Category Archives: Language

About words, rhetoric, doublespeak, maybe elegance on occasion

I Believe Myself, Sometimes

earth from space

What is that?

Now that it’s fairly easy to look things up on the internet (i.e., most of the people you know stopping a conversation dead in a restaurant to look up some trivial, unnecessary fact), why do people believe so many things that are wrong? I read an article this past week talking about why, and the article used as a context the shrieking psychotic clusterfuck that constitutes contemporary American politics. From the article, we can see that instead of reacting to politics by saying “Aaaaaaaaah!!” and banging our head on the wall, we can instead say “What is the foundation for other people’s knowledge?” The origin of knowledge is called epistemology, in case you wanted that word.

Some interesting examples of alternative facts were in the article. Why do some people believe we need to spend billions of dollars to build a wall on the Mexican border, when illegal immigration has gone down, more people are returning to Mexico than are coming here, and most illegal immigrants work hard and add to our economy? Or why do so many people oppose eating genetically modified organisms when there is no evidence that they are harmful and the potential benefits are so huge, such as nutritional benefits and using fewer pesticides?

Why don’t we all just seek out real facts to the best of our ability, and go with them? Before I proceed with the factual part of this discussion, I have a philosophical answer: we don’t necessarily like facts. There’s a Russian proverb that says something like “would you rather be happy or would you rather have the truth?” Umm, let me think a minute.

Part of the truth is that none of us are walking around with pure facts, the way we think we are. But I want to make a point here first, so let’s consider an important question: how do you know the earth is round? Did you personally fly or sail around it? If you did, fine, but most of us did not, and yet we still think it’s round. We have trusted people who did fly or sail around it to tell us. We know it is round because of language.

But Ah! some will say, now we have photographs from space, and we can look at it and see that it’s round. OK. I’ve attached a space photo of the earth to this blog entry. Look at it. Now look out the window. Looks the same, doesn’t it? The only way you know that’s a photo of the earth is because someone told you. You know it because of language.

So follow this chain of logic for a moment: (1) much of our knowledge—like the earth being round—comes from communication, (2) most communication is through language, (3) and language is inherently rhetorical. Therefore, much of our knowledge comes from a process that is not based on pure reporting of truth, but rather it’s a process that is shaped by attempts at persuasion (i.e., rhetoric).

One of the basic aspects of rhetoric is that the person using language must be trusted by the audience, or no communication will take place. As I would sometimes tell my students, at the moment you start to speak, in terms of being trusted, what you actually know doesn’t much matter. It’s what the audience believes you know that matters. If they trust you, and if they think you know what you’re talking about, they will listen—whether those things are true or not.

Over time, you may change what the audience believes about you, and you may affect how much they trust you, but at any given moment, what the audience already believes is critically important as to whether it’s possible for communication to take place.

Our use of language has a profound effect on what we think we know. And whether we seriously look for true information, judging and considering our sources, looking for verification of facts, or whether we just lazily wash along in the river of what our friends believe, our knowledge is not just about what we know, but about what we choose to believe. “Knowledge” is less about truth than about belief. We have caught some fish from the river, but there are others that swam away without us knowing about them.

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Happy Delight Cookie

small bridge

Don’t forget a pillow

You’ve been to a Chinese restaurant, I would imagine. So you know that after you finish your General Tso’s chicken, or whatever you might have, they generally bring you little clear plastic packets with strangely folded, pale brown objects inside, sometimes served with orange slices. Thus appears the fortune cookie.

Whenever I’ve ripped open the plastic packet and cracked my cookie in half, to read what is written on that tiny slip of paper, I’ve never liked the uninteresting fortune. They say things like “Plan for many pleasures ahead” or “The time is right to make new friends” or “Your ability to juggle many tasks will take you far”.

What the hell? Those are fortunes? Those little slips of paper should have all said, “You will open cookie of very great banality.”

No sir, if I were the fortune cookie writer, we’d get some literary interest in there. Now I understand there’s only so much you can say. There’s not a lot of space, so the fortunes are kind of the pastry equivalent of Twitter messages. That just means the limited space available needs to be devoted to imagination.

I don’t think every fortune has to come with an implied smiley face. Has anyone ever used the phrase “feel good” about Tennessee Williams’ plays? And yet they’re highly regarded, even though they plumb the darkness of our existence. Can’t a fortune cookie do the same? So here are some suggestions for improved fortune cookie messages and why I think they would be good.

