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[P]
Why is online writing so bad?

By crank42 in Media
Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 07:38:39 AM EST
Tags: Kuro5hin.org (all tags)
Kuro5hin.org

Of late, there have been several discussions online about the journalistic responsibility of online news sites, their utility as sources of news, and the like. But one thing that is rarely discussed is the abysmal quality of much online prose. Below, I categorise two distinct problems, and suggest some things those writing online generally, and those moderating on this site can do.


Whenever the topics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage or even writing style come up, especially in respect of the online world, one frequently encounters responses along the lines of, "What's the problem? As long as the message gets across, who cares?" The problem, though, is threefold. First, elementary mistakes tend to distract readers from the message. That would not be remarkable, except that the distraction (at least, for me) is largely because coherent thoughts are expressed in sentences; and badly written sentences and paragraphs indicate sloppy thinking. Finally, for user-source sites such as K5, bad writing undermines the seriousness with which the (badly-written) argument is taken elsewhere. Since writing something down is, in at least some cases, intended to communicate an idea, the resistance to that idea outside its own forum might well be an indication that the idea has been expressed badly, rather than an indication that the idea itself has been rejected.

There is no doubt that the immediacy and quasi-conversational nature of Net experience is, in part, why online prose is so bad. Too, there are many people who write online in their second or third language: I'd not want to submit any French prose I've written to any native francophone's sensibilities. Still, that can't be the whole problem.

One problem is that elementary errors of usage and punctuation -- especially ones that are not likely to be caught by automated tools -- are ubiquitous. Here are some commonly-violated rules:

  • "It's" means "it is"; "its" means "belonging to it". There is no such word as "its'" (note the final apostrophe).
  • "Their" means "belonging to them"; "there" means "in that place"; "they're" means "they are".
  • The apostrophe ("'") does not mean, "Warning! S approaching!" It is used to denote possession in the case of a proper noun (e.g. "Eric's" but not "their's") or to indicate missing letters (e.g. "can't" for "can not"). In the case of a plural proper noun (and, some people say, any proper noun ending with "s"; I disagree), the apostrophe goes after the "s" (e.g. "The two Marys' last names were the same, so you never knew whose article you were reading."); otherwise, an apostrophe should not appear at the very end of a word.
  • Capitals should not be used randomly to emphasise a point. While there are various exceptions (e.g. "the Company" in a legal contract, because it's just a short form of a proper noun; but "the company formed in 1891" when referring to an already-mentioned company), the best general rule is that initial words of sentences, the first person singular pronoun "I", initials, and proper nouns (i.e. somebody's name) get a capital. Nothing else does. If a word does not fit one of those categories, don't capitalise: it's better to omit them than to Add Capitals for no Apparent Reason. You see what I mean.
  • I'll use the term "proposition" loosely, here: each sentence expresses one proposition. There are ways around that rule; this sentence has two propositions. (The second proposition came after the semicolon.) In general, though, there is no harm in writing with short sentences. Each can be separated by a period. Avoid, at all costs, the comma-splice: don't stick together two otherwise-independent sentences by using a comma.

To avoid simple mistakes like these, I suggest that prospective authors select a style guide -- my preference is Fowler's Modern English Usage (2d ed, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1926, 1965), but Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (3d ed, New York: WW Norton, 1993) is well-respected -- and read it. Follow its suggestions. I also suggest that moderators adopt (or continue, in case it's already their habit) the practice of rejecting submissions which display a large number of these sorts of errors.

What is more troublesome than the kinds of errors I list above, however, is the general terrible writing online. Even supposed professionals -- Jon Katz springs immediately to mind -- frequently post long-winded, repetitive, confused pieces which, in the worst cases, contradict themselves. Frequently, the rhetorical flourish is deployed at the expense of clear, well-reasoned paragraphs designed to lead the reader inexorably from premise to conclusion. There is little worse in the world than prose dressed up in empty jargon, useless "well-that's-the-way-I-feel" rants, and irrelevant paragraphs. Words mean things, and it isn't enough just to type some in, if one wants to write something that will convince, or edify, or even describe.

This case, of course, is one for which it is harder to suggest solutions. But I propose that writers might consider the following when writing:

  1. What is the conclusion, and what reasons do we have for believing it? Each of these reasons, by the way, might require their own sub-argument; the sub-argument should follow the same structure as the main one, but be shorter.
  2. What does each paragraph say? In general, a single paragraph should contain all and only those things relevant to a particular sub-topic within the structure of the general topic.
  3. Reread, several times, your own prose, trying to see it as another reader might. You might wait ten minutes between writing and sending, just to make sure you've made yourself clear.

I think, too, that reviewers could make suggestions along these lines before accepting a piece. This is not to say that pieces should be rejected because they disagree with one's point of view; but, if the reviewer cannot say what, exactly, the original author's point is, the piece should be rejected.

Indeed, there has been considerable complaint of late about "on-the-one-hand/on-the-other"-ism in online postings. If I am right, the reason is not that people want to get their pieces online; instead, authors are writing too much without thinking carefully about what they want to say. As a result, they get to the end, and discover that they haven't said much. Authors and readers alike deserve better; and, if we all try to follow these simple precepts -- the same ones, incidentally, that we should use for dead-trees publication -- we'll all benefit from less noise and more signal.

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Why is online writing so bad? | 227 comments (218 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
More stuff (3.83 / 18) (#1)
by fluffy grue on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 04:44:18 PM EST

I wrote about this exact thing several years ago. Unfortunately, when I posted that to a particular (fiction-writing!) mailinglist, people flamed me for being a "grammar nazi" and the like. Whee. It's unfortunate that people not only don't want to look professional but are violent about seeming like professional writers. Whee. I really should update that text someday (like I said I would when I first wrote it a few years ago).

Oh, and thanks for a well-written (if brief) guide for journalistic writing. It's unfortunate that people will forget about this in a few days (assuming it's even posted).
--
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

Well, I have no sympathy for grammar nazis, but (2.25 / 12) (#2)
by hotcurry on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 05:07:28 PM EST

you do have a point about the "general terrible writing online."


Grammar Nazis? (none / 0) (#194)
by Faulty Dreamer on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 04:50:24 PM EST

I'm not sure if you were serious with that grammar Nazi comment, but I don't think that is necissarily a good term at all.

True, there are some serious grammar Nazis out there, in particular the people that claim that as their online name, but I think most people are just trying to point out to others how much better their points would be taken if they took the time to learn how to write properly (he said with a grimace. God that sentence was long.) I don't know that this is an online only phenomena right at the moment though. There are multiple levels of editing that things have to go through to get into a print magazine or newspaper. In the online world, there is no real editing (at least not at places like Kuro5hin and Slashdot) beyond what the author themselves are able to do. If you write it, especially if you are 'editing' immediately after you write it, you are going to have a terrible time finding mistakes in it. Things that I wrote years ago I can look at and find countless mistakes, but if I look at something I'm working on right now it will look good to me. I know there are errors in it, but I'm too caught up in it right now to find them. There needs to be a better editing staff to catch all errors I think. Of course, in a case where it is simply comments attached to a story, there isn't time to edit every one of them. But I do believe that it would be a good idea to have editors that actually care about doing the job of editing, in the traditional sense of the word, story submissions and online journals and such. We need better editing.

Having said all of that, I still sometimes wonder if I should go take a few more higher english courses. I do a lot of writing, and practice supposedly makes perfect, but I always feel like there is a lot of things I could improve on (like my damn run-on sentence style of writing;-).

--------
Faulty Dreams - Barking at the moon 24/7...

If you think I'm an asshole, it's only because you haven't realized what a fucking idiot I am. - Faulty Dreamer
[ Parent ]

It goes much deeper than grammar (4.17 / 17) (#3)
by eLuddite on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 05:22:21 PM EST

Good article, btw.

The great egalitarian beauty of the Internet is that just about anyone can publish. Problem is, just about anyone does.

That said, I dont think we should hold amateur authors who do not purport to be writers and who are merely expressing an opinion on anything from apartheid to zoology to the same level of criticism that we should hold for professional news and information sites.

What seems to be true about the internet is that too many sources are trying to scoop each other with raw, unprocessed, often unchecked information that people inevitably respond to, thereby propagating even more ill considered drivel.

So while it may be difficult to find grammatically correct prose on the Internet, the greater evil, imo, is that it's even more difficult still to find reasoned, accurate articles that are genuinely informative as opposed to merely information.

Harlan Answers the Questions of You Pinheads on the Internet. Don't get on the Internet, there's absolutely nothing at all useful on there.

(He also says elsewhere on that site that the differnece between all the illiterate morons out there then vs now is that now they're armed with computers. His words, not mine.)

---
God hates human rights.

There are no red pens online... (4.18 / 11) (#4)
by spcmanspiff on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 05:31:34 PM EST

I consider myself to be a pretty competent writer, but the difference between my online and offline stuff is huge.

Why?

Because I've found that slashing a piece to bits on paper is incredibly effective in improving both my writing and the thinking behind it.

When I'm posting something, I'll read it on the screen, sure, but I'm just quickly checking for errors rather than doing any in-depth self criticism. When I write for the print world, I'll go through two or three revisions, often handing it off to a few friends before I consider it done.

I've been thinking of ways this process could be transferred online. Line-by-line or word by word annotation? An interface is certainly possible with dynamic html and javascript.... Hmm.

Anyway, without the same sort of process behind it, online writing is doomed to be more off-the-cuff than anything offline, which has both advantages and disadvantages.


Not quite the same as an Editor, but... (4.66 / 6) (#18)
by Ludwig on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 08:58:21 PM EST

I've found that it's an good idea to compose anything longer than a few sentences in a separate text editor and then paste it into the Comment window. For one thing, I can see the whole page, formatted, without having to keep hitting "Preview." This helps keep the flow and focus of the comment on target, instead of wandering off on tangents because I can't see more than a dozen lines above the cursor.

If you've ever had your browser crash just before hitting "Post," you're probably doing this already.

[ Parent ]

Look at the prior art (4.66 / 3) (#92)
by kellan on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:47:46 PM EST

Crit is the classic example of a system that does this. Its been around for a while.

Jon Udell has written a couple of articles on this topic, but I can only find this one currently.

Also, this is, in many ways what WikiWiki is all about.

kellan

[ Parent ]

annotea, a new w3c project (none / 0) (#226)
by kellan on Mon Mar 26, 2001 at 02:17:54 PM EST

Annotea a project from the w3c for annotations (comments, notes, etc) attached to web documents. Part of Semantic Web.

kellan

[ Parent ]

Writing right doesn't make smart. (3.42 / 19) (#6)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:13:39 PM EST

[...] coherent thoughts are expressed in sentences; and badly written sentences and paragraphs indicate sloppy thinking.

This is an utterly false statement. You can't tell how clearly a person thinks from how they write a language. All you can tell is whether persons have memorized all the arbitrary trivia of prescriptive grammar.

This kind of statement, of course, is typical among prescriptivists, precisely because it says that *they* are superior in intelligence to other people because of their "mastery" of pointless trivia (despite their utter ignorance in anything that has to do with serious linguistics).

That's why you get -1: I don't want k5 full of ignorant ramblings that, when one comes down to it, are about your perceived superiority.

And, BTW, please try to point out a good argument for using your petty grammar rules that does not center on "there are a bunch of grammar bigots like me out there who won't take you seriously otherwise". You won't find *any*. Which is a sign that you and the other grammar bigots need to lighten up.

--em

I LOVE YOU MAN! (3.00 / 5) (#13)
by dr3 on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 07:31:09 PM EST

nuff said. i think you hit right on the dot (in far fewer words) one of the points i was trying to get across in my rebutle essay. Guess i shouldnt sugar coat shit so much huh. Well needless to say your rebuttle to his essay was short and sweet.
As Confused as a toddler in a topless bar.
[ Parent ]
Arbitrary trivia? (3.80 / 5) (#24)
by Ludwig on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 09:57:27 PM EST

Is C syntax arbitrary? I find it obtuse and counter-intuitive, but if I want to use it properly, I am obliged to learn its nuances and quirks. Otherwise it won't compile, or it won't do what I want it to. Same goes for English. Yes, the rules can be broken for stylistic effect, but, to invoke a hoary cliché, you have to know the rules in order to know how to break them.

Sorry, but the problem is yours. I don't know if you're dyslexic or just lazy or what, but either one is a much simpler explanation for your hostility than some vague conspiracy of "grammar bigots" and "prescriptivists" to make themselves feel superior at your expense.

[ Parent ]

Yes, it's arbitrary (3.60 / 5) (#38)
by delmoi on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 11:07:08 PM EST

Is C syntax arbitrary? I find it obtuse and counter-intuitive, but if I want to use it properly, I am obliged to learn its nuances and quirks.

Of course it is C syntax is arbitrary! , some people sat around, and arbirarily decided on some punctuation marks to help create a language because they didn't like coding their PDP-11s in assembler. At the time, it computers were not good at disambiguating (or, more spesificaly, and they needed something more specific.

On the other hand, look at HTML. You don't need a web page to be 100% correct in order to display right, in fact only a very small percentage of web pages out there are. If you wanted, you could write a C compiler that 'automatically' corrected common mistakes and compiled code that contained errors, but ambiguity in a programming language is a Bad Thing, and it isn't so much so in a markup language. (Except that handling bad markup makes coding a web parser a hell of a lot more difficult)

English, on the third hand is already fully of ambiguity, and should stay that way. Human minds are already 'lax parsers' and in fact, its ambiguity can be used for dramatic effect, by tying two concepts together indirectly. Let me see if I can pull an example out of my ass.

"He wanted so desperately to stop it, to stop the cycle, to stop the killing. He didn't want to be a part of the machine, one of the ones lining them up. He didn't want to be running the gas chambers; he didn't want them to die. But it was to late, he knew, the engines were already running."

See, the word 'engines' could have several meanings here, either the engines running the gas chambers themselves, of the oppressive bureaucratic system to which the character belonged, or perhaps the engines in his mind (or something).

I'm a writer, an amateur one, but I still think trying to fit all the expressive ideas in a syntax as rigid as C's would kind of suck, I'm not saying I couldn't do it (although you find it difficult, to me it's grammar is simpler then English's), but it would be hard to get the same kind of eloquence and beauty that can come from appropriate use of ambiguity.

In short, Humans are not computers, so learn to deal.
--
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
Good point about C and HTML, but... (4.00 / 2) (#45)
by Ludwig on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:48:15 AM EST

...you're only aware of the ambiguity in your "engines" example because you're fluent in the language. If you're unintentionally ambiguous or unclear because you don't know any better or don't care, that's bad. What's being criticized is not the flexibility of the English language, but the inflexibility brought about by ignorance of the language.

[ Parent ]
Instructions on Crossing the road (4.00 / 3) (#56)
by NightRain on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 06:40:09 AM EST

One of the most ridiculous things I have seen recently, are little stickers that are stuck on the side of traffic lights all around the city I live in. They give you nice little instructions telling you what the green flashing man means, and more instructions telling you what the red man means. I always thought that if you don't know what those signs mean, you shouldn't be crossing the road in the first place. And maybe, just maybe there are people, tourists or the like that honestly don't know what they mean. But are instructions going to help? If they didn't have the nouse to know when to safely cross a road, they surely wouldn't be able to read the little stickers.

