Archives for category: language

Grammar nazism is a populist movement.  Why?  Because all you need is a single factoid and you can spend weeks acting high and mighty.  All you’ve really done is identify a point of difference between your community and another community in linguistic evolution.  That’s not to say that one of you isn’t wrong in the academic sense.  But the wrongness of someone’s grammar or speech is contingent on them caring about being right in the academic sense.

Well for all of you who really do want to be right, here are a hefty handful of expressions that people constantly get wrong.  If the first and second and even third bother you too, just wait.  You’ll be embarrassed before long.

WRONG: I could care less
RIGHT: I couldn’t care less

If you could care less that means you are above a zero on the scale of caring.  It does not denote an upper limit, simply that your level of care is between infinite and the smallest measure of care.

WRONG: For all intensive purposes
RIGHT: For all intents and purposes

The intensiveness of the purposes is not in question, so why would you bring it up?  And what kind of thing is acceptable for intensive purposes and not for everyday purposes?  Carpet shampoo?  Dump trucks perhaps?

WRONG: Hone in
RIGHT: Home in

I think you all know what it means to hone something and it would be too condescending to explain.

WRONG: Each one worse than the next
RIGHT: Each one worse than the last

If each one were worse than the next, then things would be constantly improving.  Of course there is a temporal paradox contained in this statement, but regardless, it’s nonsense.

WRONG: Dumb as a doorknob
RIGHT: Dumb as a doornail

A doorknob is a perfectly useful object which, as far as I can see, should be no dumber than any other inanimate object.  On the contrary, a doornail is designed expressly to be beaten on the head by a steel pin for its whole life.  That’s why it’s dumb.

God it feels good to get that off my chest.  I could go on, but I’d rather save some for later.

I do feel somehow that this kind of post trespasses on the good will of my readers, and so I submit myself to any criticism.  Please find a mistake in one of my posts and ruthlessly shame me for my stupidity.

A woman today told me that if I live my life by the ten commandments I’ll be just fine.  I thought very little of it.  After all, the ten commandments are the first thing people mention when they don’t know very much about the bible and I’m quite used to downtown preachers.  But it got me thinking about it, and when I really pressed myself I could only remember eight of the ten.  It really seems like the sort of thing one ought to remember.  So I opened up a digital bible and searched for the term “ten commandments”.  This is what I found. (Exodus 34.11-26 paraphrased).

1. Don’t make deals with the people of judea: destroy their alters, images, and crops.

2. Worship no other gods because I am jealous.

3. Don’t make deals with the people of judea because when they sacrifice to their gods they’ll offer you some and if you eat it and take a wife from among them and their children will sacrifice to their gods.

4. Don’t make cast idols.

5. Keep the seven day festival of unleavened bread in commemoration of your exodus from Egypt.

6. All the firstborn male livestock belong to me.

7. Work six days rest one.  All men have to come before me three times a year and I will expand your borders.

8. Don’t serve sacrificial blood with leaven and don’t leave the ceremony until morning.

9. Bring the best of your fruit to the house of the Lord.

10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Exodus 34.27-28 “The Lord said to moses: write these words down; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.  I was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water.  And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten-commandments.”

That is the only time the term “ten commandments” appears in the bible.  Of course that’s not what people mean when they say the ten commandments.  The usual ten commandments are as follows (again paraphrased for brevity)

1. Don’t worship the other gods.

2. Don’t make engraved images of anything in heaven, or below the sea.  Don’t worship images.  If you do I’ll punish your offspring for three or four generations.  If you follow my laws I’ll bless you for a thousand generations.

3. Don’t use the Lord’s name wrongly.

4. Keep saturday holy.

5. Honour your father and mother.

6. Don’t murder.

7. Don’t commit adultery.

8. Don’t steal.

9. Don’t bare false witness against neighbors.

10. Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox, ass, or anything else he owns.

Now that’s more like it.  But where does this confusion come from?  Well, moses got the tablets from god, smashed them, and went back to get them again.  The second set of ten laws given to Moses, and the first set written above, is what the bible calls the ten commandments but the first, written below, is what we call the ten commandments.  Even the most apparently simple and widely cited part of the bible is pretty complicated and the subject of intense debate.

And this is why you need to read your bible.  Regardless of your faith.  For Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Atheists alike: the bible is one of the most important and influential books ever produced by humanity.  Think it doesn’t matter cause you’re not Christian?  Well a huge part of the world lives their lives according to one book.  To understand the world we live in, you have to understand the bible.  I’ve studied it in school, I’ve studied it for enjoyment and i’ve read it cover to cover several times and I didn’t even notice that the ten commandments are all mixed up.  Bible illiteracy is a real problem.  The woman giving out free instructions on how to live a good life probably doesn’t even know how confused the ten commandments are.  I would be surprised if she could even name the ten that we’re familiar with.  And surely she doesn’t think I ought not engrave pictures.  Bible illiteracy leads people to believe that the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John even though their authorship is explained in the bible.  Besides, if anyone really believe in all ten of the commandments, we would see less of this:imagesYeah, that’s a graven image of something from beneath the sea.

