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

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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.

Why you need an editor

rogersgeorge on March 30th, 2017

—Or at least proofread a lot. These obvious mistakes, from the same article, were caused by nothing less than carelessness, and if you write, it’s pretty close to inexcusable.

Our universe almost certainly made of more dimensions the four we have historically identified.

Kaku is the He’s the co-founder of string field theory (a branch of string theory).

Don’t do this! Getting another pair of eyes on your work works wonders for finding goofs, especially embarrassing ones like these. If you can’t get someone to look at your work, at least set it aside for a day or more, and read it with your own fresh eyes. Harrumpf.
I even re-read my text messages.

Beware Idioms and Figures of Speech

rogersgeorge on March 24th, 2017

If you’ve read more than about three articles on this site, you know that I promulgate expository writing, writing designed to convey information so readers absorb the information effortlessly. (Promulgate means to set forth or teach publicly, but you knew that, right?)

Sometimes idioms and figures of speech can be taken literally, and this generally doesn’t promote understanding. Here’s a Gasoline Alley; the first two rows give a humorous take on this danger.

(The last row repeats a joke that has to be more than 50 years old, but I digress.)

Rule of thumb: When you explain something, be direct and literal.

A related situation is when you write something that will or might be translated. Idioms and figures of speech are notorious for causing problems in other languages. This goes both ways, so be careful when you read something translated into English. Google “badly translated into English” to find some humorous examples, but this can be a serious problem if the writing is about a serious subject. So be careful.