Those stickers, just like your point, are aimed at an imaginary lowest common denominator. There is not a single person I know of no one that could benefit from those stickers. It's the same damned thing with language. If people post ambiguously, it's generally not that hard to work out what they mean with a bit of effort. It's all about context. And if you're too new or too ignorant of the english language to be able to read the context, then you probably don't know the little grammatical rules that would clear it up for you in the first place. I mean what is the catch cry of the internet itself? Content over Design. Why try and force language, which is a naturally evolving fuzzy thing to begin with in to a forced set of rules to appeal to people's aesthetics when quite simply it has never ever been stable to begin with. If you can get your message across, that's all that matters

Of course now someone will say that my last comment is the entire point. It makes it confusing when people use bad grammar and thus don't get their message across. I challenge someone to actually put something like that from a news site, k5, /. or whatever in front of us though. Something that badly mangled that you could not possible get content out of it. I don't think it's going to happen.


Don't vote, it only encourages them!


[ Parent ]
Writer's work v. reader's work (4.00 / 2) (#107)
by Ludwig on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:35:18 PM EST

You're still putting the onus of working things out on the reader. That burden properly belongs more to the writer, unless he's James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. The anti-grammar arguments all seem to be saying "if the reader is too lazy to extract meaning from my mutilated syntax, to hell with 'em." To which the response is, "If the writer doesn't think his thoughts are important enough to set down in a clear fashion, why should I lend them any weight?"

I'm not referring to the odd misplaced apostrophe or misspelled "their," which may be mildly irritating but are hardly deal-breakers, I'm referring more to structural issues -- rambling streams of consciousness, sentences that forgot how they started before they end, muddled clauses, that sort of thing.

Yes, language is a fuzzy thing, to a certain point. But there are rules and guidelines to standardize it. Of course you're free to ignore any and all of them, but don't go whining about the "grammar police" when you're criticized for doing so. It certainly is annoying when a lengthy submission on a serious issue is nitpicked to death on comma usage rather than the substance of the essay, but that's what editors are for. (Hello? Editors?) I don't see that problem being terribly rampant here, so it's mystifying why such a presumably intelligent and well-educated crowd such as the k5 audience is so up in arms about this.



[ Parent ]

Valid points but... (4.00 / 1) (#130)
by NightRain on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 08:58:06 AM EST

I agree with most of what you said. But the thing is that you're talking about extremes. This article was posted referring to the journalistic quality of online writing. And this writing isn't as bad as the worst cases you outline in your examples. It's more closely related to the simple little things that you list as irritants. And that is what my post was concerned with. As I said, as long as you get your message across. Little things like possesive apostrophes are the perfect example. It generally takes no work at all to determine what someone means if they forget to use one. You can work it out by the context. In fact in most cases you don't even have to work it out, you just read it without even realising that there was a problem to begin with. The actual message itself is the important thing. The specific syntax it comes out in is irrelevant providing the message is there. Jumbled sentences that lead nowhere don't fit this definition. But then the problem with them isn't only with the grammar. It also involves the ability to transpose your thoughts to prose. If you can't do that, even sentences that are gramattically perfect are pointless.

Don't vote, it only encourages them!


[ Parent ]
Is the problem really his? (4.00 / 1) (#188)
by j on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 11:15:06 AM EST

Sorry, but the problem is yours. I don't know if you're dyslexic or just lazy or what, but either one is a much simpler explanation for your hostility than some vague conspiracy of "grammar bigots" and "prescriptivists" to make themselves feel superior at your expense.

I would like to suggest another explanation: English is not his first language. I moved to the US about three years ago and I know what he is talking about: Some people just act very condescendently if you are not able to express your ideas in a gramatically correct matter
Personally, I think that most of those people are consciously trying to make you feel bad or themselves superior. It is more of a subconscious reaction.

I remember, back in the old country, I wasn't much better than the grammar bigots the poster of the original comment is complainig about: If, in talking to someone, I noticed sloppy use of the German grammar, I was more likely to dismiss his or her opinions as invalid than in the case of the same arguments being made in a gramatically correct manner.
The reason for that, I assume, would be that I experienced the German rules of grammar as so intuitive that whoever was not able to use them properly had to be mentally inferior.

It seems almost inevitable to have this kneejerk reaction to the improper use of one's native language. Authors should probably deal with that and do their best to avoid such reactions by trying their very hardest to stick as closely as possible to the rules of the language they are writing in.
Readers, on the other hand, should realize that their native language is not everyone elses. Sometimes it pays to read past the little mispelling and gramatical errors. It is possible, as demonstrated by the fact that you read my little comment all the way to the end.

[ Parent ]

What *do* they mean? (4.00 / 4) (#49)
by bjrubble on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:46:21 AM EST

You can't tell how clearly a person thinks from how they write a language.

Bad language is an impediment to understanding what the person thinks, clear or not. I don't care what your excuse is, if I have to work to get past your language I'm not getting your meaning as clearly.

What's infuriating about online writing is that many of the writers are quite intelligent, but it's hard to discern underneath the excessive verbiage and sloppy word choice and distracting typos.

[ Parent ]
Hardly. (4.33 / 3) (#112)
by sinclair on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:38:12 PM EST

This is an utterly false statement. You can't tell how clearly a person thinks from how they write a language. All you can tell is whether persons have memorized all the arbitrary trivia of prescriptive grammar.

Let me amend this latter statement. All you can tell is whether persons have memorized all the arbitrary trivia of the prescriptive grammar used by the reader, in order to communicate effectively with the reader.

Without getting into the murky depths of philosophy of mind, I'd say that while it's in theory true that you can't tell how clearly a person thinks from how they use language, that in practice you can't tell the difference between a genius and a blitherin' idiot if that person doesn't use language in a way you understand. I wouldn't know whether you're describing quantum physics, or exhorting me to stop the purple monkeys from stealing your eyeballs, if you wrote in Swahili.

That's an extreme example, of course, but that prescriptive grammar you deride is one learned by millions upon millions of people for the purpose of effective communication. If you deviate from that prescriptive grammar too much, you'd better know that your reader understands those deviations (e.g. a regional dialect), make it obvious from context, or understand that other people may think you're none-too-intelligent.

[ Parent ]

Defining a Line (none / 0) (#183)
by dave.oflynn on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 06:19:21 AM EST

I think the hard part comes when attempting to define the line where bad spelling and / or grammar becomes intrusive enough to disrupt the conveyance of the intended message.

the lack of proper capitalisation in an mlp wouldn't bother me too much. why? because the sentences are short and the point easily understood.

However, carelessness with grammar and spelling in a longer, more involved piece, can make it almost impossible to wade through - it's death by a thousand cuts. You spend so much energy trying to stitch fractured clauses back together that you can no longer concentrate on the point the author is trying to make.

Having said all that, shouting at someone and calling them a moron is not going to change their behaviour. It's just going to polarise opinions and generate a lot of bad feeling. So be nice.

[ Parent ]

Two different issues... (5.00 / 1) (#169)
by danb35 on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:25:50 PM EST

There are really two distinct issues raised by this story, which are related only in that they often appear together. The first is poor structure, which is what he was referring to in the quote you took. The second is poor grammar, which is what you seem to be writing about (or "the subject about you seem to be writing", if I wanted to be really anal).

Poor grammar may indicate any of a number of things, but generally it doesn't interfere too badly with the message. Generally, using the wrong "their" won't confuse the reader, although it may annoy him. Similarly, misspellings usually won't harm the meaning too badly--though if they're bad enough, or frequent enough, they can make the message difficult to understand. Grammar is pretty easy to criticize, because there's a set of rules that will tell you what's right and wrong (or standard and non-standard, if you prefer).

Poor structure often includes grammatical errors, but the problem is much larger than just grammar. It's entirely possible to write something that is grammatically perfect, but unintelligible due to poor (or nonexistent) structure. A poorly-structured piece indicates that either the writer is unable to present his work in a coherent manner, or he doesn't care enough (about the work, or the reader, or both) to do so. If the writer doesn't care about the piece, there's no real reason that anybody else should. If the writer is unable to present the work coherently, we're back to the "sloppy thinking" remark that apparently set you off in the first place. It's much more difficult to critize structure than grammar, but it's probably more important.

[ Parent ]

Calm down dude! (none / 0) (#195)
by Faulty Dreamer on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 05:08:31 PM EST

Is it really necissary to get this hot under the collar over someone wanting people to think a little as/before/after they write something?

I don't know that this is about grammar bigotry. I think that it's kind of a deal where you can present yourself professionally, and be taken a bit more seriously because of that; or you can present yourself as a drooling idiot and loose a couple points on the respectability chart immediately. That doesn't necissarily mean that you cannot get your point across acting like a drooling idiot, it just means that you will have one more obstacle to overcome (and an obstacle that you purposefully put in place).

And just to avoid the stereotypical "you're one of them" reaponses I'm probably going to get, think about this for just a moment. I'm saying that you are intentionally placing that obstacle in front of yourself if you have bad grammar. That is a choice that has nothing to do with your actual intelligence. You may be incredible intelligent, but it will take a lot more writing if you have poor grammar to get people to see how brilliant you are. And, if you use proper grammar, it will be so much easier to convince people that you are intelligent.

This isn't about pointing out how superior people with proper grammar are, they aren't any more superior than the morons that know how to make million dollars writing are to us. It's a matter of taking pride in what you do. For some people, writing is something they take pride in. If you don't, that's OK too. But please, please don't get all bent out of shape just because those that do take pride in it ask you to at least think about it for a moment.

I certainly didn't see the story as elitist. Your comment, on the other hand, smacked of the exact opposite of elitism. I won't deny anyone the right to post to forums like this, no matter how terrible their writing is, but I will ask that they don't take it as a personal insult if someone points out some grammatical errors. That's not elitism, it is an attempt at showing someone something that they may not be aware of. They may learn something from it, they may not, but why exactly would it be wrong to try?

Perhaps I've missed the point of your post, but it seems you were awfully angry for something seemingly so simple.

--------
Faulty Dreams - Barking at the moon 24/7...

If you think I'm an asshole, it's only because you haven't realized what a fucking idiot I am. - Faulty Dreamer
[ Parent ]

Elements of Style (4.00 / 10) (#7)
by AdamJ on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:14:35 PM EST

Just a note that The Elements of Style now has a 4th Edition.

Teens? (none / 0) (#138)
by krokodil on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 12:54:13 PM EST

It escapes me why their hardcover edition of this books is classified as 'Teens'.

[ Parent ]
A story, if I may. (none / 0) (#210)
by AdamJ on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 04:08:12 AM EST

In Grade 10, our English teacher at the time forced us to buy a copy of this book. Many of the students were upset - 10 whole bucks on top of our school fees! my god!

A few years later, someone mentioned that stupid book, and asked if I had ever used it. I replied "No, I bought the new edition last year". Looks of shock all around...

[ Parent ]

context varies (4.14 / 7) (#8)
by danny on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:34:01 PM EST

Not all online writing is the same. I'm more casual about writing email to friends than I am about writing book reviews that are going to go on the web and may be syndicated to print publications. And posting comments here, or sending mail to mailing lists, falls somewhere in between.

I try to avoid spelling or grammar mistakes everywhere, mind you, but I don't always go to the same trouble proof-reading. (It just occurred to me though that I should be more careful about email or Kuro5hin posts, since I can't fix any mistakes later - while on my own web site I can make corrections.)

Anyway, as well as the nitty-gritty of grammar and lexicon, there are the bigger "style" issues - how to organise sentences and paragraphs. One book I've found useful here is Joseph Williams Style: Towards Clarity and Grace.

Danny.
[900 book reviews and other stuff]

Cheers. (3.42 / 7) (#9)
by dr3 on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:37:18 PM EST

Ok take into consideration that this is coming from "the guy whose English syntax looks like a car wreck".

I would like to digress into some of your points and offer potential rebuttals.

First, elementary mistakes tend to distract readers from the message.

This would seem to me to be perceived as a subjective statement. I personally can read some of the worst structurally obfuscated English writings and take away meaning from them (with no distraction mind you). Even if others cannot seem to grasp the meaning of the message due to its "elementary mistakes". One, I guess could call it reading into the message instead of reading the message. I know that this is most likely not what you are trying to say but it is still nonetheless a point I feel should be made. Due to the nature of this medium (the net) and the power it brings to the majority and not the minority. People are bound to run into syntax errors like the ones you point out. Now I am not trying to downgrade your thoughts by any means, as they are very important to me in deed (maybe more so then most, due to my poor written English skills). Now if you look at it in the bigger picture English grammar and basic journalistic structure as a whole will play less and less a role in the dissemination of thoughts and ideas. Much to the disproval of many more well educated people. This is bound to happen in my opinion as the journalistic power shifts away from more established mainstream outlets (NYT,CNN,Time/Warner) and into the hands of less professional and potentially less educated masses. This of course would entail that there would be a sort of flood of venues and ideas that would flood the perception of people who immerse them selves into this new medium (the net). What I am trying to get at here is basically the idea that this is inevitable that the quality of "overall" thought presented shall degrade to some extent. It is up to the channels of this new medium and in the end the user to sift thought and decide what is quality and what is not. If for whatever reason that "end user" (to borrow from a common IT term) feels that the quality of the content or ideas presented to them is not of their taste or liking or beneath them. It is up to that person to better filter there information, no longer will the large corporations filter and package thoughts and ideas for the end consumption amongst us. That responsibility rests on the individual's shoulders and no one else's.

So if you follow my train of thought you could deduce the following main points. Some people are just plain dumb or ignorant to the structure or context of certain languages. This is a granted as this happens in regular media and life all the time. I do how ever fully agree with your statements that in this community that there should be a higher bar to measured against. But to what extent I ask?, if I could for example produce and present an idea that could change the world (lets say I created the first self replicating nano machines) but if I present my theorem to K5 in a not perfectly structured thesis would that void or null out my ideas in anyway shape or form? I would say that it wouldn't, just that the effect of conveying this information to you could be diluted a bit. But still the information gets passed along.

For digression number two.

useless "well-that's-the-way-I-feel" rants,

Once again I think your are missing one of the greatest aspects of this medium. The ability to convey your thoughts and ideas freely amongst millions of people in a single instant. Granted some of this thought wont be the most structurally complete or perfect (on a syntax level) but still none the less the sharing is there the transfer of knowledge and ideas for others to possibly digest and then format to there liking. Rants in many ways typify what the nets true power is. The ability to freely express ones opinions with out the bounds of any normal medium.

I would also like sharing a thought with everyone.

There are two ways that data is disseminated to people. There is the more traditional way where all the data is gathered, verified, formatted, presented and then computed by the end user (read traditional media). Then there is this new back horse. Lets call her the "net", this medium is allot more flexible not only can she do the more traditional means of info dissemination but she can also allow the end user to verify, reformat, and even re-present the information to themselves and others. Not only does it allow for the redistribution and verification of the information it also involves the actual media consumer into the process at a much earlier stage. They're for allowing them in theory to get a less biased idea (due to the possible self verification of info)across to them. In conclusion

Well what I am trying to say in a less long winded way is I am afraid my friend you will have to either accept the onslaught of new possibly mal-presented ideas and attempt to read into them for true meaning. Or simply pass those ideas up totally. I do how ever agree to an extent with your thoughts as I have perceived them. I do feel how ever that in some sense that this is in fact a some what narrow scope that I personaly feel should be addressed to some extent. I do how ever feel that as your points are valid points but i think they are not neccisarilly all that pertaint and are more of a subjective matter.

I am open to all rebuttals and possible miss-conceptions I have on this article and my statements in regards to them.


As Confused as a toddler in a topless bar.
Whose problem is poorly constructed prose? (none / 0) (#166)
by flowers on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:07:13 PM EST

It occurs to me that a person's language parser is about as lax as their generator is.