You will live briefly under a bridge.

At first glance this sounds negative, but note that very optimistic adverb—briefly. It’s not like you’re going to spend the rest of your life down there.

If you are having trouble dating, maybe you are thinking of the wrong gender.

Here is an inducement to self-examination, and in these more enlightened days of the twenty-first century, this happy fortune says “Look how broad your options are! Twice as many!”

Many people are more ugly than you.

Imagine how this statement will raise the self esteem of someone who has just finished their fried rice and is feeling insecure. Then the cookie arrives, and suddenly, they feel better about themselves.

As an adult, you can be glad you didn’t waste time learning math.

This happy fortune makes the diner feel good about the time they spent in high school not paying attention in class.

I might also add a few fortunes invoking whimsy, because Whimsical would be my middle name if my parents had named me that.

You will get very drunk and shave off all your body hair.

The person reading this might take it as a prediction, as something to look forward to, perhaps, or they might take it as a warning of something to avoid. It is their choice.

Your elephant will become flatulent tomorrow.

This could be a very useful fortune, telling you what to do—put the elephant outside—and telling you when you need to do that, tomorrow.

Your intestinal flora rejoice at your good fortune.

I’m pretty sure that must be true. I mean, why wouldn’t they?

You see how much better fortune cookies could be? It just takes a willingness to go beyond the norm, and I frequently go beyond the norm. You will eat happy delight cookie, then search for car in parking lot.

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Believe Me, I’m Totally Honest

Woman thinking about a crazy person

They just send out another tweet.

If you’ll come to my house this weekend, I think we’ll have a good time. And if you’ll come to my house this weekend, I’ll give you a thousand dollars.

The first statement above is an example of rhetoric. The second is merely lying. While some people may not understand the difference between rhetoric and lying, it’s a difference as enormous as the one between ethyl and methyl alcohol. You don’t have to understand it for it to make you blind.

If I was late for work, and someone asked me whether I got there on time, I could say (1) Just a few minutes late, or (2) I was really trying to get here on time, and suddenly there was all this traffic. Both answers are trying to do something different. In answer (1) the phrase “just a few minutes” tries to diminish the amount of time. In answer (2) the phrase “all this traffic” combined with “suddenly” emphasizes the idea that some outside, uncontrollable force prevented me. With each answer, I want the listener to believe that (1) my lateness is not that important, or (2) I’m not really at fault.

Each of the answers above is basically “yes” I was late, so neither is a lie, yet the speaker also wants to persuade the listener of something. Choosing words to persuade someone is rhetoric. We are particularly aware of the use of rhetoric by our politicians. Yet all humans choose words this way, because we all want to persuade people to think certain things and to do certain things. Using rhetoric is a natural aspect of being human. Talk to any four-year-old if you’re not sure of this.

We may not like the rhetoric of politicians, but using it is, after all, human. Even a “plain spoken” politician is using their own kind of rhetoric: Look how straightforward my language is. That must mean it’s especially honest, and you can trust me even more.

Let’s take some examples of rhetoric from our contemporary politics. In the past year, we’ve begun to hear the phase “alt-right” to refer to particular attitudes. Alt-right is a fairly innocuous-sounding phrase, as if it might be merely a particular variation (or alternative) of rightwing, or conservative views. In reality, however, it refers to racism and white supremacy, which is not conservative, but choosing a new name to sound more innocent is a rhetorical act.

Another example of rhetoric that came up in the past week was when Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to President Trump, was asked about the White House claim of historically large crowds attending the inauguration. The claim was easily shown to be false, but instead of admitting what was obvious, Conway said the spokesman was using “alternative facts”. This phrase makes it sound as if the actual facts were not clear, as if, perhaps, there was disagreement over interpretation. In essence, however, Conway was using a nonsense phrase, because the reality about crowd size was so visible. She was not exactly lying, but she was clearly avoiding the truth.

These two examples, “alt-right” and Conway’s language, show why so many people hate rhetoric. It is often used to try to hide reality, to avoid admission of the truth, and so rhetoric begins to seem like a way of being dishonest. Perhaps we can say that a politician may do one of three things: tell the cold truth, use rhetoric to hide what is being said, or tell a lie. But maybe it’s not so simple.

