Sunday, August 31, 2008


If my post "Seasonal Absurdity" crossed your desk, what would your main query be? Mine, if I were paying attention, which I can't be relied on to do, would be

The title of this item is "Seasonal Absurdity," and yet you write "the absurdity is timeless." OK?

The lesson is that we need to read critically. Even our own stuff. Or maybe we don't need to, but I sure do.

Maybe I can make an argument that it's OK, but it still needs a query.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Maybe Worth Thinking About

A friend in sunny Arizona sent us this article about some guys who don't like "typos." According to the article,

[Jeff Michael] Deck's diary account of the Grand Canyon incident was submitted as evidence in court. It says the two men climbed Desert View Watchtower while on holiday from their typo-enforcement duties "and discovered a hand-rendered sign inside that, I regret to report, had a few errors. I know today was supposed to be my day off from typo-hunting, but if I may be permitted to quote that most revered of android law enforcers, Inspector Gadget, 'Always on duty!' I can't shut it off....Will we never be free from the shackles of apostrophic misunderstanding, even in a place surrounded by natural beauty?"

After correcting a misplaced apostrophe and comma, Deck reported, he was aghast to discover what he described as a made-up word: "emense."

"I was reluctant to disfigure the sign any further, so we had to let the other typo stand. Still, I think I shall be haunted by that perversity."

While it may be fun to talk about what idiots these guys are, it may be more productive to use this as an occasion to reflect on the behavior of our colleagues--perhaps even on our own behavior. A typo is an error that has to do with, you know, typography. This was a manuscript sign--manuscript in the original sense--and this guy is having vapors about the typos. A manuscript is nontypographic. A manuscript has no typos. This is embarrassing. But we often embarrass ourselves in similar ways, showing off our own ignorance while acting superior (something I've done more than once). Like the person (I'm not making this up) who filled a manuscript (in the modern sense of the word) on the dirty war in Argentina with queries, increasingly snide, asking since when disappear is a transitive verb. And having hissy fits about trivial errors, some of which may not even be errors, when a logical or factual flaw kicks us where it hurts to be kicked and we don't even notice. (Or, arguably, like some doofus who gets all riled up by a supposed misuse of "typo." But I was trying to make a point, what with this guy acting like he's such a precisionist.)

An editor once told me that we're the accuracy department. This, like these guys' vandalism, is emblematic of editorial arrogance at its worst. We take care of the dangling modifiers, and those people who write the stuff, all they care about is getting the Krebs cycle right! I'm saving the public from a misplaced apostrophe, and these people are worried about a unique (in the pedantically acceptable sense of the word) historical marker! O injustice! O apostrophicity!

Some of us sometimes need to get some perspective.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Passive Aggression

Someday--maybe, if I get around to it--I'll explain why the usage guide in the fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (chapter 5, "Grammar and Usage," by Bryan A. Garner) was not a good idea. For the moment, though, I'll comment on a part of it that isn't bad at all: section 5:112, on active and passive voice. Garner goes into great detail, and to his credit he doesn't scold. All he says about style is the last sentence: "As a matter of style, passive voice {the matter will be given careful consideration} is typically, though not always, inferior to the active voice {we will consider the matter carefully}" (curly brackets in original).

By the way, there's a problem in Garner's description of the passive. Says he, "The passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb's past participle....Although the inflected form of to be is sometimes implicit, the past participle must always appear." I believe--and I may be incorrect--that the infinitive is considered uninflected. But it's common for a passive to be formed with the infinitive of to be, as in this sentence. If I'm correct about infinitives being uninflected, then restricting the formation of the passive to inflected forms of to be is incorrect. If I'm incorrect about this, then all verb forms are inflected, "inflected form of to be" is synonymous with "form of to be," and "inflected" here is just a wasted word. Since I'm not sure of myself on this, I'd appreciate your comments.

(There are a few other comment-worthy items in this quotation from Garner--"colloquial usage" [redundant according to his definition of usage, but he uses the phrase a lot] and "sometimes implicit" [he seems to be inconsistent in his acceptance of implicit words]--that are off-topic for the moment. I hope to come back to them in later posts.)

The manual itself is full of passive sentences. Opening it at random, I came to sections 9:56 through 9:63. These sections include 10 sentences with passive voice and 15 without--40 percent are passive. This figure includes cross-references--sentences in which the verb is see in the imperative--among the nonpassives. If we omit these from the calculation, we get 10 sentences with passive and 9 without--53 percent passive.

The point here is not to mock either Garner or the manual (which I hold in the highest reverence, and I'm not joking about that). We've all heard (and perhaps participated in? hmmm?) griping about the passive voice, but in some contexts it seems preferable to the active. Among those contexts are statements of how things are done--they're a given, and that's that, and we don't need to say who says so--and fiats from an authority figure. Both of which apply to the manual.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seasonal Absurdity

I noticed that there seems to be more silliness floating around in the air than usual. Then I looked out the window and figured out why this was happening--we're in a year whose Gregorian number is divisible by four.

(Now, I know that what I'm about to talk about is old news, but I've got other stuff to do than blog, and the absurdity is--I don't know [sigh]--the absurdity is timeless.)

So Wesley Clark says about John McCain, "I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war." And then he says, "He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not." So then Bob Schieffer says neither has Barack Obama, and Obama hasn't "ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down." And then Clark says, he says, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." So then Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith says [Ed Absurdum at this point in the joke is struggling hard to keep her composure] [update, January 28, 2010: I was still using the pseudonym "Ed Absurdum" when this was originally written], "If Barack Obama wants to question John McCain's service to his country, he should have the guts to do it himself and not hide behind his campaign surrogates."

Hwah hwah hwah hwah [snork snork] heeheeheeheehee.

Excuse me [wipes away tears].

Now, I know the best way to ruin a joke is to explain it, but since this is an educational blog [starting to giggle again], I'm going to explain it anyway.

Where to start? Well, OK, first we note that Clark didn't "question John McCain's service to his country." This is a straw man attack. Perhaps more importantly, Clark's statement--that getting shot down in a fighter plane is not a qualification to be president--is true. Many people other than McCain have had that experience. While we may honor their service, most of us, probably including McCain and Smith, would agree that most of them aren't qualified to be president.

We find arguments like this in scholarly work all the time. Rolling our eyes isn't enough (although it's hard to avoid.) We need to query it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Apparent (But We Know How Appearances Can Be) Inconsistency in the OED

Well, we all remember what happened last time I said I found an inconsistency in a dictionary, don't we? That's right--I ended up issuing an apologetic retraction (although I did come back and belabor the subject).

An ordinary fool would cut her losses and not make any such accusations again. But as my hubster points out, I'm not an ordinary fool--I'm an anonymous fool [update, January 28, 2010: I was still using the pseudonym "Ed Absurdum" when this was originally written; in real life, I don't have a hubster, although the missus does].

But before I start, let me point out that I love the Oxford English Dictionary. I often spend hours with it. I find it irresistible. In fact, I speak of the OED in roman letters, following the advice of the Chicago Manual of Style ver. 15 (also mentioned in roman letters): "Names of scriptures and other highly revered works are capitalized but not italicized" (Chic. Man. Sty. 8:11).

Anyhow, I recently looked a word up in the OED, and it mentioned a "non-standard" usage. Hmm, I said to myself; I didn't think they hyphenated this. So I looked for the entry for non-standard; there was no such entry, but there was an entry for nonstandard. Curious, I searched the definitions in the dictionary for nonstandard and got zero hits. When I searched the definitions for non-standard, I got sixty-one hits. In other words, the form that's entered in the dictionary isn't the form the dictionary actually uses.