I write well. It isn't something I consciously think about as I'm writing. It just happens.

The text that I read the most fluidly is that which is as well structured as my own. When there are spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and the like, my stream of thought is interrupted. I can't read the phrase, "it's color is red," without having the pre-verbal thought "possessive 'its' has no apostrophe" interrupt the thought, "its color is red." It is a reflex action that I can no more control than I can the desire to gag when I brush my tongue too far back. It is much easier and more pleasant for me to read well-structured prose than to read poorly structured prose.

People who write poorly structured prose do not labor under this same burden. I don't want to single you out, dr3, but as you have made a significant point and seem well-adjusted and realistic about your grammatical deficiencies, I'm going to. :) You state, "I personally can read some of the worst structurally obfuscated English writings and take away meaning from them (with no distraction mind you)." I think your ability to remain undistracted by poorly written prose has to do with the quality of the prose you create. In fact, I'm going to go one better -- I think the quality of the prose you create is dependent on how flexible you are in your language parser. I hardly need to add that greater flexibility might actually be indicative of greater ability, do I?

If, when I read poorly structured prose, I weren't constantly distracted by back-channel commentary telling me that the prose I'm reading is poorly structured, I am certain that the structure of my own writing would suffer. Why? That little voice in my head provides a constant stream of feedback, and feedback is necessary to improve the output of any system (including "Flowers' Excessive Verbiage System").

Ignorance of the rules of grammar is actually a benefit when reading. Someone who is ignorant of grammar couldn't care less how what they read is structured -- they are capable of reading both gross and sublime prose with equal speed and alacrity. I, on the other hand, have a much narrower field of input; while I can likely understand just about any prose that is intelligible to at least one other person, if the prose is poorly constructed, I really have to work at it.

I suspect that the "grammar Nazis" are similarly handicapped. Of course it is the people who write exceptionally well that deride the abilities and/or intelligence of people who don't; they are the ones who have to work harder when something they read offends their delicate linguistic palate.

As an aside, when this argument hit a local BBS a few years ago, a friend of mine made this salient point: The language that is used while writing is different than that used while speaking. The lines between these two modes are becoming more blurred, especially with the advent of the internet. When one writes an e-mail, for example, one's style will often move into the conversational mode. This becomes problematic when conversational mode reality meets written mode expectation.

I know that I myself experienced this firsthand; the quality of my writing diminished a little after becoming involved in the BBS scene, simply because I was continuously using and being exposed to conversationally written text in chat and messages.

Writing is a skill, but it's also a talent. Some people are just going to have more innate ability than others, and while practice and study will certainly have an impact on quality, different people are going to have different caps and there is nothing that can be done about it. Rather than making value judgements about the person doing the writing, it is generally more productive to be flexible.

I believe it is a mistake to equate the ability to write well with intelligence. The ability to write is no more and no less indicative of intelligence than any number of other skills. The ability to write is saddled with more baggage simply because it is one of the primary skills we use for communication. If we communicated in song, I would certainly be counted a dullard by "melody Nazis" with perfect pitch and rhythm.



[ Parent ]
The evolutionary nature of language... (none / 0) (#168)
by flowers on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:24:46 PM EST

It looks like I should have read your entire post before replying. :)

I completely agree with you in your assessment that language will change at a much greater rate, due to the much greater number of people communicating in a written form. However, I disagree that this change is representative of a "degredation" in quality. It certainly would seem like a degredation to any "grammar Nazi", but the language doesn't belong to the "grammar Nazis", as much as they might like it to. A language is the property of everyone who uses it. The only bar that language (or at least a living language, like English) can be meaningfully measured against is the collection of rules applied in its general use. This often consists of tacit agreements as to the language's usage that never make it into grammar texts and dictionaries.

To put it another way: The change from "thee" to "you" was probably viewed by sticklers at the time to be a degredation in the quality of English, but we don't see it that way today; today, we just see English as having changed. This is likely how those who come after us are going to view things like the change from "'m not'" (in the phrase, "I'm not") to "ain't".



[ Parent ]
Thou v. You (none / 0) (#174)
by danb35 on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 12:01:08 AM EST

Actually, the change wasn't from "thou" to "you"; it was from "thou" and "you" to just "you". "Thou" was the familiar form, analogous to the Spanish "tu" and the German "du", while "you" was the formal form, similar to "usted" or "Sie" (though the rules seem to be a bit different than for German, at least). So, for example, the watchmen in Hamlet address each other as "thou", and Claudius addresses Laertes likewise, but Laertes addresses Claudius as "you".

Losing the distinction was a degradation in the English language, in the sense that the language actually lost something. We seem to get along fine without it today, as we have developed other ways to express the same thing when we feel we need to.

[ Parent ]

Thou vs. You : The Rematch! (none / 0) (#179)
by flowers on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 02:04:12 AM EST

The truth is, I picked "thou vs. you" out of my mental "Example Bunny Foo-Foo" hat. That is to say, I was talking out of my ass. I didn't think the accuracy of my example was really core to the idea I was communicating. Take that, "content vs. style" brigade! Thank you, though, for posting actual facts to supplement my made-up facts.

As to whether losing the distinction was a degradation, I see that two ways:

  1. Yes, it is a degradation in the sense of "signal degradation", because as you point out it was a lobster-trap change which caused information to be lost.
  2. No, it isn't a degradation in the sense I was going for, which was d3's apparent implication that relaxing the standards of the language make it necessarily worse. I find it interesting that many of the points on this topic have seemingly unconsciously argued from the perspective that English is in some theoretical ideal form and that any change to it would therefore necessarily be "bad". I'm no linguist, but it seems to me that English is a mess. The things that make English inherently "good" (or at least that make one form of it inherently better than another) have to be the result of forward progress, as I see it. English doesn't change for no reason. Any decision whether to use apostrophes (for example) may seem completely arbitrary, and so the argument can be made that it is better, then, to stick with the current standard, which is to use apostrophes. However, there is something about human nature that makes not using them very attractive -- maybe not to you or me, but the English language is not our sole domain. Therefore, I think apostrophes will be eliminated, and that the language will be the better for it. Why do I think the language will be better? I think the use of apostrophes is a deficiency in the English language. If it wasn't, people would use them correctly. The pressure that motivates changes in the language, coming as it does from the body of people that use the language, will tend toward what makes the language better -- and by "better", I mean, "more suitable for use by the people who use it".



[ Parent ]
This sentence no verb. (none / 0) (#170)
by Ray Chason on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:30:22 PM EST

I know that this is most likely not what you are trying to say but it is still nonetheless a point I feel should be made. Due to the nature of this medium (the net) and the power it brings to the majority and not the minority. People are bound to run into syntax errors like the ones you point out.

This passage illustrates why one should be conscious of good grammar. The boldened passage is not a complete sentence; it is merely a prepositional phrase. As such, it wants to attach to something, and it's not clear whether it should attach to the preceding or following sentence. This passage is thus needlessly ambiguous.
--
The War on Terra is not meant to be won.
Delendae sunt RIAA, MPAA et Windoze
[ Parent ]

Ambiguity : Inversely Proportional to Technicality (none / 0) (#171)
by flowers on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:41:50 PM EST

I have just one more point to make.

My previous posts were directed towards communication of a general nature. The thoughts expressed within become less and less relevant when the subject matter becomes more and more technical.

Some subject matter absolutely requires completely unambiguous communication. An example (the only one I can think of, actually) is technical subject matter -- such as describing how to create self-replicating nanomachines. I can't imagine any ambiguity that could exist in such a description that would not prevent someone following them from being able to successfully create self-replicating nanomachines.

There was a bit of an argument earlier in this discussion about whether C syntax is arbitrary. Whether C syntax is arbitrary is unimportant in the context of this discussion. The property of C syntax that is important is its precision. In exactly the same way that an ambiguously written C program will fail to work, ambiguous communications of a technical nature will be less and less likely to serve their purpose as the technical nature of the subject matter increases.

If you choose to accuse me of pedantery, I can only show you my rebuttal.



[ Parent ]
blah (2.85 / 7) (#10)
by rebelcool on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:41:57 PM EST

given that this is *not* a professional news organization, or literary pinnacle of the online world, but rather a place where HUMANS discuss various things of interest in an informal way.

Thus, the language used here is informal and so is the writing.

I think its absurd to nitpick over minor typos when the message is clearly there, and is generally a hallmark of people who just have to bitch about something.

I also think someone who spends more time thinking about their grammar and spelling rather than on the matter at hand probably has their priorities in the wrong place.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site

The problem is, the problem is everywhere. (3.00 / 3) (#43)
by MooBob42 on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:28:02 AM EST

I don't think crank42 was referring specifically to *just* k5, but to sites that aim to be a professional resource. I follow a lot of gaming news sites and find that many of them are in dire need of a good editor with a trusty red pen. Of course, not every page on the web needs to be written perfectly. If you want to have any semblance of good journalism, however, you don't want to make juvenile errors of spelling or grammar.

[ Parent ]
Context (2.00 / 1) (#46)
by Mabb on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:42:37 AM EST

Actually, I took the context of the story to be K5, because it is posted to Internet/Kuri5hin.org.

The text of the article didn't really say to me, that it was aimed at those purporting to be professional.

QuiltBlog: WIP, SEX, WOW, MQ, LQS, HST...

[ Parent ]
I disagree (3.00 / 14) (#11)
by NightHawk on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:51:12 PM EST

I disagree ith your point that poor sentences imply "sloppy thinking".

Sloppy thinking can only describe people who are somehow retarded. It does not make one a sloppy thinker simply because one does not think in terms that strictly follow proper english sentence structure. If anything it makes a person a better thinker, to not be so confined. That is why people often have trouble putting complex ideas into words; it is not because of their ineffeciency as thinkers, but the ineffeciency of the english language to accuratly describe their current thoughts without searching for obscure words, and using complex ordering in sentance structure.

Despite the eternal howling of english teachers, english is not the Perfect Communication Form (TM) they would have you believe it is.

The world would probably operate much more smoothly if we all spoke binary =]

-NightHawk

Sloppy thinking (4.16 / 6) (#32)
by _Quinn on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:53:06 PM EST

   Implies, to me, that the thinking is not precise. Writing gramatically correct sentences forces precise thinking the same way that writing correct C code forces precise thinking. (Writing correct Java code for the same problem will probably allow you to be less precise (ignore memory management), because someone else has spent a great deal of time thinking about it for you.)

   The situation is analgous to the difference between `knowing' or `understanding' something and being able to teach it. If you don't understand the difference, you're either exceptionally bright or have never tried teaching.

-_Quinn
Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Not sure you understood (4.25 / 4) (#87)
by kellan on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:55:24 PM EST

Are you a programmer? Ever written some quick, on a white diner napkin, pseudo code? I'll bet when you sat down to actually write the code you found there were a half dozen or so hard problems you overlooked. In fact, the process of actually having to make the code work might have required an entire re-thinking of your app.

This is the point that Crank is trying to get at. You've got an idea flitting around inside your head. To you it makes sense. You decide to write it down in order to communicate it to others. If you just write down the idea as is, your logic will probably be jumbled, your sentences might be unreadable, and you might leave out some very important ideas. The process of forcing yourself to think about how and what you are trying to say, makes your communication clearer.

Crank's problem was that he was unclear about what he was trying to get at. He probably rushed his story out, and because of its sloppy structuring, everybody is convinced he was talking about silly grammatical rules, as opposed to the larger question of communicating effectively.

Btw. "sloppy thinking" is a commonly understood idiom, that does not mean "people who are somehow retarded."

kellan

[ Parent ]

You left a couple out -- boring and unnecessary. (3.44 / 18) (#12)
by Jin Wicked on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 06:53:25 PM EST

"As a result, they get to the end, and discover that they haven't said much."

I personally think this article doesn't say much, given that:

1. The average person is usually not so picky about grammar issues,
2. The internet is full of average persons,
3. The average persons get angry when other people tell them how to write, and
4. No one is going to change.

If average persons are content with bad grammar, then so be it. If you have a problem with it, then go read one of your "professional" newspapers (which I spot errors in every day). This article has not said anything I could not have figured out in five minutes on my own, and I am personally insulted that I've had someone spell out rules for grammar to me and then expect me to vote it up.

If the people on k5 cared about this, I'm sure they'd look it up for themselves. I doubt they need anyone to play school-marm and lecture them.


This post was probably not written by the real Jin Wicked. Please see user "butter pie" for Jin's actual posts.


Professional newspapers (3.50 / 2) (#99)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:05:15 PM EST

The editorial quality of professional newspapers has been significantly deteriorating for years. One of my favorite examples of this was a horrible article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, which in the second paragraph used a construction like 'The other person', but didn't *say* that there was more than one person involved until the fifth.

[ Parent ]
Challenge. (3.90 / 10) (#15)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 08:10:08 PM EST

Ive decided to expand my previous challenge at the bottom of my original post.

I challengeanybody to provide a good reason why we shouldnt get absolutely rid of aposthrophes in English orthography. Clearly, as the author of this story points out, they do cause much confusion, and many people just cant get it. So why not just nuke them out of the language? I maintain nothing will be lost, except one kind of excuse for pedants to feel superior.

I shall be very amused with your recommendations.

--em

Cant != can't (3.66 / 3) (#17)
by crank42 on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 08:23:19 PM EST

. . .as is demonstrated in the challenge.

[ Parent ]
Not good enough. (3.83 / 6) (#19)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 09:22:49 PM EST

The polar auxiliary can't and the verb cant are in what linguists call complementary distribution; i.e., the set of grammatical environments in which each can appear don't intersect.

In layperson terms: "I cant come up with a good excuse not to nuke apostrophes from English orthography" only allows the polar auxiliary.

The only possible place where they could remotely be confused is in a sentence like "I cant". However, the auxiliary interpretation of this sentence is an elliptical interpretation, i.e., one in which there is a phrase omitted because it can be recovered from the immediately previous context ("Come over here." "I cant."). This is far more than enough to disambiguate.

Your argument is an instance of the good old "ambiguity" bogeyperson called upon by prescriptivism. It is claimed that certain rule is essential because the alternative is supposedly "ambiguous". When the plain fact is that natural languages would still be massively ambiguous, even if the grammar nazis were allowed to impose all the rules they want. People are just massively good at evaluating language in context and zooming into the right interpretation.

BTW, I think it is impossible to mount a successful "ambiguity argument" for apostrophes. That requires showing a context where the omission is indeed ambiguous (which *I* did, not you), and then showing that the ambiguity is grave enough to merit the apostrophe to be there. I suspect I already hit upon the only possible context where a real ambiguity exists in the case of "cant/can't", and that it is a trivial one.

--em
[ Parent ]

Not trivial. (none / 0) (#119)
by crank42 on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 06:58:49 PM EST

I don't understand this one. It seems to me that the very casual nature of online posts is one of the things that is being called upon in a great number of arguments against my original argument. And yet, here is a case where punctuation would make a great difference.

Consider the following:
post 1: How can you prove that the scalability of dynamic online content will not offer significant low-downtime benefits with respect to the long-term return on investment?
response 1: Cant.
response 2: Can't.

Seems to me they're different. Only one of them is correct. Which is not to say the apostophe won't go away. I sort of hope it does.

[ Parent ]

You know a discussion board is good when.... (3.25 / 4) (#29)
by delmoi on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:29:59 PM EST

It sends you over to dictionary.com every once in a while.

I was originally going to post this to Estanislao's reply to you, but I figured it would be better to attach this directly to your post instead.

