Sunday, June 2, 2013

More War of Words


I’ve long envied syndicated columnists, because a) they make money from writing, and b) people actually write to them with questions and comments, from which the columnist can often wring a whole column.  He can get past writer’s block by performing a kind of alchemy, turning a mere reader’s humble feedback into literary gold.

Of course, this blog doesn’t bring about many useful comments.  The percentage of albertnet pageviews that have resulted in comments stands at 0.36%.  Occasionally I take on the role of the reader and write in myself (e.g., Ask Dr. Beer, Ask Dr. Pasta) but of course that’s cheating.  At other times, as with my recent “Grammar Wars” post, I write something provocative and hope for the best.

I was not disappointed in the case of “Grammar Wars.”  A friend of mine, Trevor, posted not one but two comments, comprising a number of contrarian statements.  (Ah, that last sentence was satisfying ... a boss of mine once argued that “comprising” cannot be used this way—that you can only say “comprised of”—and it hurt me to subjugate the truth of my position beneath the greater truth that you must not alienate the guy who controls your salary.) 

I have waited awhile before countering my friend’s arguments, to see if anybody would come to my defense (as happened with an incoherent and profane attack leveled at my British Faucet post).  Nobody has, though a mutual friend posted a simple “Wow,” most likely in response to the comments rather than the post.  Knowing that Trevor’s comments were deliberately (if playfully) pugnacious, I will give him the honor and satisfaction of a thorough rebuttal.

But first...

It’s tempting to get right to it, and if you’re growing impatient, just scroll down to the phrase “Shibboleths and marketing” right now.  But if you enjoyed “The Deer Hunter” and feel that all the pre-Vietnam exposition was worth the trouble, stay right here because I’ve got a couple of asides to get to.

First, I must point out that debating Trevor in a public forum feels a bit like an insurrection, like Obi Wan Kenobi deciding it’s time to give Yoda a real beat-down.  This is because for the first couple years of our friendship, Trevor and I observed a strict pecking order:  he was the star cyclist on our UC Santa Barbara cycling team, and I was the mere domestique (i.e., selfless helper).  It was I who nicknamed Trevor “Red Five,” after Luke Skywalker; I came upon this nickname while giving Trevor a lead-out, sprinting just ahead of him well before the line and pulling off so that he’d be in perfect position to win (“You’re all clear, kid!”).  Here’s a picture of one such lead-out, at the National Collegiate Championship criterium.  I’m the third guy, having already done my work and pulled off; the second guy, Dave, has just finished his pull, and Trevor is about to launch.  (Did he win this sprint?  Of course.)

One more thing.  You may be curious about the last thing Trevor wrote:  “[Heh.  For those of you who know Dana really well, this is the proverbial birthday cake covered in ants.]”  This comment establishes—in fact, celebrates—Trevor’s appreciation of how much I love a good showdown.  It refers to the tale I told him of a gorgeous, perfect chocolate layer cake I almost lost.  I grew up in Boulder, some 5,000 feet above sea level, where it’s basically impossible to bake good cakes, because they rise to much and become fluffy and tough.  So I was really excited about a cake my mom baked at my grandfather’s house in the Napa valley, down here at sea level.  To draw out our enjoyment, we put the cake one of those old-fashioned covered cake pedestals and went for a two-hour appetite-inducing walk.  When we returned, the beautiful cake was absolutely teeming with red ants.  They were all stuck in the frosting, either battling to get free or in the throes of a sugar orgy.  For a moment it seemed all was lost and I could have just wept.  But then anger took over, and I decided to get Keyser Söze on their ant asses and just eat the cake anyway.  It filled me with the deepest satisfaction to give those ants a terrible death, matching their rapaciousness with my own.

Shibboleths and marketing

“I've been duped!” Trevor writes in his first comment.  “Where’s the grammar?!  Shibboleths and marketing!”