Let’s look at two further examples, also from our current politics. Back during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that after 911, Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating on rooftops. Then people investigated, and this claim was shown to be very obviously wrong. There was no mixed evidence. It was not a case of some people said one thing, some said another. It was not a question of interpretation. It was just wrong, but Trump continued to say it.

Then in the past week, Trump has said that up “five million illegal votes” were cast, and that not a single one of those votes (which would have been cast in secret) went to him. No one—including Republican Secretaries of State—has supported the idea that millions of illegal votes were cast. It is just wrong, but Trump continues to say it.

When something has been shown conclusively to be false, one possibility is that the person who continues to repeat it may be mysteriously uninformed of what most people know. Another possibility is that the person might be an incredible liar who doesn’t care.

There is a third possibility. A person who continues to repeat what is known to be wrong might be mentally incapable of recognizing reality. Maybe Donald Trump is not lying, as people are saying. Perhaps he is either remarkably uninformed, or he is so unhinged from reality that he doesn’t know what is real, and he believes what he is saying.

Either way, lucky America.

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Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

glass of spilled milk

Just don’t cry

At some point (in time, as people say, to distinguish from those points not in time), someone was thinking of something very, very good. It was so good, so superlative, that describing just how good it was presented a challenge. Perhaps the unknown person thinking about this tried the phrase “very good” but that still meant merely good, albeit enhanced by the word “very”.

Maybe then they tried synonyms, and the thing in question was “great” or “wonderful,” which was better, but still, these are fairly common words, and the thing was SO GOOD that common words were not enough. At that point, real imagination kicked in, and metaphors were used: good as . . . hmm, good as what? Good as a friend’s handshake. Good as cold milk. Good as . . . ah! Good as gold!

Now we have to use our own imaginations to remember that at the time this phrase had never been used before. Gold is a metal, extremely valuable, highly valued, and shiny and beautiful. Good as gold? Wow, good as gold. What a clever idea.

And so it was a clever idea—the first time.

Since that time, however, Jezus! don’t ever say that again. That phrase is old as dirt now, and you wouldn’t want to be caught red-handed using such a worn-out cliché. Part of what makes clichés so attractive is that there was a time when they actually were fairly clever or imaginative. Another part of what makes them attractive is that they require almost no thought at all, they just fall forward into the open air of their own accord.

But why not use a cliché? Why do I attempt to lay down such a haughty law? Really, it depends. If you truly like it, go ahead and knock yourself out, but I’ll cite two reasons, and if they mean anything to you, then you decide.

Most broadly, I’ll cite human psychology. It’s paradoxical when you consider how much humans yearn for the past, cling to tradition, and hate to change, that we also love newness. What strange brains we have, but it’s true. Newness entertains us, lifts us for a moment out of the repetitious tedium that makes up our life so much of the time. Part of that newness comes from language, and if you can say things in a new way, you sound more interesting.

More to the point for this blog about writing, to present yourself as a serious writer with a good linguistic imagination, you can’t just drag out an old kettle of fish to make broth with too many cooks or . . . I’m getting lost here. In fact even for people who care about fresh, interesting language, the mind is full of clichés.

Original language in writing does not happen because you’re such a phenomenal genius that every word you write will sparkle like the diamonds on a king’s codpiece. No sir. You’ll have clichés, but if you’re a serious writer who is willing to work, as you revise and notice that kind of language, you’ll slow down, think, put your head in your hands, sigh, go get a drink of water, come back and think some more, and eventually come up with a fresh way of saying what you want. If you don’t try to avoid clichés, then frankly, you look like a lazy writer.

Writing this blog entry, I found a website that said not to use clichés in writing, and they gave a list of almost 700 of them (seriously)—which they said not to use. I wondered if the writer who takes advice from that website is supposed to memorize the list. I thought of a use for them, however, and I include a selection below:

  • let’s talk turkey
  • all your eggs in one basket
  • big cheese
  • bring home the bacon
  • fine kettle of fish
  • no use crying over spilled milk
  • red as a beet
  • spill the beans
  • easy as pie
  • icing on the cake

I think we have enough there to make a meal. We can eat our words.

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Period (.)

full-stop-cafe

We can hang out here a while

In the blink of a week, we are dashing across the vast expanses of literary space (using our warped view drive), to go from last week considering one of the longest novels ever written, to this week looking at the smallest element of punctuation in English. If another language has a smaller punctuation mark than a period, no one knows, because you can’t see it.