After reading the definition of '<a href=http://www.dictionary.com/wordoftheday/archive/1999/12/16.html>cant', I would hardly say that it could ever be confused with 'can't'. And, since cant is a noun "I cant" wouldn't be grammatically correct anyway, so it wouldn't be a problem.

And we already have words that have different meanings and the same spelling, or at least the same sound. Do you have any problems understanding people when they say "I'm going to the mall" or "I want two dollars" even though you can't see how the words are spelled?

Of course, I if the apostrophe were dropped, then all the grammar nazis would flame me for using 'em.
--
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
there is a verb "cant" (4.66 / 3) (#66)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:09:47 PM EST

OED shows 5-6 entries for "cant" as a verb.

Even if you only found a noun sense in a dictionary, remember English verbs nouns easily...

--em
[ Parent ]

Verbs... (none / 0) (#175)
by danb35 on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 12:06:44 AM EST

"Verbing wierds language." -- Calvin

[ Parent ]
yep... (none / 0) (#206)
by Estanislao Martínez on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 11:19:54 PM EST

I had forgotten the precise form of that quote. Thanks ;)

--em
[ Parent ]

What About Apostrophes In Names? (4.00 / 3) (#23)
by suky on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 09:56:32 PM EST

I for one would be very unhappy if they took the apostrophe out of O'Donnell.



[ Parent ]

Ok, I modify my challenge. (3.50 / 4) (#26)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:15:38 PM EST

I for one would be very unhappy if they took the apostrophe out of O'Donnell. -Aaron O'Donnell

How you spell your own name is a thing of personal choice. I certainly do not want interfere with such personal manners. So, let me recast my challenge.

The crucial thing about the apostrophe in "O'Donnell" is that is is not serving any grammatical function; it is there merely for historical reasons, which I take you wish to honor. It does not serve to mark possession, or to indicate the drop of phonological material taken to be present in contemporary English.

So now I challenge anybody to give *any* reason why we shouldnt drop the usage of apostrophes for grammatical purposes in English. "Grammatical purposes" means, in English, so-called "contractions", and possessive marking of noun phrases.

--em
[ Parent ]

It did at one time (4.50 / 2) (#98)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:02:27 PM EST

signify something grammatical; the o'[name] notation in scottish and irish names indicated the presence of a glottal stop between the o and the [name].

[ Parent ]
singular possessive vs. plural possessive (4.50 / 2) (#37)
by klash on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 11:04:25 PM EST

I challengeanybody to provide a good reason why we shouldnt get absolutely rid of aposthrophes in English orthography.

If I ask you to look at my shoes laces, do I mean my shoe's laces or my shoes' laces?

(...though I'm hesitant to argue with someone whose vocabulary includes terms such as "orthography" and "polar auxiliary" :-)



[ Parent ]
You can say it differently, if you need to. (4.33 / 3) (#70)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:39:43 PM EST

If I ask you to look at my shoes laces, do I mean my shoe's laces or my shoes' laces?

If for some reason I can't be expected to figure it out from context (in spoken contexts it's very frequently the opposite, so this is not really a problem), and you need to disambiguate this one, you can always say something like "the laces on my shoe(s)".

You just need to live with the fact that English, in general (i.e. most words and dialects), does not distinguish the plural possessive from the singular case.

--em
[ Parent ]

You're so right. (2.75 / 8) (#47)
by elenchos on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:17:24 AM EST

The evidence is that if the purpose served by the apostrophe were so vital, why does it not exist at all in spoken English? Which leads us to realize that there is a lot of really confusing bullshit (prescriptive English) in writing that does not exist in the natural (spoken) version.

Do you even have Grammar Nazis in Japanese or German or Russian? Does everyone on Earth spend 20 years or more on same lessons in thier native language over and over, with little success at all? This is a special phenomenon in English because we are saddled with non-phonetic spelling and a bunch of asinine grammar rules that came from a pampered class of total dicks with sticks up their asses and a head full of crack smoke, or whatever you got wrecked on in the 18th century.

But we're stuck with this bullshit now, and as George Bernard Shaw discovered, there is no easy solution. But one thing that is not the solution is to be unsympathetic, let alone condescending and rude, to those who have a hard time with this impossible and fanciful version of English that various cocksuckers have infliced upon the entire English-speaking world. Mabb's point that you get more flies with honey is much more useful, and one of the reasons I voted -1 on this story.

Crank42, you learned this wrong information in High School English classes. It is wrong, bad, smelly and useless, and is also sucks. They are not English rules. They are etiquette rules. Like "Begin eating the first course with the outermost fork, and extend your pinky when holding a demitasse." The purpose of etiquette rules is to seperate the educated upper classes from the unwashed masses, and they have nothing to to with the "correct" way to use English. Go punch the person who taught these rules to you in the stomach, real hard, and then sign up for some real semantics, linguistics, and history of English classes.

No matter what these ignorant collectors of trivia say, down with Grammar Nazis forever. And ever.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

That's an inane point (3.40 / 5) (#52)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:26:04 AM EST

The evidence is that if the purpose served by the apostrophe were so vital, why does it not exist at all in spoken English?

And just which quotation marks are used in spoken English then? Think about what you just wrote!


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Oh, no, it isn't inane. It's exactly the point. (4.00 / 3) (#74)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:56:25 PM EST

You just failed to understand it.
The evidence is that if the purpose served by the apostrophe were so vital, why does it not exist at all in spoken English?
And just which quotation marks are used in spoken English then? Think about what you just wrote!

Delmoi's point isn't the trivial point that quotation marks are not sounds. His point is precisely what underlies my whole challenge (and which only he seems to have gotten among those who responded): the aposthrophe doesn't seem to correspond to anything in contemporary spoken English.

Compare this to a comma, which corresponds to a pause, or a semicolon or sentence-final point + capitalization, which correspond to clause boundaries.

This is why I felt so confident to make the challenge-- because I knew from the beginning that coming up with a good linguistic answer is going to be either impossible or extremely interesting.

--em
[ Parent ]

aaargh (correction) (5.00 / 2) (#85)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:54:23 PM EST

Delmoi's point [...]

Aaargh, I meant elenchos, not delmoi.

--em
[ Parent ]

Patronising response of the year (4.00 / 1) (#86)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:54:35 PM EST

You just failed to understand it.

I'm being trolled elsewhere and I'm tempted to tell you where to stick that.

Compare this to a comma, which corresponds to a pause,

No, it doesn't. It's a clause boundary and an intelligibility aid (i.e. it can be placed to seperate parts of a sentence where there might otherwise be confusion). It sometimes coincides with a verbal pause but more often does not. If you think there was a pause between "No" and "it doesn't" then that's entirely in your mind.

Why pick on the apostrophe? Most punctuation in written speech corresponds to nothing in verbal communication. Many punctuation marks have multiple and vague rules about their use (e.g. semi-colon). The apostrophe, in contrast, has two simple and clear rules for its use: to indicate possession or to indicate a missing letter. There's even a clear rule for the one case where its use might be so frequently ambiguous as to cause confusion - "it's/its".

Go pick on the comma: it's abused far more. You just haven't noticed.


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
apostrophe (4.00 / 3) (#89)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:16:17 PM EST

I'll grant you that my discussion of commas was over-simplified.

The apostrophe, in contrast, has two simple and clear rules for its use: to indicate possession or to indicate a missing letter.

Possession in English is marked either by a possessive determiner, a prepositional phrase, or by an /-s/ at the right edge of the possessor noun phrase. The apostrophe is inessential.

And the "missing letter" theory of contraction is a very bad one, for complicated reasons. To give just a brief example, consider that for many speakers of English, Aren't I smart? is an acceptable sentence, while *Are not I smart? is unthinkable. A theory that says that "contractions" arise out of "missing letters" fails to account for this fact, or the fact that there's no "amn't" form in English.

In fact, what the data suggest is that negative contraction is a suffix /-nt/ on auxiliaries, not some sort of situation where you have an auxiliary followed by "not" and you get rid of the "o".

--em
[ Parent ]

Amn't (none / 0) (#162)
by HoserHead on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:56:34 PM EST

Actually, "amn't" does exist, and is used. Not so often in the United States, but I've heard it used here in Canada [mainly from those coming from the UK and surrounding countries], and I assume from that fact that amn't is indeed in use in English, at least in the "Old Country."

[ Parent ]
dialectal (none / 0) (#182)
by Estanislao Martínez on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 06:10:15 AM EST

"Amn't" exists mainly in some dialects in England. Dialects in England have all sorts of weird variants on the verb "be".

The vast majority of English speakers just find it horrendous.

--em
[ Parent ]

Oh my, this is worse than I thought. (3.33 / 3) (#83)
by elenchos on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:49:38 PM EST

I think this situation is going to demand more than a few offhand snipes at prescriptive English. I full jihad is in order. Thousands will have to be sacrificed, but it is a cause worthy enough. Prepare for an onlaught the likes of which you have never seen! Well, maybe not; I am kind of busy these days. We will have to see if I can make the time.

This does really surprise me though, since so many people in computer science fields have at least touched on linguistic theory a little. But I get the impression that many don't distinguish strongly enough between natural and artificial languages, and so think that programming language principles are language principles. Or fail to realize that writing is an artificial language based on, but not equivalent to, spoken English.

Many punctuation marks correspond to variations in tone, emphasis or cadence; something audible. But the apostrophe does not, and I've heard more than one linguist predict that it will be one of the first things to drop out of the language as it continues to evolve. Probably it will be followed by strong verbs and irregular plurals. Even if you realize that we today can't just get rid of these vesitgal stumps and barnacles stuck on our language, and so must continue to use them, you should not love them. You should not call them "right." We ought to hate them, and wish them gone. My hope is that email, web boards, IRC, and the rest of the typing-as-dialogue kind of communication that we see today, combined with the increasing number of non-Anglo-US speakers of English will accelerate this evolution.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Would you care to point out (3.00 / 1) (#88)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:01:24 PM EST

Just where I commited all those hideous crimes? That or be more careful in your use of "you"? All I did was argue a particular point. If you look elsewhere in this discussion you'll see I've been opposing the grammar nazis.

My hope is that email, web boards, IRC, and the rest of the typing-as-dialogue kind of communication that we see today, combined with the increasing number of non-Anglo-US speakers of English will accelerate this evolution.

Won't happen. Yes, there is a new language evolving in those environments - but people will use it there, not in verbal conversation or in formal writing. They'll use it in it's proper context. Most people are multi-lingual - they just don't realise it.

(k5's formatting of html blocks is getting wierd).


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
My fault. (none / 0) (#94)
by elenchos on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:53:27 PM EST

I was using your specific point about quotation marks and apostrophes as one example of a general pattern that I wanted to talk about. So I was addressing the more adamant defenders of "standard" or prescriptive English as a whole when I started using "you," and I probably shouldn't have assumed that you represented the more extreme faction of that group that I really wanted to address. Sorry I was unclear.

I realize that prognositcating the future of a language is a risky and probably foolhardy thing to attempt, but I think non-functional vestigal parts of a language are good candidates for extinction. That has been the general pattern in the past. Printing has retarded the rate of change, and electronic media have thrown in a wild card, really. So maybe those specific predictions won't come true, but something will happen. The evolution of modern languages hasn't stopped, it is just being influenced by forces that haven't been seen before.

I don't see why the conventions of online communciation will stay confined there. Creoles, pidgins and innumerable jargons and slang usages have spread from their original sphere into wide use. What is to stop people from taking whatever they want out of their "proper" context? Especially with the vast numbers of people adopting English who no longer look to Britian or even the US to tell them what is the "right" or "proper" way to use the language. I would bet that in the same way that upper class Americans ceased trying to learn to sound British (or "mid-Atlantic") in college, so educated Indians, Malasians, etc. will eventoually stop looking to the West for cultural instruction; for the most part they have already. Eventoually the cultural influence will reverse direction, because Americans, Australians, English, etc. will want to speak the same language as the majority.

Well, it's just idle speculation. But it is not idle to admit that what we say is "correct" English here and now will change, and that we are talking about something conventional and arbitrary.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

That is an inane criticism. (3.00 / 4) (#95)
by treat on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:54:43 PM EST

In spoken English, body language or a different voice is frequently used to separate a quota. It is something that is already communicated in spoken English, but needs a different technique in written English.

[ Parent ]
Yes (2.00 / 1) (#114)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:46:14 PM EST

but what the hell does that have to do with anything?


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
German grammar nazis (none / 0) (#97)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:00:30 PM EST

are far worse than english ones. The language is regulated by a state agency that periodically proclaims that the spelling of such-and-such word has now changed, for example. *shudder*

[ Parent ]
Exactly... (3.00 / 2) (#101)
by elenchos on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:24:22 PM EST

When you have some agency or institute rationalizing the language by fiat, you can at least have some reason for degrading those who are bewildered by the rules as being dim or lazy. English has no such ultimate authority, and so the complex rules of language that we know by instinct as native speakers have not been distilled into logical-sounding and easy-to-learn and to remember rules. Yet at the same time we have an educational system that wants to pretend that we do have easy and logical rules to follow. This is why they fail so utterly to teach "correct" English. The supposedly rational language they think they are teaching does not exist, and instinctively students know the rules they are getting are contradictiory, and don't match the real English language. Hence, total confusion.

Have you ever heard a French doctor say "I wish I could write proper French" or a German executive say "I have lots of expertise, but I never got good at using German correctly." What an embarrasing thing for an educated person to admit! But it is perfectly normal for an educated native speaker of English to say just that. It is only in English that you have people who are otherwise very knowledgeable yet baffled by their own native language! This is really an extaordinary predicament. It is not because "Americans are ignorant" or any such easy answer. It is because English is a pretty unique language, in that it is so widely spread and combines so many different languages, and because it never was rationalized by some powerful institution.

This is a good thing if you like reading James Joyce or Emily Dickinson, but a terrible thing if you just want to stop being made to look like a fool by pompous language mavens.

I don't think we can just "fix" all the problems English has now, and don't really want to, but I know that you can't teach someone to write better by beating them up and clinging to false "rules." We should be telling people to trust their gut more in choosing how to write, and should admit that there is no realy "right" and "wrong" way to use English. Just opinions about "better" and "worse."

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

P.S. a Grammar Nazi is... (none / 0) (#102)
by elenchos on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:37:36 PM EST

...a self-appointed authority, who belittles those who use English "incorrectly." The German, and other countries', state agencies that prescribe how the language ought to be are a different thing altogether. Their decisions are often controversial, but once they have made a decision, it must be accepted. It is now the official language, like it or not. With English, those who claim to know what "correct" English is are just stating their personal opinion and pretending it is Law. Hence, the connection with fascism.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

You may be not so right (4.33 / 3) (#113)
by mami on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:43:20 PM EST

Do you even have Grammar Nazis in Japanese or German or Russian?

Of course, just we Germans don't call them Nazis, they are just our every day teachers. Most of us feel lucky having had a good one in elementary school, because it makes life sooo much easier later on.

BTW, I would say, results from a German experience to introduce the "Neue Rechtschreibung", a set of new rules for spelling and grammar of the German language, prove most of you wrong. The attempt to make writing correctly easier through the simpler new rules failed miserably. Note, that we and the French have a lot of grammar and an abundance of non-phonetic spelling compared to you English fellows. The difference is just that our non-phonetic spelling is more logic than the non-phonetic spelling in English.

Most Germans didn't want to read texts written according to the new rules. All complained it's harder to understand and read. They were thoroughly confused seeing new and old spelling side by side all the time. The reformed spelling and grammar rules were abandoned after a couple of years and the old ones reintroduced.