Well, I can’t argue this point:  my “Grammar Wars” post was as much about spelling (“just desserts”) and pronunciation (“process-ease”) as it was about grammar.  In response to “where’s the grammar?” I can at least offer up the “who” vs. “whom” tale, because grammar is at the heart of that (specifically, the issue of whether a certain pronoun replaces an object or a subject).  I’m not willing to call that a spelling error because nobody spells who “whom.”  What would other misspellings be?  Whobever?  Whonever? 

Meanwhile, “shibboleths” really threw me.  This is one of those words that I always have to look up, and then after understanding and appreciating its meaning I promptly forget it, and then the cycle repeats.  The gist of “shibboleth” is judging somebody by how he speaks; in an Old Testament tale, “pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme.”  The consequences of mispronunciation were dire:  Gileadite soldiers would detain and quiz suspected Ephriamite war refugees, and “If anyone said, ‘Sibboleth’ because he could not pronounce ‘Shibboleth,’ then they would seize him and kill him.” 

This shibboleth concept is a nice way to explain why grammar, spelling, and pronunciation matter:  because whether you like it or not, well-educated people will judge you by these things.  So perhaps I should have called my post “The Shibboleth Wars.”  I’m not sure that would attract much of an audience, though.  It sounds to me like the name of the next installment in the “Star Wars” series, continuing along the descent-into-boredom trajectory set by “The Phantom Menace.”  But why does “The Grammar Wars” connote marketing in Trevor’s mind?  Is “grammar” a sexy word?  I don’t think so, and  I deny the suggestion that I deliberately duped Trevor the way a marketer would, simply because I give my blog post titles very little thought.  “War of the Words” probably would have been better, but it’s too late now.


Trevor argues quite rightly that “artisanal” is not only a legitimate word, but is a very useful one in identifying “that certain type of Bay Area hipster pretension that we love to hate.”  Most of the paragraph he devotes to this matter is useful and persuasive, and ties in nicely with his earlier mention of shibboleth.  But I cannot abide his opening sentence, “The suffix -al is perfectly fine and acceptable to form adjectives, nouns, and verbal actions.”  There is an admirable air of authority about this bold declaration, bringing to mind the breezy but ironclad rules set forth by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style.  Unfortunately, Trevor’s sentence is only sometimes true.  You can’t just slap “-al” on any old word you please; if you could, we’d have words like craftsmanal and mavenal.  Also, how do you form a noun using the suffix “-al”?  Were “bacchanal” and “finial” formed this way?  I think not.  And verbal actions?  What verb ends in “-al”?  Total, as in “I totaled my parents’ car?”  Okay, the more standard “corral” is a legitimate verb (and noun), but again, I doubt it was built out of “core” + “-al.”  Neither was “coral,” I might add.


Trevor has no problem with “process-ease.”  He suggests that this pronunciation often has a purpose:  to differentiate between the noun and verb forms of this word:  “Those who say process[ease] almost always reference the noun and not the verb.”  It’s sweet to think that people are this helpful, but a) in my experience people aren’t that helpful, b) the English language relies heavily on word order, not pronunciation, for meaning, and c) it would be pretty hard to confuse the noun and verb forms of this word anyway.  Can you think of a single example of a sentence where the meaning would be hard to distinguish through context alone?  “Tom processes the invoices carefully” is not likely to have anybody wondering, “What are ‘Tom’ processes, and what do they do?”

Now, one thing I didn’t so much as mention in my post is the matter of the “o” in “processes.”  Trevor suggests that somebody might say, “This device pr[aw]cess[es] widgets by different pr[oh]cess[ease] depending upon which buttons you press.”  Whoa, whoa, whoa. 

I don’t have a big problem with the long “o” in “pr[oh]cess,” it being a perfectly valid pronunciation and the norm in the UK.  (I fact-checked this with a British friend of mine, and though he validated that he’s heard only “pr[oh]cess” over there, he was quick to add that he can’t speak for the whole nation.  This is exactly the kind of timid priggishness America’s founders came here to escape.) 

