book is extremely dense reading and I don’t recommend it. It’s not finished either. Kurt Gödel proved that they couldn’t do it. When the Brits learned of it, (long story short), after trying to figure a way around the Proof, they gave up.

Fortunately for me and non-mathematicians everywhere, Gödel’s proof, although is is not light reading, it can be understood if you’re willing to stop and think, and sometimes re-read parts. I recommend that you give it a read in you’re into this sort of thing.

It was back in my college days. (Paul Fosmark, you might remember me mentioning this in one of our U of M campus evangelistic street meetings.) I was asking a lot of questions about the meaning of life, what is true, and so on, as people that age are wont, and I ran into an article about this piece of mathematics (later I found the book, but I loaned it so someone, and it, shall we say, went into the ministry) and, as I mentioned in the first line of this post, it had a profound effect on me.

What he proved, among several other things, was that no logical system can be complete. You can always ask questions within a system that the system can’t answer.

Another way of putting this is that all systems contain statements that are true within the system but you can’t prove that they are true. A corollary of this was that you could generate contradictory statements and still be following the rules of the system.

(Still with me?) Gödel showed that a logical system gets into trouble when it makes self-referential statements. Statements that refer to themselves. And that’s what this comic contains an example of.

Two outcomes of this proof (of many): You will never have 100% bug-free software, and the problem of free will versus God’s sovereignty will never be solved by any living theologian. Whitehead and Russell did figure a way around the proof, but it’s not very practical for us here on earth. You can get around the incompleteness if the system is infinite. Think about that!

I’ll do my best to make the next post lighter reading.

PS—Here’s a simpler example. Is it breaking news or not?

Mutts - 04/19/2017

PPS—This won’t help much, but it’s on topic, and it was submitted by a mathematician.

Beware of Long Sentences

rogersgeorge on April 12th, 2017

I’m pretty sure the writer of this sentence is a native speaker of English, but he got a word in this sentence wrong.

During the 1950s, one detonation in Kazakhstan resulted in four times the number of cases of acute radiation sickness than those from the Chernobyl disaster.

Can you see the mistake? Yes, the “than” should be “as.” We say “four times as many cases…as,” or “four times more cases…than,” but not “four times the number…than.” I think the goof is because the sentence has so many words interrupting the phrase.

So be careful when you write sentences with lots of consecutive phrases, especially when one is nested inside another.

To make this post a little more visually interesting than it might otherwise have been, here’s a picture from the article.

The abandoned Soviet nuclear weapons testing site near the Kazakh town of Semipalatinsk. A special clinic - under the control of Moscow - was set up to track radiation and its health effects in the area

On the other hand, if you’re a really good writer, and you know what you’re doing, you can get away with a long sentence. Thank you, Jack Keruuac:

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
— Jack Kerouac

Double Negatives

rogersgeorge on April 8th, 2017

I think I found another false English construction promulgated by stuffy English teachers. Certainly you were taught this in English class:

Don’t use two negatives in a sentence, because two negatives make a positive.

I illustrate with a joke that you have no doubt heard:

The English professor was in front of the classroom saying that whereas two negatives make a positive, two positives don’t make a negative. Someone in the back of the room said, “Yeah right.”

I guess linguistics doesn’t have a lot to say about sarcasm.

That aside, if I were to say

I don’t want to hear no more of your language jokes.

You’d actually know exactly what I mean, that I don’t want to hear the jokes. Logic and math notwithstanding, where two negatives do make a positive, we can argue that language came before either, so it has priority. In fact, in Classical Greek, using a double negative is considered grammatical, and doing so strengthens the negativity. The usual way of saying this was to use οὐ μη (pronounced oo may (the eta is supposed to have a grave accent, but I can’t make it do that here)). Both of these words translate as “not,” and the construction should be translated something like “definitely not!”

Am I advocating low-class English? Well, no. I said all that to say that I learned a new term, negative concordance, when two negatives make a stronger negative.

So there you have it. Understand it, but don’t do it.

Nearly Dead?

rogersgeorge on April 6th, 2017

An opinion piece today. First the comic, Barkeater Lake for March 16, by Corey Pandolph:

Okay, I can agree with the description of the English teacher. Teachers often seem to be underpaid and they tend to be so loyal to the cause that many of them overwork themselves, tenure notwithstanding, though I sometimes hear of tenured teachers who coast along waiting for retirement. Maybe they got burned out by being overworked and underpaid. Senior citizen? Well, I suspect that’s the opinion of any kid under 18 describing any adult over 40.

Unfortunately, considering the poor English I see even in lofty circles, I might agree with the kid’s description of her studies: “Pretending to learn.” Even though she was apparently at least polite to her teacher, the pretending is her loss. English is a complicated affair, and it is indeed rife with nuances, but therein lies its power. If you do it right, you can address any subject, imply without being direct, convey subtleties,  express emotions, inspire and persuade, be accurate and truthful, even lie convincingly, all in English. It’s a powerful tool for expression and conveyance of information, and it has become nearly universal. So don’t merely pretend to learn it!

And the language itself: Abused, certainly. I touched on the cause of that with the “pretending…” phrase. But nearly dead??? Far from it! English is becoming (or has become) the lingua franca of the modern world. Airplane pilots converse professionally in English everywhere on the planet. Go to almost any place where you can be a tourist, and the locals speak English. Pretty much everyone who does business with English-speaking countries speaks English, accented though their second (ahem) language may be. Nope, Lucy got that part wrong.

Except for the part about being nice to her teacher, don’t be like Lucy. If you speak or write English, embrace it! Make English for yourself the powerful tool that it is. Your audience and readership will thank you.