The idea that bad writing style is a sign of sloppy thinking is accepted worldwide. Of course it is. Einstein said once: "If you can't explain it to an eight year old, you probably haven't understood it yourself."

I would surely support the author in his request to consider his arguments when writing an article for k5. I wasn't aware that standards for the responses are set that high too.

I ask myself if non native English speakers, who write English as their second language, should stay away from posting at k5 to not offend your sensibilities. I was always grateful that Americans are very open minded to accept whatever broken thoughts I uttered. (...which they mostly don't understand anyway, but hey, who cares...:-))

Last but not least, I think online writing in general is sloppier, because it is interactive spontaneous writing. It reflects the respect the writer might lack for the medium he is writing on. Often it also reflects the emotional involvement or stress of the writer, who is so much more absorbed with the content of his thoughts than with spelling and grammar.

Unless your online writings are supposedly fulfill the goal to qualify yourself as a professional journalist, one tends to write as badly as you value the forum you write to.

I am sure, if I would write a comment to the New York Times on paper, I would pay much more attention to my grammar, spelling and punctuation than writing an email comment to the online edition of the NYT. Somehow you respect the editorial scrutiny of a printed paper more than the "release often and early" attitude of the technical online forum's community.

A real programmer has a lot of pride in excellent writing. I had a lot of opportunities to observe it and enjoyed it a lot. But then, who has the time to spend that much time on writing well ? I consider my own posts to k5 already a severe sign of addiction and just can't wait til I quit. If it weren't just such a nice way to exercise writing in English for foreigners, I guess I would have done already. :-)

[ Parent ]

Oh my god (2.50 / 2) (#116)
by MrYotsuya on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:54:06 PM EST

It's odd when the writing of someone to whom English is a second language is much clearer than that of a native. Your reply was the easiest to read of all the posts I've read yet. Awesome!

[ Parent ]
The degree of difference is very large. (3.00 / 1) (#117)
by elenchos on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 06:47:42 PM EST

I realize that there have been some recent official changes in German spelling that lots of people are upset about, but we can expect that it will settle back down in a few years, as people either get used to it, or they recind the overly disruptive changes.

Asided from this particular controversey, do Germans have the kind of long and unfrutiful arguments about German that we have about English? Do otherwise educated Germans frequently say they wish the could write correctly? Americans seek sage advice on writing in the same way people seek advice on their love affairs: it is a matter of great mystery to us. When ESL students say English is too difficult, they're right. The prescriptive rules of English were a terrible crime that we still suffer from. Though the holy war over splitting infinitives ("To boldly go...") has ended, we still have people who can speak English perfectly well, but who will write the most convoluted sentences to avoid the "mistake" of ending a sentence with a prepositon. I see bright students every day who will write a correct sentence, and the patheticly useless MS Word grammar checker will tell them to change it to some total nonsense, and they will believe the stupid machine! This is how little confidence they have in their ability to recognise correct grammar in their own native language. Do Germans have this same problem? Perhaps you don't realize what a bitter and divisive thing the battle over "correct" English is, or that the topics in 3rd grade English classes are exactly the same as the topics in college English classes. It is as if we taught beginning Algebra in every single math class from grade school to the univeristy and never advanced to even Trigonometry. Its this also the case in Germany?

When I lived in Germany and struggled to learn some of the language, I didn't have the chance to really find out anything about these issues, but the professor who taught me most of what I know about linguistics is a native speaker of German. He is my primary source of information on the difference between the problems native speakers of German and of English have. Is this not the correct picture?

BTW: The term "Grammar Nazi" really is much too strong; "Grammar Police" or "Vigilante" would be more accurate, but I think we are stuck with it.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

the degree of difference is very large (4.00 / 1) (#122)
by mami on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 11:20:07 PM EST

Yes, that might be true.

Do Germans have the kind of long and unfrutiful arguments about German that we have about English?

No.

Do otherwise educated Germans frequently say they wish the could write correctly?

Not that often. I also think the phrase "writing correctly" would be understood by a German as writing grammatically correct sentences without spelling errors. It would say nothing about writing well structured articles in building the logic flow of arguments in the correct sequence from paragraph to paragraph. Nor does it say much about the breadth and wealth of the vocabulary. In general, written and spoken German isn't that much different than is written and spoken American English is.

Had you asked if Germans would frequently ask they wished they could "write well", may be some would do so. But all in all writing is less competetive in Germany anyway.

What surprises me in the U.S., is the high value that is attached to writing well in academia. The written English language is floating highly above the spoken one, so that for foreigners it sounds sometimes very disconnected in comparison to what they hear spoken. But the vocabulary is just sooo much more diverse and precise in the written language. I learn a lot of vocabulary in well written posts online (if the subject interests me enough to have incentives to go and look words up).

When ESL students say English is too difficult, they're right.

I am not sure you can generalize that. The degree to which it is difficult to learn of foreign language is mostly dependent on your mother language and on the degree you master the grammar in your own tongue.

It is very easy for a Dutch or Danish person to learn English, relatively easy for a German, moderately easy for a French, quite hard for Japanese. I don't know about Spanish native speakers. But if your skills in your mother tongue are not much developed by formal education, neither will you be able to achieve much in your second language.

In addition the grammar mistakes a foreigner makes in English is uniquely related to his native language. I can easily recognize a Russian immigrant in Germany writing and English email from a German .de domain name to an American mailing list, just by the kind of grammar mistakes he makes. I am sure that is the same for my own basket of mistakes related to my native language.

For that reason, for example, I am pretty much against early childhood bilingual education (in grade 1 to 6). Most of the time both languages are dumbed down to below average standards. And I have seen too many kid's academic development harshly slowed down by inappropriate bi-or multilingual education in early years.

This is how little confidence they have in their ability to recognise correct grammar in their own native language. Do Germans have this same problem?

Not in general, but it depends how much you speak "Hochdeutsch" and not your local "dialect". Swiss folks have a horrible time to learn to write "Hochdeutsch" in elementary school, because they actually speak "Switzerdeutsch". I would have a horrible time to read and comprehend phonetically written out "Switzerdeutsch". Luckily it is almost never done aside from local prose and lyrics for songs.

The same, but to a lesser degree, might be true for local German folks, who just love to speak their local dialect, like Bavarians, Saxonians and people from "Schwaben". But most folks really speak "Hochdeutsch" and just a little "dialect" if they had some beers. So, no problem, just some fun from time to time.

It is as if we taught beginning Algebra in every single math class from grade school to the univeristy and never advanced to even Trigonometry. Its this also the case in Germany?

I don't think so, but U.S. colleges put students through much more and harder short term writing assignments than German Universities. So, it seems much is asked from you, but little is taught.

He is my primary source of information on the difference between the problems native speakers of German and of English have. Is this not the correct picture?

I have heard often from Americans, that they became more conscious about their own grammar when they tried to learn German. I have to admit that I found the grammar lessons at American middle and high schools, my son was supposedly to work through (hopeless - he hated it and didn't understood a word) , was VERY foggy to me as well. If I really needed to know something, I tried to go back to my old English schoolbooks from Germany. But then I got him in trouble with his English teachers, because our German English text books are based on British English. And of course, I am lazy too, I liked Math more and my son liked nothing at all. :-)

The term "Grammar Nazi" really is much too strong;...but I think we are stuck with it.

Isn't that a personal choice with what one decides to be stuck with ?



[ Parent ]

Fair enough. (none / 0) (#123)
by elenchos on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 12:12:59 AM EST

Points well taken.

And I will start saying either "Grammar Vigiliantte" or "Grammar Dick." I like the "Dick" one, like a self-styled detective on the trail of another crime. Hopefully no one will interpret it as meaning stupid and contemptable. But if anyone knows that a calling someone a "dick" can have several different meanings, and not just that one, it is a Grammar Dick.

:-)

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Invalid Experiment (none / 0) (#176)
by flowers on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 12:12:23 AM EST

I would say, results from a German experience to introduce the "Neue Rechtschreibung", a set of new rules for spelling and grammar of the German language, prove most of you wrong. The attempt to make writing correctly easier through the simpler new rules failed miserably.

I think the conclusion you draw from this is incorrect. I suspect this is far more indicative that it is difficult to change that which is firmly entrenched than it is indicative of anything else. The new rules might actually have been easier to use and understand, but the "Neue Rechtschreibung" is not a valid experiment; it is weighted by its very nature to favor the incumbent rules. To determine which rules are truly easier to use, it would be necessary to compare what I will dub the "correct usage quotient" between a group raised on the old rules and one raised on the new.

It probably takes generations for language changes to become persistent, for this very reason. To attempt to impose rules on language from above seems foolhardy to me.

Then again, I have a history of missing the point of a lot of what Germans do. Like...sheisa videos. <laugh>



[ Parent ]
Grammar around the world (none / 0) (#134)
by spaceghoti on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:49:16 AM EST

Do you even have Grammar Nazis in Japanese or German or Russian?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: Germans are so uptight about language they even distinguish between Low German and High German. Attempting to mix the two or modify them is likely to result in reactions ranging from simple flames to outright hostility. The French are so uptight about the "purity" of their language they have a government commission just to translate international words into French. I'm not even going to begin to go into the ways the Japanese get uptight.

Many languages are so rigidly defined that just changing an inflection or pause changes the entire meaning of a sentence. By comparison, English is so broad and flexible that many people (including native speakers) find it incomprehensible.

"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
Addendum (none / 0) (#135)
by spaceghoti on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 12:02:05 PM EST

It occurred to me, after a little time had passed and I re-read my post, that my statements could be construed as hoplessly pro-American and bigoted. My most sincere apologies to all offended parties: I was attempting to convey my observations as opposed to stereotypical labels. It's hard to not think of Japanese society as "uptight" after reading the history of the island nation and watching a friend get the snot beat out of him for declaring to his father he wished he were American.



"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
Um... (none / 0) (#149)
by elenchos on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 03:05:19 PM EST

...German has many dialects, this is not news. Low and High German refer to the physical elevation of the locales whrere these dialects are situated; downstream on the Rhine is "low." There is a standardized official German, Hochdeutsch, that you are probably confusing with "High German," and further confounding the terms "high" and "low" with "good" and "bad."

You are most correct in saying that Germany and France have government agencies regulating their official languages, and making sweeping decisions to try to rationalize the grammar and spelling. This is an endeavour that has had mixed results, and since the US doesn't even want an official language, an agency to regulate it is highly unlikely to ever appear. In any case, we have no such officical body now in English, which means that the language has never been rationalized in a way that makes the rules easy to explain to anyone, and that anyone who tries to talk about "proper" Englilsh is as much a self-appointed authority as someone who tries to talk about the "proper" way to drink tea. There is an enormous difference between someone looking at the offical state driver's manual and saying "See, it says you must drive on the right side of the road" and someone saying "You must wear a dashing scarf and gloves while driving; that is the only proper way to do it." The second type of person is a prig, or as I've decided to strart saying, a Grammar Dick.

You seem to have read (at least you rated) some of the thread between me and mami. You should read all of it and if you're still mixed up ask him or her about it.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Read it. (none / 0) (#151)
by spaceghoti on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 03:21:40 PM EST

That's why I felt confident in posting my response.

People get uptight about the smallest trivialities, language being one of them. However, the "Grammar Dicks" have at least the foundation of a point: if you can't use language correctly, how can you expect anyone to understand you? So yes, people who speak other languages do nit-pick about things that you would describe as pointless here. It happens in every language, every nation and among all people. The need for clarity and comprehensibility is paramount wherever you are.

The rules for grammar and spelling in the English language were codified before you or I were born. You may feel those rules are outdated or ridiculous; that's up to you. But those rules are there, and they're generally considered "proper" and "acceptable" by people who depend on the written word for their living or communication. Those rules give us common ground to approach a forum such as this to share our ideas without wondering (too much) what the other person was trying to say. Without them you can say what you like, but I'm not likely to understand what you mean and less likely to take you seriously because of it.

That, I believe, is the whole point of this article.



"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
No, these rules are wrong. That is the problem. (none / 0) (#157)
by elenchos on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 05:44:40 PM EST

The stupid rule about not splitting infinitives is the classic example. Someone with nothing but prejudice and no understanding of linguistics thought that Latin was the most perfect of languages, and that all others were inferior knock-offs of Latin, so they thought that you could apply Latin rules to English and make English better. The idiocy of saying you can't end a sentence with a preposition is another example. EM takes on the apostrophe and as you can see by the dogmatic and wholly unscientific response he got, that people look at these language rules as a religion. Hence the voodoo.

Linguists began tossing out this rubbish in the early 20th centrury, and by the 50's Chomsky had nailed the coffin shut on these dead "rules." The only ones left who still believe in them are High School English teachers, who learn them in university colleges of Education, not English or Linguistics departments. Really.

Please, do some reading on lingusitics. Harvey A. Daniels essay "Nine Ideas About Language" would be a good place to start; you may have to find it in a linguistics book in the library. On the web all I found was a summary. Here is another short essay on the prescriptivist grammar that might uncloud this for you. Check out these class notes too; they should be enough to update you on modern linguistics and pull you out of the 19th century.

Hey, don't blame me. Still don't believe it? Well, then start looking at he history of these "rules" that you say were codified. Who codified them? How were they codified? Where did they come from? Stone tablets from God? Scientific study? Nope, mostly from Latin grammarians, as I said, and from tradition, like the 8 parts of speech the ancient Greeks thought up, and the rest came largely straight out of someone's ass.

You are right that the quality of writing matters in the success of communication, but the way to make better writers has nothing to do with learning these rules. I've seen time and again writers who would have been better off just trusting their instincts rather than trying to make some contradictory rule work that some HS English teacher gave them. The main use of these rules is for Grammar Bunny Foofoos to try to belittle and abuse others; it is the modern version of the original purpose of prescriptive grammar: as a shibboleth to separate the upper classes from the rabble.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Rules (none / 0) (#159)
by spaceghoti on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:15:16 PM EST

Arguing that all the rules of the English language are logical and necessary is unsupportable and tantamount to logical suicide. I shan't try. I also admit there are rules I ignore for the sake of expediency; I may have mentioned I wasn't the perfect English student.

However, in spite of that I will stand on the claim that the current rules for written English, good and bad, provide a foundation for us to communicate. The basic rules for grammar and spelling which are hideously butchered every day on the Internet are still necessary for common understanding. The less we butcher our presentations, the more likely we are to be understood and accepted. Language helps to define and focus our thought processes, and the more we understand the rules of language (even if the origins stand on shaky ground) the better we're able to focus our intent.

I don't know and frankly don't care to research all the ways that written English fails logically or practically. I use what works for me, in what has been demonstrated to work to convey my message. As far as I can tell, I retain more rules than I disregard, so the foundation for common understanding is preserved. Beyond that, I will agree to disagree because I believe we've arrived at that point; anything else would lead to fruitless flaming and bad feelings.

A quote I find appropriate to this topic (along with several others) comes from Mark Twain, of all people:

We despise all reverences and all the objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our own list of sacred things. And yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy to us.



"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
Well, OK, but... (none / 0) (#160)
by elenchos on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:45:02 PM EST

...you really might enjoy learning something about modern lingistics. It is actually a lot more fun than the kind of arbitrary "English rules" that you think you are using. I think it is interesting to know that you are really following rules that you learned before the age of 6, and that subsequently your school tried to tell you that you couldn't communicate without thier rules, which are nothing but approximations of the exact grammar that your brain is so good at unconsciously. It is too bad you aren't interested in the history of these rules, because you would have seen how most of thes rules didn't exist until the 18th century. Which raises the quesion of how anyone managed to write anything good before there were any rules at all. Not to mention the question of how humans in general did such a good job of communicating with each other before there was even writing, let alone rules of writing.