Whence cometh this little dot of ink, and why? What we call the period in America (or a full stop in some other English-speaking countries) is the smallest conceivable punctuation mark, but that little fellow carries a lot of weight. Every written language eventually has had to develop at least some forms of punctuation, and the use of a dot to end a sentence can be traced far, far back to an early Greek system in the bygone B.C. days.

Because writing is one of the oldest human inventions, it has evolved and changed drastically over the centuries. I’m not interested in trying to discuss the history of punctuation in the two thousand years since a dot was first used, but I will say that without any punctuation, it’s much, much harder to read a text, as well as more difficult to even express ideas. Sometimes in the Middle Ages the writing even avoided blank space (also a kind of punctuation): anangelcametohimonthehill. Not too many people were reading in those days.

In terms of function, no punctuation mark is more important than a period, as it indicates a complete sentence. It’s a bit strange that in most European languages, a function as important as the end of a sentence is marked with such an insignificant dot of ink. The very importance of the period, however, may be the reason we can barely see it. Every text is filled with periods, and if it were larger and more evident, for instance, if it looked like this ◄ it might take over the page◄ Nobody would like that◄ And think of how much more space that would take up◄

During this period of reflecting on full stops, I want to focus the dot on a philosophical point. Let’s note that a sentence is the most basic unit of thought, and the simplest definition of a sentence is that it must have a subject (normally a noun) and a verb. A sentence is therefore a reflection of our most fundamental perception of the world, probably even from a few months old. We soon learn to distinguish that the world consists of separate objects; there are things out there. God knows what all those things are, but one of them is Mama. Secondly, we notice that those things move.

Things move (noun verb)—this is a basic sentence. The concept of a sentence is so important to language, that when you add an object, linguists even classify all languages as to what order these three elements occur. English is an SVO language, subject-verb-object: David drinks beer. (Or wine.)

I was looking at a website discussing punctuation that said the period is “the easiest punctuation mark to master”, which may be so, but when I was teaching first-year college writing classes, I had very many students who did not clearly know when to use a period. We even had special words for not knowing. Joining two sentences with a comma, instead of using a period for each one was called a “comma splice” and using a period before a sentence was completed was called a “sentence fragment”.

By the way, what I just did above, putting the period (and comma) outside the quotation marks is British style, which I use because it makes more sense, and if you don’t like it, maybe you should be an English major. At some future point perhaps I’ll discuss commas, but you know the comma is such a lazy thing, always stopping to take a rest. I’m a busy guy. I may not have time for commas.

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Here in My Mind, I Read a Book

love-of-beautyOccasionally a friend will call me at work and ask if I want to meet for coffee when I get off, to chat for a bit. I like to meet when I can, because we don’t see one another as often as I’d like, and he provides me with conversations of such great interest that I hardly know anyone who could do the same. No one else I know sends me lines of poetry to ask what I think of them.

So this past Monday we met, and for half the time we were together, we discussed Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” and different performances of it. I admit it was my cultured friend who actually knew of various performances—Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

A question that came up in our discussion was whether an audience in a country with a good social welfare system could fully appreciate the play. If people knew they could survive if they lost their jobs, could they properly understand the anxiety of the salesman in the play? He lives at a time in America where he will be destitute if he loses his job, with no social system to support him.

Audiences necessarily bring their background and understanding of the world to their experience of art. From the idea of what people bring to an experience, I went on to make the point to my friend that in writing (which of course I’ve thought more about) readers bring so much to the reading that in fact they help to create the text.

That may sound radical to you, but I’ll illustrate it by starting with something excessively simple. Suppose you see a text, but you don’t know the writing system (Russian: я люблю тебя), or perhaps you know the writing system, but don’t know the language (Polish: wszystkiego najlepszego), or you know the alphabet and the language, but the subject matter is foreign (epigenetics discussion: highly methylated areas tend to be less transcriptionally active).

My point is that if the reader doesn’t know how to interpret the symbols in the writing, turn them into meaningful words and sentences, and then make sense of the sentences, whatever the writer wrote lies there incomprehensible. No piece of writing says anything. It’s just a piece of paper with ink on it (or a screen with pixels). When anything happens, it happens inside the mind of the reader.

I’ve thought about this so often that I don’t know whether its a difficult idea to really understand, or whether it’s quickly obvious. It seems to me that many people consider writing to have a definite, obvious meaning, and that meaning is just there because—look—it’s written down.

