For the sake of argument

I’m an argumentative sort.  Most people who’ve known me for any length of time will tell you that.  Especially if there’s anything at material at stake, I like to thoroughly explore all sides of an issue.  And sometimes I just like to argue for the sake of exercising my brain and stopping it from just sitting there sluggishly and regulating my breathing.

I must admit that sometimes I get carried away; I have on occasion seen an alarmed look cross the face of my co-argumentor and realised that they thought I was taking it seriously – like I was really passionate about iron filings or the exact contours of a bowler hat.

And then there are the times when it’s hard to tell what the other person is thinking.  Aware that I can come across a little strong sometimes, I do make an effort to tone it down, and then I wonder if actually I’m just being wishy-washy and failing to make my point.  Especially online, after wrapping up a little parcel of opinion and firing it into the void, I may sit and watch it into the distance, wondering if I’ve just torpedoed a developing friendship.

For what it’s worth, people, I don’t hold grudges, and I don’t judge.  I’m a seeker after truth and beauty and all that, and as long as you’re not trying to obscure those, then we’re on the same side.


English as She is Teached

Today I spent quite a bit of time reading about rules of grammar.  I have to confess to having been something of a prescriptivist myself in my younger days, so I think it’s healthy to get a better understanding of the zombie rules which infest the English language, so that I have an idea of the people I’m likely to be pissing off with my writing style.

I’ve been a fan of Language Log for many years now, and reading through their archives has been an educational experience.  I have come across a fascinating number of ‘rules’ which go into incredible detail, and I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface.  It seems there are people out there who are memorising pages and pages of rules because they are so unsure about how to write in their native language.

Frankenstein_MonsterI found this monstrosity, which is a mind-boggling attempt at scoring a given piece of text for things like whether it has exceeded some apparently arbitrary number of adverbs. I’ve had pushed at me regularly over the past few weeks on various sites I’ve visited, and that doesn’t exactly seem like a particularly high-quality tool either.  I put the text of the post so far into its checker, and it told me it had detected two errors, and also evidence of plagiarism.  Of course the next step was to sign up so that I could discover exactly what these egregious faults are and obtain their expert help in dealing with them.  The first app’s opinion on the same piece of text was that I had used 4 adverbs but that I was only allowed two, and that only the very first sentence in the post was understandable.  Right so.

There are also a whole bunch of things like ‘comma splices’ and ‘avoid passive voice’, which I had never even heard of until a few years back, but which seem pretty pervasive in guides to writing.

It made me wonder about other people’s experience of learning to write English.  I don’t mean as a more-or-less adult learning techniques about characters and worlds and compelling plots, but the kind of writing done in primary school.  I’ve been racking my brain to think of examples of writing I had ‘corrected’ when I was younger, and the few that come to mind seem straightforward and uncontroversial:

  • Ending a story with “and they woke up and it was all a dream” is a lazy way of avoiding writing a proper ending.
  • ‘Nice’ is not an adequate description in most circumstances.
  • Try to avoid overuse of a specific word or phrase.  (If I recall correctly, the culprit in this particular scenario was the word ‘actually’)
  • Vary the lengths of your sentences – use short snappy ones for action, or longer and more descriptive ones for a relaxed passage.

Other than these, I’m struggling to think of any specific instructions, although it’s possible I simply blanked out the ones which didn’t mesh with my experience of the language.

Looking at the masses of misinformation out there, I can’t help feeling like I dodged a bullet.

© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Photos from – White Zombie screenshot and Frankenstein’s Monster

Title in homage to English As She is Spoke.  Any and all errors intentional, naturally.

Blue is for boys, but definitely not green.

I’ve just arrived back from my London trip and I’m knackered, so I’ll share with you an amusing and enlightening article from XKCD which I stumbled across while reading Language Log archives.  So basically two of my favourite places.

XKCD regulars may recall that a while back Randall was doing a survey on what names people assigned to various colours – I know I took part in this myself.

The results are fascinating, and you can see them here:

In a nutshell, males and females have, perhaps surprisingly, a very common set of colour descriptor words, apart from shades of green; women are more likely to have very specific vocab for flowery pastel shades, and men… well, men are more likely to give ‘penis’ as an answer on a survey.

Stupid rules

I (re-)read 50 Years of Stupid Grammar by Geoffrey K. Pullum today and I still love it.  I love the angry, yet well-structured logic (it reminds me of David Mitchell on QI, with the highest respect to both of them), and I love how passionate he is about his subject.

I discovered the Language Log blog while on my honeymoon in Thailand, at about 3am local time the day we arrived, when I was completely unable to sleep despite having been awake for some uncounted hours at that point.  My shiny new husband was sound asleep and snoring in the other part of our suite, and I was curled up with my laptop on the sofa geeking out about language.

Why, yes, that does represent a microcosm of our relationship, why do you ask?

I made a determined yet futile attempt to catch up on their backlog, but these days I just dip in and out as the mood takes me.  I still have a couple of articles pinned to my quick access toolbar, and I’m pretty stingy when it comes to that piece of prime real estate, so that will tell you just how much I value them.

In fact, over time, they converted me from a staunch but closet prescriptivist into a kinder, softer, more rational way of being.  I’ve always loved language, but they helped me to fall in love with it all over again.

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you; if you want to know how, you’ll just have to go read it yourself.