And don't even get me started on the exciting world of creoles. But you don't care. So be it.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Yeah right. (none / 0) (#205)
by Estanislao Martínez on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 11:18:11 PM EST

However, in spite of that I will stand on the claim that the current rules for written English, good and bad, provide a foundation for us to communicate. The basic rules for grammar and spelling which are hideously butchered every day on the Internet are still necessary for common understanding.

Please then explain to me precisely how it impedes communication to ocassionaly or even constantly split infinitives. Or how it stops common understanding to end sentences with prepositions.

You are merely stating generalities without caring to support them with any argument.

--em
[ Parent ]

Generalities (none / 0) (#207)
by spaceghoti on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 12:38:43 AM EST

Please then explain to me precisely how it impedes communication to ocassionaly or even constantly split infinitives. Or how it stops common understanding to end sentences with prepositions.

Perhaps you mistake me for a Grammar Nazi, or even just a Grammar Dick. Occasionally splitting infinitives doesn't bother me. I'm sure I'm guilty of them myself, probably more frequently than I realize. I'm even able to translate the "ocassional" typo and misspelling. I haven't addressed any of that in anything I've said here.

I'm talking about people who can't seem to grasp (or care about) rules for writing. People who can't make their verbs agree with their subjects, who can't be bothered to edit themselves before they hit post. People who desperately need a dictionary surgically implanted in their heads. I have not anyone in this forum of such blatant illiteracy, and I have no intention of doing so. With some notable exceptions, most everyone who posts is at least moderately intelligent and capable of expressing themselves adequately.

What I have said is that without common rules for communication, mutual understanding is impossible. What's worse, butchering (constant and repeated violation of multiple rules for constructing words, sentences and paragraphs) becomes tedious to read, bordering on the painful if you're sensitive to such things. For example, follow this Highlander fanfiction link. The authors here are clearly beginners and have a lot to learn. I do not hold that against them, but it does mean I'm not going to trudge through more than a page of the story (if that) because reading it is just too much work. I derive no pleasure or satisfaction from the reading, and I don't have the time or patience to attempt to teach them rules for good writing. If I did, I'd be an English teacher.

According to much of what's been said here, the story linked above should be accepted and respected because the authors had something to say, and the medium with which to present it. I disagree, not because the attempt was not noteworthy (opinion of fanfiction is a separate issue), but because the presentation is so sloppy and violates so many rules for writing that there's no point in reading it. The message gets lost because the authors are incapable of presenting it under common rules taught in school.

I generally do not follow rules blindly. I make it a point to examine much of what I do and why, to hold my actions and beliefs under a microscope to see if they can withstand the scrutiny. Rules for written English have, thus far, withstood the scope of my scrutiny. They provide a foundation for common understanding and allow me to present my statements in a manner which many others can compehrend. Those rules that don't stand up aren't followed (typographical errors aside), and whether or not someone else has devoted a life's research to why those rules should or shouldn't be maintained doesn't really concern me. I go with what works for me and for others like me. If you don't like those rules, don't follow them. I won't say a word. But if you throw away too many rules, I'm not likely to read anything you write. The tedium of attempting to translate will overwhelm my pleasure of the written word.

And that's my point. Your Mileage May Vary.



"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
Dude! That fanfic ROCKS! (none / 0) (#209)
by elenchos on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 02:41:27 AM EST

That writing is exuberant and reads in a flash. How can you say it requires "translation?" So what if there are problems with how to use periods and commas? You don't like the sentence fragments? Bah! That is one of the things that makes it read like spoken English. I would hope the writer gets out of fan fiction and starts doing original work as soon as humanly possible, and at the same time starts broadening his or her reading a little so as to lose the cliches like "evil grin." That, and the "Highlander" subject are what is tedious. Some better proofreading would help, but you don't even hold that against yourself, you say that quite emphatically. But the writing is good, especially for a beginning writer. If you can't see that then I'm beginning to realize what the real problem here is. You're just being anal and thinking that you are qualified to judge good writing. Who told you you were?

"Occasionally splitting infinitives doesn't bother me." Why would it ever bother you? There is no prohibition in the English language against splitting infinitives! It is just something that a proper Edwardian gentleman doesn't do in the presence of ladies. Which is what these "grammar rules" are for. Being in the appropriate mode for the situation. Wearing a top hat and tails to a pool hall is not normal, nor is criticizing someone for not putting on formal wear for the occasion. That is what you are doing. If you were criticizing a resume for lacking this level of exactitude, you would have a point. The occasion calls for it. But what kind of language is called for on a web board? Exactly what you see.

So if you look around and find things less civilized than you prefer, it is pointless to rave against the norms of your surroundings. If you don't like the pool hall, relocate to the country club. But don't go slumming and then get all indignant at the lack of class.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Exuberant writing (none / 0) (#212)
by spaceghoti on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 09:07:25 AM EST

What you find exuberant, I find tedious. I'm not going to attempt to discuss my qualifications for critiquing the work. The phrase "pearl before swine" comes to mind. Instead I will be happy that you enjoyed the piece and weren't bogged down by the sheer mass of errors that made it so difficult for me to get through. I applaud your skill at reveling where others care not to go.



"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
You need to let a week pass, (none / 0) (#215)
by elenchos on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 03:41:29 PM EST

and the come back and look at your posts. "I'm not going to attempt to discuss...", "I don't know and frankly don't care to research...", etc. What are you doing posting to a discussion of what is good writing if you have no intention of trying to learn anything you didn't already know, nor of providing factual support of what you want me to believe. If you don't care what I think, why are you posting it here? Are you hoping it will be read and believed by someone else, perhaps someone lacking in critical faculties, who will just accept it without any support? Step back, and after getting away from this issue, see if you really want to be the person saying these things. I only talk that way when I have a Jehova's Witness on my doorstep or a Social Darwinist on K5. And follow those links I gave earlier; they are short reads and will lead you to bibliographies of a substantial body of work that will change your mind.

"But if you throw away too many rules, I'm not likely to read anything you write." Have you ever noticed the fact that your dear correspondant spits infinitives like as if he were trying to get at their cream-filled center, loves to end sentences with prepositions, never even hesitates to write a sentence fragment if the need arises (I do this in formal papers as well, btw), and in fact I routinely and deliberately make a hash of as many rules of prescriptive grammar that I know, and even more that I have forgotten. Yet you seem to, in fact, read quite a bit of what I write, and to more or less understand it as well. So what 's the deal, glockenspeil? My unsightly bad grammar isn't stopping you now, nor is it impeding communication. Far from it.

The reasons that that Highlander/X Files fanfic was so bad were artistic reasons, not grammatical. It was derivative, obviously, and riddled with cliches of both language, character and plot, and overall it was structured as an uninterrupted stream of very uniform dialogue. This is what made reading it so hard on our patience. But the writing was good. Had that writer been so unfortunate as to have your criticism, he or she would have been given the false advice to go learn about verb cases and indirect objects, and would have been left in a state of confusion, since the writer's original grammar instincts were good. He or she would have given up on this "stupid grammar crap" and gone off to write more fanfic to a receptive readership, rather than build on his or her natural strengths as a writer, concentrating on finding richer subject matter and a more unique voice.

It is a perfect example of why these phony rules of grammar are such a crime. They make people afraid to write, because some dick is telling them they don't know their own language. Their only hope is to not believe any of it.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

Historical point (none / 0) (#204)
by Estanislao Martínez on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 11:14:34 PM EST

Linguists began tossing out this rubbish in the early 20th centrury, and by the 50's Chomsky had nailed the coffin shut on these dead "rules."

You're giving Chomsky too much credit. People had realized this well before he was even born. The first big blow was the reconstruction of the Indo-European family, which showed that the old prejudices that languages "decay" over time into "corrupted forms" were pure rubbish. This was followed by the reconstruction of many other language families, and by the study of the grammatical form of languages of illiterate peoples, which had been long presumed to be "primitive", a prejudice that the studies absolutely shattered. For example, the USian anthropological school and sturcturalist schools (which were, again, around before Chomsky was born) both realized this based on their study mostly of Native American languages, and of other language families (e.g. Leonard Bloomfield wrote a descriptive grammar of Tagalog which, I've been told by an expert on the language, is impressive). The realization that all languages are amazingly complex systems, much more complex than any system of prescriptive rules ever put forward, was the key point.

--em
[ Parent ]

Star struck! (none / 0) (#208)
by elenchos on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 12:48:38 AM EST

Probably the idea of him "nailing the coffin shut" on these old ideas came from statements like:
    In 1957 Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, a slim volume of just of over 100 pages that has been called "revolutionary" for the development of modern linguistics. Chomsky proposed a set of finite rules as a way of accounting for the sentences of a language. (Julia S. Falk, To Be Human: A History of the Study of Language)
...and more generally an attitude I've often enocountered, that the Oxford Compainon to the English Language describes:
    Chomsky is widely considered to be the most influential figure in linguistics in the later 20c and is probably the lingust best-known outside the field. His views on language and grammar are controversial and responses to them have ranged from extreme enthusiasm, sometimes verging on fanaticism, to fierce rejection by some traditionalist, structurlist, and other critics.
Adding the noteritiy of Chomsky's political writings and activism, and his importance in the computer science field, has tended to make me think of him as having a significance comparable to Charles Darwin in his field; which is, as you say, too much credit. It 's the power of celebrity.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

hmm, may be this makes it clearer (none / 0) (#158)
by mami on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:00:18 PM EST

High German and Low German has no role in this discussion.

In the written German language there is no Low German. It doesn't exist and never has historically. No sorts of Low German dialects, that means the spoken dialects of German in various geographic areas in Germany, have been used in German non fiction writings, AFAIK.

Contrary, it is extremely difficult to write and spell out phonetically and grammatically Low German. It is a tour de force, because all the rules of High German don't apply. It would be more easy to read Italian or French or Dutch than any text in Low German for me. In no way would it be an escape from the German "Grammar Nazis". :-)

Actually, those Germans who would insist on allowing to write out Low German, might in reality be much closer to what some Germans consider a real "Nazi" to be than the common German, who pretty much expects anything written to be High German. That's just a little remark at the side and off-topic.

[ Parent ]

A PLAN FOR THE IMPROVEMENT OF ENGLISH SPELLING (3.80 / 5) (#58)
by Mark Twain on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 08:54:29 AM EST

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.


[ Parent ]
Harder to read (5.00 / 1) (#59)
by Per Abrahamsen on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 09:13:02 AM EST

I found that the lack of aposthrophes made you message harder to read. Not very hard or impossible, but if it was a borderline message anyway, i.e. a message or an author that I was undecided whether to read or skip, it might be enough to push the decision to skip it.

If you wanted to redesign English, something that is difficult for an international language, you could be more radical. The post from "Mark Twain" shows one option. He also wrote a more serious paper on the subject.



[ Parent ]
Argument from custom (4.33 / 3) (#69)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:33:07 PM EST

I found that the lack of aposthrophes made you message harder to read.

That is because you are used to seeing aposthrophes.

Of course, any orthographic reform runs against this problem. Which is why for many languages not many orthographic reforms have been done.

It is a good argument, but notice, critically, that it's not a linguistic argument. It has nothing to do with whether the aposthrophe is carrying out any important function in the orthography.

--em
[ Parent ]

What is English? (none / 0) (#124)
by Per Abrahamsen on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 04:08:48 AM EST

> It is a good argument, but notice, critically,
> that it's not a linguistic argument.

But one can hardly argue for the utility of English from a purely linguistic point of view. The majority of people who can speak English to some degree or another speak it as a second or third language. And the native speakers vary greatly in pronounciation, vocabulary and grammer.

From a linguistic point of view, an artificial language such as Esperanto would be far better for this purpose. English is far too irregular. The one advantage English has over Esperanto, is that a lot of people can already read, write or speak it to some degree. And this is true because the language at least in the written form follow some rules which are the same, or close to the same, everywhere.


[ Parent ]
picket fence (3.60 / 5) (#62)
by anonymous cowerd on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 10:38:21 AM EST

You and I only have five fingers, what in heaven's name do we need six strings for? Because William Shakespeare used apostrophes and the translator of the King James Bible used apostrophes and Percy Shelley used apostrophes and T. S. Eliot used apostrophes and for cryin' out loud even e e cummings used apostrophes. Why fix something that works so wonderfully well as the English language?

Nobody is twisting your arm. You are free not to use them; you can actually get away with this. No one will look down on you, no one whose opinion you are bound to respect anyway. But, just grabbing pretty much at random, look here, at that little picket fence of apostrophes at the top of the third verse.

The other day I was driving down a washboard road on a black night, real slow, hearing crickets and this time of year magnolias boom down along the edge of the swamp and millions of bees in the groves buzz around millions of orange blossoms, wow, how the air smelled! Every few seconds I passed a power pole or a gate post, and the side light of the car lights them up flash! as I flash! pass flash! Well, those apostrophes of Berryman's, that's kind of what they look like, isn't that pleasing to the eye?

And now merely to simplify things for blog posters, you wanna get rid of that? Go on!

Yours WDK - WKiernan@concentric.net

"This calm way of flying will suit Japan well," said Zeppelin's granddaughter, Elisabeth Veil.
[ Parent ]

On grammar Nazis (3.42 / 7) (#16)
by crank42 on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 08:21:08 PM EST

As I write this (at 19.41 EST 10 Mar), there are 14 comments, several of which are useful, but many of which amount to some combination of two responses: "As long as the message gets across, who cares?" (which was precisely the position I was arguing against: apparently some think that begging the question is a valid form of argument); and, "Don't be a grammar Nazi."

First, what I was arguing is that the message does not get across adequately, at least to some people, when the prose is adequately bad. Replying to this with, "Well, dont read it, cuz its' good enough for me and besides noone tells me how to write," is simply to say, "I don't care if the message gets across." That's fine; but I was hoping to offer some suggestions to those who do care about whether a message gets through.

The thing that really troubles me in these sorts of discussions, though, is the flip "grammar Nazi" charge. An analogy will be, I think, instructive. We formalise languages, like C, in order to make perfectly clear what the program should do when run. If some bit of code does not work correctly because you decided that main() is an optional part of the language, or should be spelled mane() if you feel that way, then that is not the computer being a "C Nazi". That's how C works.

Now, no-one expects natural languages like English to be quite so precise. Everyone knows that you can express things in different ways. One can certainly go too far insisting on the following of rules. As Winston Churchill scrawled, "This is something up with which I will not put." But there is no reason to suggest that one needs to be either slavishly rule-following or else linguistically anarchist.

To show as much, an example from the replies will suffice:

That is why people often have trouble putting complex ideas into words; it is not because of their ineffeciency as thinkers, but the ineffeciency of the english language to accuratly describe their current thoughts without searching for obscure words, and using complex ordering in sentance structure.

In this sentence, the antecedent of "their inefficiency" is not plain: probably, it is either people or complex ideas. If you know that complex ideas can't be thinkers, then it's easy. But the reader has to do this work. It makes the idea harder to grasp than is otherwise necessary. (In the same way, it isn't obvious whether it's English which is searching for obscure words.) Sometimes, obscure words and complex sentence structure are called for; it's not like there's some evil cabal of language conspirators who are trying to come up with ways of making the language more difficult. (Well, there is, but only for French. In English, the people trying to make things more difficult are called postmodernists, and they do it by trying to obscure meaning completely.)

