Unexpected Grammar Curmudgeon

rogersgeorge on July 21st, 2016

Well, punctuation curmudgeon. It’s Linus Torvalds, the writer (inventor? developer? founder?) of the computer language Linux. I didn’t expect this from him. In fact, I tend to feel that computer languages manage their own grammar and punctuation by not working if you do it wrong.  He recently expressed an opinion about commenting. Comments in computer code are passages for humans to read, that presumably explain what’s going on, but the code itself doesn’t need them. You tell the computer that a passage is a comment with punctuation (that varies from language to language) at the beginning and end of the comment. Here’s a summary of what he said:

He likes this:

/* This is a comment */

He also approves of this:

* This is also a comment, but it can now be cleanly
* split over multiple lines

But he disapproves of this:

/* This is disgusting drug-induced
* crap, and should die

/* This is also very nasty
* and visually unbalanced */

“I’m not even going to start talking about the people who prefer to ‘box in’ their comments, and line up both ends and have fancy boxes of stars around the whole thing,” he adds. “I’m sure that looks really nice if you are out of your mind on LSD, and have nothing better to do than to worry about the right alignment of the asterisks.”

You get the idea. His original essay was quite a bit spicier, and not suitable for a family blog such as this one. If you follow the link, you can start right below the horizontal line.


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Another way to improve your writing

rogersgeorge on January 11th, 2012

Or at least make it more persuasive. I don’t think I have ever mentioned this technique, but I’ve known about it, and reading an article on the subject today reminded me that perhaps I should mention it. It doesn’t require knowledge of punctuation, how to spell, or use good grammar, either. Though you should certainly use all these skills. The technique is this:

Make your page look good.

The article I saw is a seven-page pdf titled The Debunking Handbook, by John Cook and Stephen Lewandowski, two Aussies who did some research on how to convince people that they were misinformed about something. This point, about the readability of the page, came out. It makes sense. People are less likely to read something if the page looks unreadable.

For example, a few years back I had a writing contract with a multinational bank. My first act was to reformat the documentation in their IT department. Immediately people decided the documentation was excellent, and I had changed hardly an actual word. Of course, I cleaned up the text too, eventually, but the change in appearance got my foot in the door so to speak.

For a counter-example, look at an old King James Bible. Two narrow columns fill each page from top to bottom. Narrow margins. Each verse starts a new line. No spacing between paragraphs; all dense text. Almost no white space. If it weren’t for the influence of Christianity itself, no one would read the book at all.

Columns made even narrower by small-print annotations along the sides

For technical documentation, I recommend the Midwestern style for page layout. San-serif headings, body text indented half an inch or so, in a font wider than Times New Roman, for goodness’ sake. There’s more to it than that, but you get a document with a relaxed, airy feel to it, room for notes, and you can skim for what’s there (both content and structure) because the headings are easy to see. I can’t show you an example from the bank because it’s all under a confidentially agreement, but if you’re really into it, email me and I can send you a couple-page sample of something else. If I get enough response, I’ll put up a series of posts about page layout. Then we can get back to grammar and punctuation.

I am about to plug a grammar book

rogersgeorge on August 24th, 2010

Well, a punctuation book. The title of the book happens to feature one of my pet peeves, so I can’t resist plugging it, even though I haven’t read the book yet.

Click to go to Amazon

The peeve is hyphenated compound adjectives. Or rather non-hyphenated ones. When you combine two (or more) words to modify a noun, you hyphenate them so they stay together. If you don’t, the last of the words attaches to the noun, and you can get quite a different meaning.  (You can get away without the hyphen if the words form a common combination and there is no possibility of misunderstanding.)  So twenty-odd means approximately twenty, but an odd duck is a person with significant personality quirks. The hyphen or lack thereof tells your reader what you mean. So give the book a read for me, would you?

Speaking of grammar books, someone recently asked me about one that mentions uncommon verb forms, such as the periphrastic that forms the title of this post. I remember Mrs. Baird, my tenth grade English teacher, made us include “to be about to” in our verb declensions, and I haven’t seen it referred to since. Maybe it was the influence of the Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit in her background. She was an odd duck…

Anyway, look for a Grammar that’s at least three inches thick. That should have it all those verb forms.