Read it.  Cover to cover.  Twice.  I might be the most important book ever.  If you don’t know what’s in it, you shouldn’t be telling anyone else whether it’s good or bad.  There are 613 laws in the Old Testament which, according to Matthew, Jesus promised to defend and uphold.  How many do you know?  How many do you endorse?  There are four separate versions of Jesus’ life in the four gospels.  Do you know where they converge, where they differ?  Which history do you take as truth if any?  Do you understand the challenges of translation from the original Greek and Aramaic?  These are real and challenging questions that must be answered.  You cannot escape the challenge by reading your favourite bits out of context and ignoring the rest.  Don’t hide behind the false security of consensus.  Find out for yourself.  Read it.

Just skip the bit with all the begetting.  It’s quite boring.

When I say opinions are dumb I don’t mean your opinion is dumb or every opinion except my own is dumb, I mean the whole idea of an opinion is dumb, vacuous, and redundant.

My Dictionary defines opinion as follows:

a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

On the other hand, a belief is defined this way:

something one accepts as real or true: a firmly held opinion or conviction

Neither an opinion nor a belief is necessarily based on facts or information, but rather both describe the position a person holds on a subject regardless of its foundation.  They mean exactly the same thing.  Saying “In my opinion…” or “I believe…” is the same as saying “I think…” or “It seems to me…”  They all imply the same status of knowledge: provisional.

However, there is a functional difference.  We have this mad idea that opinions can’t be wrong.  You might tell someone they’re wrong and they might reply “It’s just my opinion!”  as if that exempts their proposition from the laws of the universe.  “I believe” has a similar conversational veto.  It’s hard to find a conversational equivalence because we don’t use the words in the same contexts.  Thinking something implies that you’re not sure, whereas belief implies such conviction as to bind the speaker’s very identity to the proposition.

All this confusion is predicated on a simple common-sense misunderstanding of what it means to know something.  Descartes famously wrote “I think therefore I am.” making ones own existence the only fact that any human can independently confirm.  Every other thing you think is true is a matter of probability.  What that means is I only know one thing: that my mind must exists to think about what I know.  It couldn’t think about whether or not it existed if it didn’t exist.  I don’t know if my mind is attached to my brain and my body, if it’s really sitting in front of my computer, if there is a universe outside my window, or anything else.

And so everything you know about anything is a belief: a statement of what you suppose is true without being able to prove it definitely.  And that’s why your opinions are dumb: because they are the same as the things you think are true and subject to all the same discussions and debates.  Every opinion you hold for no reason can be deconstructed through the history of science and philosophy right down to fundamental truths about what it is to be.  That’s what thinking is.

Besides their philosophical nullity, they are functionally destructive.  Opinions are used in conversation as a label that people put on things they think are true but they don’t know why.  If you don’t know why you hold an opinion, toss it.  That’s the honest thing to do.

Lets do away with the opinion and stick with what we want, what we think, and how we think we can know what we think we know.

 

To live in Chinatown, as I do, you have to learn to embrace certain cultural idiosyncrasies.  Chinese shop owners often haven’t fully grasped the more subtle aspects of advertising in the English language.  I had to share with you the brand new super happy great store that loves you because it so epitomizes how subtlety is lost in translation.
IMG_1444

My mum used to tell me that everyone sees the world through their own pane of glass.  As each year passes I understand better what she meant.  The things you’ve learned, the things you’ve experienced, and the things you believe are the authors of your consciousness.  Well a huge part of my own experience and education has been studying human history and it does have a real effect on the way I see things.  Historical perspective has a tendency to make beautiful things ugly.  Here’s an example:

Paris is known for it’s beautiful broad avenues.  Most medieval european cities get harder to navigate as you get closer to the center, yet somehow Paris has a network of wide streets making transportation much easier and defining the esthetic of the city.  But how did Paris get so lucky?  Well it was planned that way.  In the early to mid nineteenth century, Emperor Napoleon III had a Baron by the name of Haussmann plan and execute the urbanization of Paris which involved, among other things, the destruction of ancient neighborhoods to make way for huge, modern thoroughfares.

6241155-Av_Marceau_Av_Iena_Paris

That’s nice!  Now here’s the historical perspective.  Many historians today view the project as a method of authoritarian control.  During the french revolution, just a few years previous, revolutionaries barricaded the narrow streets and were able to hold off large numbers of government troops from a defensive position.  Broad avenues made the construction of barricades difficult, it  facilitated the easy movement of huge armies right into the heart of Paris, and it made it possible for the first time to use artillery inside the city.  When you understand how these broad streets were designed to put down the people of Paris, they’re somehow less beautiful.