I don't much care, really, if people want their ideas to be clear: I was responding to a raft of recent complaints I've seen about the say-nothing content on the Net, on the one hand, and the dodgy standards of that content, on the other. But I find it prety amusing that several responses seem to demonstrate my point.

Don't talk about what you don't know. (4.00 / 6) (#21)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 09:32:25 PM EST

In this sentence, the antecedent of "their inefficiency" is not plain: probably, it is either people or complex ideas. If you know that complex ideas can't be thinkers, then it's easy. But the reader has to do this work. It makes the idea harder to grasp than is otherwise necessary.

That is absolutely absurd. Everybody automatically uses real world knowledge in disambiguating language as it comes. The fact that words don't think is enough to make the antecedent clear in that case, as linguists and psychologists have known for decades, for having gathered heaps of experimental data on anaphoric resolution.

You have a simple problem, which is that you are trying to appear authoritative, while you show yourself to be ignorant about language.

--em
[ Parent ]

Feh (2.00 / 2) (#63)
by donky on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 10:39:54 AM EST

You have a simple problem, which is that you are trying to appear authoritative, while you show yourself to be ignorant about language.

You may pull out all the stops to write intelligent sounding crap which no real english speaker understands or cares to, but given your lack of respect for the english language, the fact you are dictating style is laughable.

As someone who has IIRC english as a second language do you consider yourself to think in english?

[ Parent ]

The emperor has no clothes. (3.50 / 4) (#76)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:02:23 PM EST

You may pull out all the stops to write intelligent sounding crap which no real english speaker understands or cares to, but given your lack of respect for the english language, the fact you are dictating style is laughable.

All I am trying to do is point out that the case of the grammar nazis is just like the one of the emperor with no clothes. I have no intention of dictating "style rules".

As someone who has IIRC english as a second language do you consider yourself to think in english?

Yes. I can think in three and a half languages.

--em
[ Parent ]

So do a little damn work (2.66 / 3) (#28)
by delmoi on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:19:32 PM EST

In this sentence, the antecedent of "their inefficiency" is not plain: probably, it is either people or complex ideas. If you know that complex ideas can't be thinkers, then it's easy. But the reader has to do this work.

I didn't have any trouble with that sentence at all. One trend I've noticed with grammar Nazis is that their complaints always boil down to how stupid they are, and that they don't want to do any parsing work. I'll run my work through a spellchecker, and I'll try not to make to many grammar errors, but I'm not going to spend hours pouring over every word. I've got better things to do, and if for some reason improper punctuation means that you can't understand what I'm trying to say, that's really your problem, I simply don't care.

In fact, I've noticed that when people talk, they don't use any punctuation at all yet for thousands of years people have been able to communicate effectively, and transfer ideas.

Honestly, you're time would be better spent relaxing your mind's parser then to try to convince everyone else in the world to use correct grammar and punctuation. (when I read, I simply don't see most kinds of mistakes, even if I'm looking for them)
--
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
Speech (5.00 / 4) (#34)
by _Quinn on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:53:28 PM EST

   is not writing. Repeat after me: speech is not writing. Its bandwidth is several orders of magnitude larger, so proper grammar contributes less to communication than it does in writing.

-_Quinn
Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Re: So do a little damn work (3.50 / 2) (#67)
by johnathan on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:14:52 PM EST

I'll run my work through a spellchecker, and I'll try not to make to many grammar errors, but I'm not going to spend hours pouring over every word.
Yow. This sentence goes to show all the good a spell checker will do for you. (Try looking up pour/pore if you don't know what I'm talking about. Not to mention "to", but I'll assume that's a typo. And putting that comma outside of the quotes was intentional, as well as starting this sentence with "and". I am of the opinion that there's no reason to follow bad or outmoded rules of grammar at the expense of meaning.)
In fact, I've noticed that when people talk, they don't use any punctuation at all yet for thousands of years people have been able to communicate effectively, and transfer ideas.
That's clearly not true. You don't pause between clauses or at the end of a sentence? Don't raise your voice at the end of a question? Punctuation is the visual representation of these actions. Granted, a comma and a semicolon (e.g.) can sound pretty similar, so you don't have to worry about using exactly correct punctuation when you speak. You do use it, though.

--
In my not-so-humble opinion, I am not a laywer. As far as I know.

--
Her profession's her religion; her sin: her lifelessness.
[ Parent ]

People do (4.00 / 2) (#96)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:57:15 PM EST

use punctuation when they speak. Question marks are implied by tonal inflection, and pauses when speaking often delineate paragraphs.

[ Parent ]
Disagree.. (2.50 / 2) (#48)
by nads on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:23:40 AM EST

I think the example you give is poor. If you've grown up on net writing, as I have, parsing it becomes transparent. In the example you mention the meaning and context instantaneously distinguished which subject the antecedant you mention was referring to. After reading the complaint about the example and then rereading the example, did consciously notice the process my brain had to partake in. That is, this kind of proccessing has become so common, that most of the times its automatic and doesn't really require any more active work. IMNSHO, the reason why internet writing is so bad is because people have poorly thought out ideas. The communication of ideas (translation into english) isn't the hard part, the actually coherent deveoplment of an idea is what is difficult. It's quite easy to obfuscate weaknesses in ideas by using obscure sentence structures and poetic langauge. This isn't somehing new brought up about by the net, its been practiced by most of humanity since the get go. Philosophers in particular have been notorious for hiding their weak ideas behind poetic language and vaguenesses in the meaning of words. See Plato, Aristotle, early socialists (Hegel, Marx), or most of today's moral/ethical/social philosophers.

[ Parent ]
Re: On grammar Nazis (5.00 / 1) (#140)
by aonifer on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:14:56 PM EST

In this sentence, the antecedent of "their inefficiency" is not plain: probably, it is either people or complex ideas. If you know that complex ideas can't be thinkers, then it's easy.

Any sane person over the age of six knows that complex ideas can´t be thinkers. It's pretty clear from the context that the writer is not using a metaphore. Furthermore, this is from a post on a weblog, not an academic paper. I'm all for correct grammar, but you're insisting that everyone wear a tuxedo to McDonald's.

[ Parent ]

On ending sentences with prepositions (none / 0) (#173)
by Ray Chason on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:44:42 PM EST

Three points should be raised regarding this arrant nonsense up with which Mr. Churchill would not put.

First, the sentence "This is something that I will not put up with" does not end in the preposition with. It ends in the phrasal verb put up with. These three words form a single lexical unit and they belong together.

Second, there are cases where even the most stiff-necked grammar fascist would not try to rearrange the preposition. In Spanish, one would ask, ¿De dónde es usted?; but in English, From where are you? doesn't work. One asks, Where are you from?

Finally, there is one case where this "arrant nonsense" is a valid and reasonable rule. That is when the preposition is not needed. Where are you at? is nonstandard, because at adds nothing to the sentence.

So here's a simple and obvious rule: if you can drop the preposition without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. Otherwise, don't sweat it.
--
The War on Terra is not meant to be won.
Delendae sunt RIAA, MPAA et Windoze
[ Parent ]

'put up with' is not a verb (none / 0) (#203)
by Estanislao Martínez on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 10:55:22 PM EST

First, the sentence "This is something that I will not put up with" does not end in the preposition with. It ends in the phrasal verb put up with. These three words form a single lexical unit and they belong together.

"Put up" (as in "tolerate") is a prepositional verb, but "put up with" isn't. "with X" is the prepositional phrase complement of "put up"; note that you can conjoin the "with" phrases (e.g. "put up with Mary and with John"), which proves the "with" is not lexically part of the verb. (OTOH, you can't conjoin the "up" with anything else, which shows the "up" is lexically part of the verb: "*I put down the book and up with Mary" should be terribly unacceptable to all native English speakers.)

Whether the "up" in "put up" is a preposition is likely to be a theoretical question. I'd say that morphologically it is a preposition, but that sytactically it doesn't head a prepositional phrase, and that semantically it is used "noncompositionally" (the meaning of "put up" is not the combination of the meanings of "put" and "up")

So the sentence indeed does end with a preposition. So what? There is no good reason to write a prescriptive rule agains something that every native English speaker has been doing for hundreds of years.

--em
[ Parent ]

Irony (4.00 / 13) (#20)
by puzzlingevidence on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 09:26:21 PM EST

I find much of this submission ironic. The author complains about writers not adopting and adhering to a style guide, but:

* overuses semi-colons: 12 of them in only a few hundred words,
* overuses colons: 8 of them in the document,
* unnecessary use of the pronoun "one", rather than identifying the subject,
* overuse of parentheses when unnecessary,
* overuse of parenthetical clauses, often broken up by the horrible and rarely appropriate
   em-dash, usually distinguished by a double-hyphen ("--") online.

I suppose I should be thankful that the author didn't use the words "very", "quite", "rather", "a bit" or "seems" as weak modifiers.

Yes, I'm being a turd, but I can't recall ever seeing a style or grammar rant that didn't contain a number of egregrious style or grammar problems.

For what it's worth, I'm an editor by trade. I've spent hundreds of hours working on our in-house style guide. I'm familiar with AP, CP, Chicago and a dozen other style guides, and every week I make more errors than I can count.

And so, I voted +1. It's a good article and well-written for the most part.

---
A man may build a throne of bayonets, but he can not sit on it. --Inge

stylistic details (3.28 / 7) (#25)
by Ludwig on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:13:52 PM EST

Every one of those bulleted items is a stylistic detail. None pertains to the grammatical incorrectness or overall structural problems that bear the brunt of crank42's criticism you Grammer nazi.

[ Parent ]
Agreed - but there is a cure (3.00 / 1) (#51)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:21:21 AM EST

  • overuses semi-colons: 12 of them in only a few hundred words,
  • overuses colons: 8 of them in the document

What this guy needs is the Extreme Colon Cleanser.


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Editing by the numbers? (4.00 / 2) (#120)
by nels_tomlinson on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 10:03:34 PM EST

You say: 12 semicolons (I think that semi--colon has been round long enough to be considered a word, rather than a phrase), 8 colons,"one" where "you" would do ...I don't mean to be mean, but I don't think that these are very reasonable criteria for complaining about the story. Here's my take on those things:

The number of semicolons should be closely related to the number of multi--clause sentences. I'll quote from Fowler's: "The use of semicolons to separate parallel expressions that would normally be separated by commas is not in itself illegitimate; but it must not be done when the expressions so separated form a group that is separated by nothing more than a comma, if that, from another part of the sentence." I don't think that Crank42 deviated too drastically from that dictum.

I think that the situation is similar with the colons: the number of colons should be related to the number of sentences which require a stop before the full stop at the end. Crank42 seems to be using them as a stop, rather than an introduction to a list. Fowler points out that Crank42's usage was becomming less common in the teens of the last century. I'm glad to see that it still hasn't died out.

As for the pronoun "one", I believe that Crank42's use follows Fowler's lead, and my own practice. He is using it as what Fowler calls the "impersonal pronoun". When I mean that " ... most folks experience this..." it is appropriate for me to say "... one experiences this ...". When I am speaking of you in particular, it is appropriate for me to say "you". At a quick glance, it seems to me that Crank42 is doing just that. Crank42 does not fall into the trap of using "one" as what Fowler calls "the false first-personal ONE", in place of the pronoun "I".

I quite agree with you about the parentheses. I can sympathise with Crank42, as well, since I also overuse them. If the parentheses really need to be there, it's probably better to use a footnote; after all, this isn't Lisp. Parentheical interjections, separated by dashes, em or other, are not quite the same thing. Sometimes one needs to amplify a point with something which just doesn't quite justify a separate sentence. That's what the parenthetical inclusions, sans paretheses, are for.

I'm guessing that your criteria are based on making things easy to read. That's a worthy goal, and colons, semicolons and parenthetical inclusions can lead us away from that goal, since they are indicators of complicated sentence structures, which confuse the illiterate majority.

On the other hand, well chosen punctuation can also make it possible for writers to express clear, logical thoughts clearly and logically. Complicated thoughts usually require complicated writing to state fully and clearly. See the Federalist papers for some wonderful examples of complex thoughts clearly expressed in complex sentences. You can see that in Fowler, as well.

Crank42's idea seems to be that those of us who can do better should. I'm fairly certain that he isn't suggesting that the illiterates should refrain from posting until they've brought their English skills up to the eighth grade level. Thus, I think that it makes sense for him to write at a higher--than--eighth--grade--level. He's aiming at the people who can read what he wrote, not the ones who think that he's showing off by writing gibberish. That's why I think that the by--the--numbers editing you proposed is off track here.

Getting off the topic now...

A lot of the responses seem to revolve around some variant of "grammer suks, ,dood,... like;, if i dont get, it why; should you'??" I can sympathise a bit with that bunch too, since I very nearly ended up in their shoes. I hated English in school, and learned rather less than the bare minimum about the details of grammar and spelling. That's a huge problem for me today. It might have been a lot worse if my parents hadn't seen to it that I could speak gramatically.

I have given up reading illiterately--composed prose; the signal--to--noise ratio is just too bad. The fact is that, as Crank42 points out, sloppy presentation is indistinguishable from sloppy thought, and ignorance of artsy--fartsy nonsense like grammar and punctuation is often indicative of ignorance of other artsy--fartsy nonsense such as history, math and civics. Without some grounding in the world as it is and what has gone before, posters see everything through the fresh eyes of a puppy, and are about as interesting and informative as a puppy (and just to get in two last sets of parentheses, the illiterates are too prickly to ever be cute (See Fowler on split infinitives; he's delightful as always, and right as usual.)).

[ Parent ]

Irony - Funny (none / 0) (#155)
by mami on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 05:11:20 PM EST

Nice post. You just made me aware of my own style.

* unnecessary use of the pronoun "one", rather than identifying the subject,

Do you know that I (female) use the word "one" often instead of "he/she". This is mostly because in this esteemed political correct community everybody just waits to jump at you to prove you are sexist.

overuse of parentheses when unnecessary,

Great, you are right, I do this always, if I am too lazy to reread my paragraphs to put some more periods, where they belong, in order to break up my endless sentences. (See, the last sentence is living proof of it :-)). And then I always put a lot of commas where they don't belong. That's because I hate English punctuation rules. They are clear as mud to me. In German the punctuation rules are pretty clear, we use them much more to structure long sentences. Germans always tend to write in long sentences. Our greatest writers and poets have done it. May be that's why we don't consider it that bad as long as the sentences are grammatically correct.

overuse of parenthetical clauses, often broken up by the horrible and rarely appropriate em-dash, usually distinguished by a double-hyphen ("--") online

Right, but sometimes it's easier to read an online post which is written this way. Using indenting tabs and lists and a lot of white space makes it easier on your eyes. Reading a screen is different from reading printed page in a book.

[ Parent ]

Re: Irony - Funny (none / 0) (#198)
by Dolohov on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 06:51:24 PM EST

Your use of "one" is probably not incorrect. The way I understood the rule is that when one has a particular person in mind, then the appropriate pronoun "he", "she", "it, or "Dolohov" is to be used. When a specific person is not in mind, "one" may be used, and sometimes should be.


Parentheses are a problem for me as well. I can't plead German, since I speak English natively, and Japanese doesn't inspire these problems. I can, however, plead "LISP programmer" and hope that my grammarian tormentors have mercy. :)

[ Parent ]

Nitpicking the nitpickers (2.62 / 8) (#30)
by 0xdeadbeef on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:36:15 PM EST

I've never bought the "it's" / "its" distinction. It seems absurd to create a special case in the grammer to avoid semantic ambiguity. I also cringe every time I see people doing stuff like "Linus' kernel", though at least the author agrees with me there.