I sometimes say “pr[oh]cess” myself, though only when talking to my kids (and mimicking the British female robot voice of a talking ATM from which I first heard this pronunciation).  But I don’t think I could bring myself to say “pr[oh]cess” in other situations because, to my mind, a British pronunciation from the mouth of an American smacks of affectation.  I grow increasingly aware that a British accent, especially in business, connotes intelligence, sophistication, and global savvy.  Many years ago I worked with a customer who, to my surprise, turned out to be an idiot despite his strong British accent.  It didn’t seem possible for an idiot to speak that way.  Since then I’ve been less naive and have discovered that a British accent doesn’t actually guarantee intelligence or education.  In fact, I’m suspicious now when I hear a British accent; I ask myself, “Could this person have risen this high in corporate America for no other reason than that cool accent?”

With all this in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to hear an American saying “pr[oh]cess,” and the kind of American who strives to sound fancy and intellectual by saying “process-ease” is exactly the kind who would affect the long “o.”  But I cannot imagine there’s anybody who mixes the British and American pronunciations in order to help differentiate between noun and verb forms, as Trevor suggests with “pr[aw]cess[es] widgets by different pr[oh]cess[ease].”  This kind of mix-and-match usage would be almost as absurd as the flat-top mullet I talked a barber into giving me back in the 1980s.  I know it’s impossible to prove a negative, but I hope to God there aren’t really people out there mixing British and American pronunciation of a word within a sentence.  If anybody reading this has heard such a thing, let me know.  (If there’s anybody reading this at all.  Hey, you, there in the back ... wake up!  Have you heard this kind of British/American pronunciation mash-up?)

I wish I could stop now—I feel like I’ve eaten three or four large pieces of ant-infested cake—but I’m not done yet.  I still have to deal with a sentence so inflammatory I almost wonder if it was consciously designed to sacrifice logic and Truth for the sake of pure provocation:  “The noun [process-ease] is frequently used in some quasi-scientific context and the [ease] is consistent with the pronunciation of the plural forms of analysis, neurosis, prognosis, and so on.”

First of all, citing the frequency of a pronunciation is no justification.  Should we also accept “nuke-yoo-lar” and “ree-la-tor” just because lots of people pronounce “nuclear” and “realtor” that way?  And how does “some quasi-scientific context” deserve my support?  To me, “quasi-scientific” brings to mind disgraceful ideas like the Atkins diet (don’t even get me started on that). 

As for the second part of that statement, the “process–ease” pronunciation only seems consistent with words of Greek origin like analysis, neurosis, and prognosis.  As the American Heritage Dictionary points out, “’process’ is not of Greek origin, and there is no etymological justification for this pronunciation of its plural.”  Proceeding from analysis/analyses to process/process-ease is no more valid than saying “gen-WEE-nee” for “genuine” while pointing to “linguine” as justification.  And we don’t say “van-EE-ah” for “vanilla” even though you could claim it’s consistent with the pronunciation of “tortilla.”

Spaces after a period

Trevor goes on to write, “And since we're bringing it, do my poor eyes deceive me or are you adding two spaces after every period? From Robert Bringhurst’s ‘The Elements of Typographical Style,’ which I highly recommend:
In the nineteenth century, which was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design, many compositors were encouraged to stuff extra space between sentences. Generations of twentieth-century typists were then taught to do the same, by hitting the spacebar twice after every period. Your typing as well as your typesetting will benefit from unlearning this quaint Victorian habit.
At first blush, this instruction seems compelling.  I have blogged at length about how the limitations of early typewriters have created the terribly awkward QWERTY keyboard that society is still bound to.  Having put forth the considerable effort required to abandon that layout, I would be happy to switch to a single space after each period, if I were to agree that this practice was based on a long-ago design principle that is now defunct.  What I’d like to ask Bringhurst is why compositors were encouraged to add extra space.  What is meant by “dark and inflationary” age?  What is the link between the behavior and the equipment?

I do add two spaces after a period, because I was taught to do so by my junior high typing teacher, Mr.  Todd.  This wasn’t his idea, of course; it was right there in the textbook.  The idea is that the extra space helps the reader identify the end of a sentence.  Sure, we have a period for that, but periods exist within sentences, too (e.g., when you see an abbreviation like Mr.), and, given how fast people read, two indicators is arguably better than one.  Thus, it is not obvious to me that there’s anything quaint or obsolete about this practice.  Meanwhile, given the sacrifice Mr. Todd made for his students—he lost most of his hearing because he shared a classroom with thirty roaring Selectric typewriters for so many years—I feel compelled to honor him by continuing to put two spaces after a period.