It’s not all bad though.  Some things that look quite boring become incredibly beautiful in historical perspective.  Here’s an example:150px-Venus_of_Tan-TanThis is a drawing of a 5cm stone that was found in Germany in 1999.  It’s discoverers believe it to be a piece of quartzite carved by geological forces to vaguely resemble a human form, then carved with stone tools to accentuate the shape and dyed with red ochre.  Why is this important?  Because this stone is dated to between 300 000 and 500 000 years old.  That puts it at least 200 000 years older than the emergence of decorative markings on human artifacts.  The dating and the process itself makes this stone a little more than instinct and less than art.  In this tiny rock we may be seeing the emergence of the human sense of aesthetics: the evolution of beauty itself.

The right answer is rarely as simple as we like to think.  To understand why you think and feel the way you do, you have to understand from what perspective you are seeing things.  History is my filter, yours is something different.  The real answer is only visible when all the filters are removed.  Then the truth becomes true for everyone.

I have, for many years, enjoyed teasing my father about his belief in horoscopes.  I can tease him in good faith because I know he doesn’t take them very seriously, he’s simply amused when a horoscope seems to accurately describe a person’s character or circumstance.  I enjoy reading not only my own but every horoscope to see how many of them seem to apply to the circumstances of my life and, without fail, about 80% seem to click.  They are what’s called Barnum statements which represent another epic failure of common sense.  Here’s five for your consideration:

1.  You make friends very easily but you have very few close friends because you tend to bottle your feelings up.

2. There’s an older man that you associate with the letter “B” who has always suffered with a pain in the back of his chest area.  When you think of him, you think of the funny thing he does that makes you laugh.

3. You’re outgoing and sociable but occasionally you feel very detached like you’re zooming out and watching yourself from above.

4. You have a scar, not from an operation but from an accident years ago, on your left leg in the middle.

5. You have a recurring dream about falling or flying which alternates with an occasional dream about bring held underwater or struggling to catch your breath.

Most people can connect with at least a couple if not all of these statements because they are designed to apply to almost everyone but seem quite specific to your own experience.  This is where out common sense fails.  We are highly susceptible to being tricked in this way.  We believe that the person uttering the Barnum statement knows something about us when they truly know nothing.  There is good news though: the more you understand how Barnum statements work, the less you’ll think they apply to you.  Lets go through them.  Reread the statements above if you need to remember.

1. This is simply flattery combined with universal experience.  Everyone bottles some of their feelings up and everyone has a few close friends.

2. Because the letter “B” is an association and not the first letter of his name, it’s easy to find someone in your life who applies.  By saying “the back of the chest area” I’ve covered all heart and back pain problems, which almost all people suffer with.  And all older men do something that makes us laugh.

3. By focusing on a very personal experience that people aren’t likely to discuss with each other, this seems like quite an insight, until you realize that most people seem to have the same experience.

4. By saying the scar is in the middle instead of on the knee, it could be on the knee, in the middle of the calf, or in the middle of the thigh.  Your legs are also probably the most likely place for a person to get cut up as a child.

5.  This is an interesting one.  I have never had a flying or drowning dream.  However, they are extremely common and people are very impressed if you can tell them what they’ve been dreaming about.

You see, when you consider each one, you realize that they are engineered to seem personal and be universal.  Our common sense lets us down because we accept the details as true without stopping to think just how many people the same details might apply to.

Here’s a clip of Darren Brown using using Barnum statements to demonstrate his supposed psychic abilities.

As i’ve said before: some people say common sense isn’t too common but I say it doesn’t make much sense.

Previous posts on the failure of common sense:

Universal Expansion

The Monty Hall Problem

We live in a world where people are constantly communicating through euphemism and innuendo.    At the dinner table when you want the salt down at your end you’re much more likely to say “Could you pass the salt?” or “If you could pass the salt that would be great!” or another variant, but certainly not “Please pass the salt.”  When we have to piss we say “Excuse me, I need to use the restroom.” or “I need to powder my nose.” but never “I’m going to piss now.”  Why is this?  Why must we constantly speak around our purpose?  Seeing as there is no ambiguity about what’s being said, can’t we just agree that we’d be better off being honest?