It’s written down, like the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or the Constitution, or even Hemingway. It says what it says. Isn’t this what most people would think? Is it what you think? So maybe my point is not so simple, even though it’s true.

Of course reading is so much more than merely knowing the words. Let’s look at the first sentence of the Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” And let’s propose that this is rather straightforward in meaning: it gives a man’s position lying on the ground in a forest, it gives his physical position, and it gives some of the natural setting, with the wind blowing.

Now let’s propose two readers, one who grew up in pine forests, and another who has never even seen a pine needle. One of them knows the smell of such a forest, has seen it the daytime with sunlight coming down through the trees, knows how the pine needles fall down from the trees, knows the very slight crackle when you walk across them, and knows the sharp way they feel when you lie on them. The second reader doesn’t know any of this.

Surely these two readers will have extremely different reactions to the opening sentence of this novel. For the first reader, the sentence may even evoke personal emotional memories, which become part of that reader’s experience of reading. The second reader is getting only a very bare physical description from the sentence, with no feeling. Already in the first sentence, two different readers will experience the book in dramatically different ways.

With what readers bring to the reading, they turn a lifeless piece of paper into thoughts and feelings inside their own minds. Readers are helping to create the text, and no writer can control that.

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Raise the Hills

hillsAlright, fellow logotrons, here at the blog that flits about like a butterfly, it is metaphor time again. More specifically, I will oppose one of the more common metaphors in our lives. I’m talking about a metaphor of movement, expressed most of the time in two ways, either as “move forward” (using words from Old English) or “make progress” (from Latin: pro = forward, gress = move).

Before I argue against this metaphor, let’s consider what it means, exactly. As I indicated, it literally means movement in a forward direction. When applied as a metaphor, as in “We’ve made progress in getting people to lose weight” the phrase also means movement forward toward . . .

Movement toward what? If the phrase is to make sense, there has to be a recognizable goal, and in the sentence about losing weight, there is. Blubber down—that’s the goal. This metaphor is so common, however, that sometimes we use it as a general description of human life: “We’ve made a lot of progress as a society in the last 50 years.” Toward what? Overall goodness? More people who have a smart phone?

Maybe you’re thinking, “This guy is against progress. I’m outta here.” But I’m all in favor of progress if we define it, such as expanding the ability of humans to be free and autonomous, and to improve the quality of human life (health care, meaningful work, more vacation than I currently get, etc.).

Lately I’ve begun to realize, however, that in some serious ways we are still in the Middle Ages: superstitious peasants (anti-vaccination arguments, claims that evolution can’t be true), religious fanaticism (that one’s easy), brutal nobility and oppressed serfs (billionaires in politics and illegal farm workers).

It occurred to me as I was taking a walk this week that maybe it isn’t just the Middle Ages that haven’t gone away. Maybe every stage of human development that ever happened is still there. It just depends on where you are. Are there people who don’t have fire yet? At any rate, there are tribes of people with very little technology living in the jungle in Brazil. The problem with the metaphor of progress is that we tend to think of it as something like a wave moving forward, that we’re all sweeping along at the same speed in that wave.

That metaphor is wrong. From country to country, sometimes from one mile to another, in some places even from one house to another, the level of human development is drastically different. Is it progress if you have a library in your house and spend time on the internet when the kids who live three houses away from you can barely read? Which century is your neighborhood in?

In some places a woman can run for president, while in other places a woman is not even allowed to drive a car (for instance, in a particular hell-hole country in the middle east). But even in the country where a woman can run for president, other women don’t have health insurance and don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it, despite having jobs. Which century is that country in?

So I think we need a new metaphor. Think of something like a landscape filled with hills and valleys. The top of each hill represents a rise toward greater human freedom and development, but the hills are all of different heights, and they are surrounded with valleys.

This image is more reflective of how the world is. We are not all moving “forward” together. Some are rising, others are not. One of the appealing things about this new metaphor is that it fits so well with how our brains already work, because we grow up with a feeling that “up is good, down is bad”. You can probably come up with your own examples for that (or you can start with “the computer system is down but the stock market is up”).

Instead of talking about progress, we should be saying that we will raise more hills, we will make the hills higher, and we will raise every hill. This might be a richer, more useful metaphor. If we can truly raise every hill, that will be a hill worth walking up.

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