The American Heritage Dictionary

Trevor comments, “Oh, and the American Heritage Dictionary? Total crap. I looked up ‘irregardless’ in it, found it, and then threw it away. ‘Bungled affectation’ is only legitimate if you can successfully defend ‘irregardless.’”  When I quoted this dictionary in my original post, I was almost sure I’d draw Trevor’s scorn, as he’s lambasted this dictionary before.  In terms of eliciting a response, dangling this citation out there was practically entrapment. 

I’d say that before we go picking on this dictionary, we should establish whether or not it’s the sole offender.  I consulted the Webster’s Unabridged Third New International Dictionary and it also defines “irregardless,” however briefly:  “adv [prob. blend of irrespective and regardless] nonstand : REGARDLESS.”

So it looks like Trevor, if he maintains his position, will have to throw out Webster’s too—but I suspect he wouldn’t discredit this noble dictionary, since (I happen to know) Trevor highly regards Vladimir Nabokov, whose favorite dictionary is Webster’s, as described here.  (This discussion, of a barbed public dispute that Nabokov had with the critic Edmund Wilson, reminds me somewhat of this very post, except that for Wilson and Nabokov the stakes were high.  After all, those two actually had readers, and relied on their literary reputations for their livelihood.  In comparison, what you’re reading here is trivial, all in good fun.)

Here is Nabokov with his beloved Webster’s dictionary.  (Not shown:  the word “irregardless,” which is most certainly in there.)

Frankly, I think the American Heritage Dictionary does a much more thorough job than Webster’s does with “irregardless,” by providing a useful commentary about it:

The problem with a dictionary simply leaving the word out is that it leaves arguments unsettled.  Let’s suppose Trevor gets in an argument with some idiot about whether or not “irregardless” is a word, and together they look it up in Webster’s.  The idiot may feel that he has won, because the word is in there, and “nonstand” doesn’t do much to discredit it.  Now suppose they look it up in Trevor’s Oxford English Dictionary and it’s simply not there:  this doesn’t provide closure on the issue, any more than the lack of “artisanal” in my American Heritage Dictionary does.  Isn’t it better to include “irregardless” in order to fully disparage it, rather than just leaving the matter open to endless moot debate?


There’s no real conclusion, of course—there can never be.  I’m sure I’ve left myself vulnerable, in these 3,000 words, to further assaults on my own grammar, rhetoric, and reason.  I don’t have a proofreader, nor the time to scrutinize my work for typos.  There are even logical flaws that I can’t bring myself to fix, like saying “I decided to get Keyser Söze on their ant asses.”  This statement practically begs the reader to say, “Obviously this is an allusion to ‘The Usual Suspects’ and the bit where Keyser Söze’s enemy is holding Söze’s family hostage at gunpoint, and how Söze shoots his own wife and child just to show his opponent how illusory his leverage really is.  But ‘getting Keyser Söze on their ant asses’ is a ridiculous metaphor, as merely eating ants is nowhere near as bold as killing your family, particularly given that eighty percent of the world’s population eats insects on a regular basis.”  (Ha!  Beat you to it!)

There is, however, one more thing I’d like to point out.  You may be under the impression that I consider Trevor an opponent in a verbal “war.”  In fact, that’s not at all the case.  The real opponent is the guy who couldn’t care less about proper language (or worse, the guy who “could care less” about proper language) and who, when confronted with a question of spelling, grammar, or style, simply says, “Whatever.”  Such flaccid, passive word slobs are the real enemy.  Their apathy wages a silent war on our language, with precision, order, and grace all hanging in the balance.

1 comment:

  1. We need to get Ceely in on this discussion/argument/war. He has more than once accused me of being a grammar prescriptivist, while the truth is that I only want us to have rules to tell us what is right and what is wrong...!