Nowhere is this soft language more drizzled with fake poetry and non-communication than in greeting cards.  So here’s my proposal: The Honest Greeting Card Company.  Manufacturers of fine greeting cards that say what everyone knows you’re thinking.  Here’s a few ideas:

To your Beloved on your anniversary:Picture 3

On the birthday of an acquaintance:Picture 10To celebrate a marriage:Picture 5

For the Holidays:Picture 8Picture 6Picture 2And finally, to your beloved for no reason at all:Picture 9Now it has crossed my mind that this is not in fact what people are really thinking but just what I’m thinking.  If that’s the case then I’m simply fighting hyperbole with hyperbole.  We can all agree that violets aren’t blue, they’re Violet.  We already have a name for that colour!  There has to be a middle ground between the sarcasm and vitriol in my mind and the pablum in todays cards.  The truth is, I don’t understand cards at all.  I have always felt that saying something is much more meaningful than having hallmark think it up for you and print it next to a picture of kittens or roses or whatever.  But if we absolutely have to share our feelings with sparkles and flowers and sweeping cursive fonts, at least we should speak our minds.

Thanks to my friend Sean for brainstorming the idea.  You’re my business partner when the Honest Greeting Card Company gets off the ground.  Also don’t forget to comment, follow, share, like, tweet, dig, flam, or whatever else the kids are doing these days.

To my readers: share your own honest greeting card ideas in the comments below!

Monumentous is a word made up of the words monumental and momentous.  While it is very common in the quasi-intellectual communities of the internet, it is not a real word.

To be monumental is to be great in importance, extent or size. i.e. like a monument.  It refers usually to things.

To be momentous is to be of great importance particularly to the future.  It refers usually to events, ideas, decisions, or changes.

They are similar but not the same and you certainly cannot make either one more powerful by adding the other.  Monumentous is a made up word that probably started as a mistake but carried enough memetic value by sounding impressive to propagate itself.  It is useless and wrong so stop saying it.

I’ve been working on a few limericks lately but I’ve found that the last line is the toughest to write.  So for you are a few original 4-line line Limericks.  I’m hoping they’ll bother you as much as they do me.

 

Two old men in matching pyjamas

Booked a holiday to the Bahamas.

Upon their arrival

They fought for survival

 

An airplane mechanic named Mike

Took a couple days off for a hike

An airplane came down

And killed his whole town

 

While resting his feet atop blorenge

Mackenzie peeled open an orange.

He tossed it away

For to his dismay

 

A limerick’s tricky to write

Without sounding hokey or trite.

The start isn’t tough

But then it gets rough

Annoying isn’t it?

In the comments below, please share either a four or five line limerick of your own invention or just your favourite limerick penned by another.  And do try to keep it clean.

 

. . .

 

Ok fine.  I’ll leave you with my favourite limerick: all five lines of it.

 

There was an old bastard named Lenin

Who did three or four million men in.

‘Twas a lot to have done in

But where he did one in

That old bastard Stalin did ten in.

One of my favourite concepts in linguistics is that of the “colloquial treadmill”.  The idea is that words, like many other real and abstract things, evolve over time based on specific driving factors.  In the case of racial slurs you can see the evolution from nigros to coloured people to people of colour to Blacks to Black People and finally to African Canadians or African Americans if you’re in the United States, or just people if you’re in Africa I suppose.  This movement is driven by the use of common terms as slurs of by the desire of minorities to create their own identities.  A similarly long list of words can be found to describe almost any oppressed group in history.

A parallel treadmill occurs in our everyday language pushed along by different drivers.  You know how certain words ring of certain decades?  Words like swell and neato sound like the 50s while groovy and tubular ring clearly of the 60s?  There is one group of words that seems to move faster than any other and that is words to replace good.  Here are a few that come to mind:

Good, grand, swell, nice, awesome, terrific, incredible, unbelievable, amazing, sweet, sick, phat, steeped, ill, bad, ballin’, bangin’, astronomical, fantastic, dope, wonderful, spectacular, groovy, tubular, cool, hip, legit, and so on, and so on. . . 

Needless to say, there are a lot of ways to say good.  For some reason, different generations and subcultures tend to distinguish themselves by annexing perfectly good words and assigning them a new meaning: roughly the same meaning as good.

But I propose that this is a mistake, that something good is lost when we absorb many words to do the job of one.  We lose the ability to seriously use those words in their original meaning.  Awesome no longer describes an object or scene that inspires awe in us.  Fantastic no longer describes the subjects of fantasy.  Sick, when used to mean good, is so stupid that it creates only confusion between people of different generations.

We’d all be in a better position to describe our feelings if we made careful use of all of these words even if that means using the big ones sparingly.  All you have to do is think about what the word really means before you say it.  Was that cup of tea really wonderful?  Did it fill you with wonder?  Are those boots really awesome or are they just beautifully designed?  If someone wants to tell you an incredible story, don’t believe a word of it!  Getting the hang of it?

We can reclaim our language one adjective at a time!  I think it would be. . . beneficial to our society in the long term.

Can you think of any words that people use to say good yet have a perfectly obvious and useful meaning of their own?