How can anyone rationalize the stupid rules regarding the possesive form of nouns? I thought perhaps "its" is so because all the other possesive pronouns have their own form without apostrophes. But then I saw this author had used "one's" in several places, and a quick search on google seems to indicate that this is "correct".

What's the deal? Structure is good until it contradicts our arbitrary rules?

If you want consistency... (4.00 / 3) (#35)
by _Quinn on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:55:15 PM EST

   ... try Loglan (http://www.loglan.org), or something similar. (I'd expect any designed language, like Esperanto, to have a `rational' syntax. Incidentally, the `hacker-style' of `logical quotes' -- not sticking punctuation inside the quotes it you're not quoting punctuation -- is becoming recognized as a legitimate alternative.)

-_Quinn
Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
its his and hers (3.66 / 3) (#65)
by anonymous cowerd on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 11:21:29 AM EST

its is not a special case. it's analogous to other possessives of definite pronouns like his and hers. That's easy to remember as "hi's" looks so unnatural. As far as that business about "Linus' kernel," I guess people do it this way or that, this being a free country, but one authority, the famous Strunk'n'White Elements of Style, says and I quote:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles's friend
Burns's poems
the witch's malice

Exceptions are the possesives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake...

End quote. Now a certain degree of deference to authority is good and well but as far as I am concerned this cheer thang is my language and that makes me the boss so I'll write as I please, and I intend to except their exception, and let's see what either Strunk or White plan to do about it, huh?!

Yours WDK - WKiernan@concentric.net

"This calm way of flying will suit Japan well," said Zeppelin's granddaughter, Elisabeth Veil.
[ Parent ]

You're asking the wrong question. (3.62 / 8) (#33)
by _Quinn on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 10:53:16 PM EST

   The question is not `Why is online writing so bad,' but `Why is (the off-line writing that I see) so good?' I think some consideration of this question -- especially the parenthical section -- will make the answer clear.

-_Quinn
Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
Oops. (none / 0) (#223)
by _Quinn on Wed Mar 21, 2001 at 09:21:34 PM EST

   It's a bit late now, but that should have been `Why is (the) off-line writing (that I see) so good?'.

-_Quinn
Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Unfortunately.... (2.71 / 7) (#41)
by Sairon on Sat Mar 10, 2001 at 11:53:50 PM EST

I find that ALL writing has taken a slump in recent years. It seems that people online care about it more than most, though. I would guess that this is because it is our only means of communication.

JPM

Excellent article. +1FP (3.40 / 5) (#44)
by jabber on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:19:54 AM EST

But do take into consideration those people for whom English is not the primary language. Be a little more flexible because, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

Glaring error in point 5 (2.00 / 5) (#50)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:11:48 AM EST

There are ways around that rule; this sentence has two propositions. (The second proposition came after the semicolon.)

That should be a colon, not a semi-colon. You could use a semi-colon if you listed more than one way, with the semi-colon as list separator. The initial colon would still be required though.

I do hope you'll take that in the same spirit as your story. But since your story is irresponsibly espousing a major grammar-crime, I also expect you to practice what you preach and ask for this story to be withdrawn so that you can edit and resubmit.


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
huh? (5.00 / 1) (#79)
by ODiV on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:22:44 PM EST

What does his use of the semi-colon have to do with a list?

AFAIK a semi-colon is used to seperate two seperate thoughts. It's similar to a period because both thoughts could be their own sentences, but the semi-colon implies that the two are somehow related.


--
[ odiv.net ]
[ Parent ]
His first sentence promises (2.00 / 2) (#81)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:36:11 PM EST

and the second delivers, so a colon is appropriate. You could even replace the colon with a dash, so the link between the sentences is direct and a colon is correct. Using a semi-colon to link two vaguely related statements isn't good grammar at all, AFAIK.


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Problem with editing, not writing (4.30 / 10) (#53)
by bjrubble on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:35:22 AM EST

I think a lot of the content on the Internet is great, for a first draft. What is missing is that process of editing that off-line writing usually goes through, in which the author and preferably others critically examine both ideas and language.

My experience with bad grammar is, it's easy to catch and fix, therefore if it's still sitting there you didn't go back through your writing very much. Therefore your ideas remain unexamined as well.

I end up posting about 10% of what I write. Many things are trivial punctuation, but most of them are awkward or misleading language, and a surprisingly large number of them are me rejecting entire lines of thought and their conclusions because upon review they don't add up or don't contribute to the point I'm trying to make. And I could still use an editor; everyone has blind spots and unexamined assumptions.

I think the level of editing that's realistic on weblogs will never be what it is for print publications, because it comes down to time and effort and ego-swallowing. But I don't think it's unreasonable to expect enough review that the silly syntax errors get fixed.

A recent example (3.66 / 6) (#54)
by pasti on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:51:25 AM EST

I couldn't agree more with the writer on this. While I don't much like Finnish as a school subject (I'm a Finn; English lessons are only about vocabulary and grammar) the importance of writing skills recently occured to me in a rather shocking fashion.

I recieved a presentation, via mail, from a company who is planning to create a geographical area, which spans several commonwealths, that provides facilities modern IT companies need, such as broadband network connections. The author made good points, his facts were (mostly) correct and his "laymanization" was good. It's sad that the presentation itself was poorly written. I had to struggle to get through the poor grammar to the ideas behind the text. I'm not a linguistic puritan, but the errors and flaws in the text infuriated me about half-a-dozen times. The presentation was three pages long.



Precise grammar can dehumanise and antagonise (4.27 / 11) (#55)
by itsbruce on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 06:03:07 AM EST

I've always taken pride in my prose style. When I first started to use the internet I applied the same rigour to my e-mails and news-posts that I use with any written document. It took me longer than it should have done to realise that this was having a negative effect.

Internet communication is simply more intimate and direct than any other written media. It has the same emotional and psychological impact as face-to-face spoken conversation. In that context formal grammar rules are entirely inappropriate. Nobody talks the way they write - as shown by the fact that only skilled writers can write the way people talk.

When people do apply the grammar rules for formal writing to their speech the result is cold and distancing. This is also the effect it has when used in internet communication. I found that my jokes would be interpreted as attacks, simple observations as sneers etc. If my experience is anything to go by, this kind of misunderstanding is the root of a significant percentage of flames.

So I made a deliberate effort to write more loosely, in a manner closer to my spoken style. It really made a difference.

It doesn't just apply to e-mails/usenet/weblog posts. People don't read web pages the same way they would read a proclamation on a Town Hall noticeboard (unless they're pages on a Town Hall website). They approach web pages as if it were someone standing up and saying "This is what I think" or "This is what I have to say" and respond as if this were addressed to them (as a member of the immediate audience). If you don't take that into account in your prose style you will not have the impact you want.

In the case of k5 submissions, that is exactly what you are doing: standing up in a community gathering and saying "Listen everybody, I have something I need to say". This doesn't mean that your style need be folksy but you should remember that you are making an oration, not submitting an article to an academic journal.

The discussion is the important thing. I only pay attention to someone's grammar where it is so poor that it obscures what they are saying - and even then there's no point flaming them about it. For the same reason, I usually mark down grammar flames, even when they are editorial comments, because they have a negative impact on the discussion.


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
Skilled writers use better dialgoue, actually. (3.80 / 5) (#72)
by Greyjack on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:50:12 PM EST

Nobody talks the way they write - as shown by the fact that only skilled writers can write the way people talk.

Actually, writers with the most skill create dialogue that you think matches the way people talk. If David Mamet wrote dialogue in the fractured, halting, repetitive way that people really use, his stuff would be unbearable.

Eavesdrop on the next booth over next time you're at the restaurant--paying attention to how they talk, rather than what they're saying. Start doing that often enough, and you'll begin to wonder how anybody ever understands anybody else :)

--
Here is my philosophy: Everything changes (the word "everything" has just changed as the word "change" has: it now means "no change") --Ron Padgett


[ Parent ]
And I need to check for tranpsosed letters. (5.00 / 1) (#75)
by Greyjack on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:57:58 PM EST

Dialogue, dialgoue, same diff :-P

--
Here is my philosophy: Everything changes (the word "everything" has just changed as the word "change" has: it now means "no change") --Ron Padgett


[ Parent ]
Interpersonal communication (4.33 / 3) (#137)
by spaceghoti on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 12:29:32 PM EST

Nobody talks the way they write

I hate to say it, but you should speak for yourself. I spend a lot of time churning out posts or chatting online or just trying to soldier through writing a story. When I write either formally or informally, I attempt to adhere to the rules for English literature as closely as I can. Ultimately, I've found this has affected my everyday speech patterns. For the past fifteen years I've been mistaken for an "intellectual" because I tend to talk the way I write, rather than the reverse. I don't always get it right; I stumble over words or phrases just like everyone else. But when I make a statement, it's usually presented in as clear and concise a manner as I can manage. This is now so natural to me that my fiancee comments when I deviate from this standard; usually done for emphasis or to make a point. My grammatical skills are far from perfect and I'm willing to admit that freely. That's why my webpage intro practically begs readers to provide me with feedback so that I can improve my prose.

My (questionable) command of language came less from my English classes and more from personal reading. Unfortunately, my habitual mistakes in conversation and writing clearly demonstrate this fact. You would not want me to teach your 5th grade grammar lessons, but I find that people pay attention to what I say a lot more than others who get "sloppy" with their presentation, even when they disagree. That observation is highly subjective, but I feel confident in making it.



"Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

[ Parent ]
Charming (none / 0) (#191)
by itsbruce on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 12:39:50 PM EST

I hate to say it, but you should speak for yourself.

Which is about as graceless a way of disagreeing as you could have found. Grammar is no substitute.

However correct your spoken English, you simply don't speak the same way you write. Try recording a normal conversation. Most people would think they were being slandered if presented with a transcript of their speech. It just shows how much mental editing we do.


--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Good Stuff (3.42 / 7) (#57)
by Remmis on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 07:35:40 AM EST

good, Article; and well-written.

It must have taken a lot of guts to be the one to post it, knowing that people would come out of the woodwork to pick on your grammar and spelling.

I think that most peoples arguments against the article are absolutely ridiculous and inane. To me, it seems like they are saying that there shouldn't be a standard at all, and that we should all come up with our own rules. People keep saying "It's fine as long as it doesn't take away from the meaning", well, that's the whole point. Everyone reads on a different level, and who's to say that something that makes sense to you will make sense to someone else. The answer is to have a standard and to try and follow it as best you can.

Some have said that people who follow correct grammar rules are just trying to seem superior, or some such nonesense. The only reason why anyone would say that is if they somehow feel inferior, and/or had trouble grasping grammar in school. Someone even said that those who have good grammar and spelling are ignorant. I'm not even going to waste time with that.

I have to admit that there is definitely a hazy area where it becomes more effort than it is worth to find out if you're truly using good grammar. Unfortunately that area is different for everyone, so you can't argue that grammar rules are bad.

One of the more important considerations when you're writing is that of audience. Which, I think, provides a funny contradiction. The New York Times is purposefully set up for, what, the 7th grade reading level? 8th? I think the K5 readership are well beyond NYT reading, yet here is where all the errors are made. In my opinion, the newspapers would have even more horrible spelling and grammar errors than you see here if they didnt have powerful editting tools. But then, I don't hold journalists in much esteem. The New York Times is basically drivel.

Anyway, if there can be an answer to the question the article poses, I think it would be mainly the fact that Joe Schmoe posts things online. So it follows that online writing will just be a reflection of the writing skills of society at large, whereas journalists at least have some training. (and editors)





Me too (3.50 / 4) (#60)
by pw201 on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 09:50:23 AM EST

This discussion reminds me of the perennial arguments on newsgroups between the people who quote the entire previous article and write their new text at the top (usually Outlook users), and the people who follow the standard Usenet quoting convention. The Outlook users will always point out that the quoting convention is only a convention and that it is their ideas that matter, not how they present them. Meanwhile, most people are ignoring the top-posted articles because they are hard to read.

There are conventions for English grammar. These conventions exist to enable communication. Articles which don't follow the conventions are harder to read than those which do.

While I agree that k5 should be less formal than an academic paper, it doesn't mean it should be a complete free for all. k5 is supposed to be for hackers and suchlike. People who can master programming languages should have no problems with the rules for apostrophes. If English isn't your native language, then that's far enough, but it strikes me as odd that English speaking hackers would not bother to understand their own language. I'm reminded of the Jargon File entry on lamer speak.

It's not hard to pick these rules up: assuming Fowler is the Fowler of Plain Words, his book would be a good place to start.

[ Parent ]

email quotation conventions (4.00 / 4) (#78)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:17:53 PM EST

This discussion reminds me of the perennial arguments on newsgroups between the people who quote the entire previous article and write their new text at the top (usually Outlook users), and the people who follow the standard Usenet quoting convention. The Outlook users will always point out that the quoting convention is only a convention and that it is their ideas that matter, not how they present them. Meanwhile, most people are ignoring the top-posted articles because they are hard to read.

I think both those positions are too simpleminded.

I find that there are two kinds of quoting: that which is merely done to remind the addressee of the previous content of the thread, and that which is made in the "conversational style" of electronic discussion: you quote a bit from the message, write a reply to that bit, quote a bit more, write a reply to that bit, and so on.

For the first kind, where the message text is autonomous and the quote just is for memory, I frankly prefer the message at the top, and the relevant previous email content at the bottom (with signatures and unnecessary levels of quoting cut out).

The second style is of course bottom quoted-- the quote text is meant to set the context against which particular points are evaluated.

--em
[ Parent ]

The problem is (4.00 / 1) (#93)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:50:57 PM EST

that there was at one time a convention which said that *all* quotations of the former type should go at the bottom of the message --- the reason for this was that you could get the new content without having to read the other stuff, unless you wanted it; it made mental processing of the message faster.

That convention got shattered, and no new convention has arisen to replace it.

[ Parent ]

*sigh* (3.83 / 6) (#80)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:25:00 PM EST

Some have said that people who follow correct grammar rules are just trying to seem superior, or some such nonesense. The only reason why anyone would say that is if they somehow feel inferior, and/or had trouble grasping grammar in school.

I had no problem grasping grammar at school. The reason I make my claim is that, with my academic preparation, I am in a very special position to observe that most of what passes for "grammar" is just pointless trivia.

Anyway, you got what I said wrong. I said nothing about people who "follow" correct grammar, but about people who complain when their petty irrational rules are broken, and, moreover, claim that somehow if your grammar is "sloppy", you are a "sloppy thinker", which is outright wrong.

Someone even said that those who have good grammar and spelling are ignorant. I'm not even going to waste time with that.

I for one have said nothing of the sort. I said that the people who ardently defend what passes for "grammar" are very ignorant of actual linguistics.

--em
[ Parent ]

but... (3.50 / 2) (#84)
by Remmis on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:52:32 PM EST

The whole reason I didn't mention any names was because I wasn't singling out any of the arguments against the article, it was just the theme I was feeling. And why did you feel it necessary to comment on the fact that you didn't say what I was refering to, if you didn't say it, I wasn't talking about you.

What do you base your conjecture that the rules are "irrational" and "petty" on? Would my (or any) post read the same way if all punctuation were removed? If the answer is no, then the rules aren't petty or irrational. They are there to make things easier, and anytime you follow one of the rules you only manage to break down your entire argument.

I'll allow you the fact that there are people out there who seem to seek out the first missing comma or mispelled word and bring it to everyone's attention. Surely, though, just because there are those out there that act high and mighty about it, doesn't make the entire system irrational. That's like saying the fact that there are corrupt politicians means the whole idea behind government is flawed.




[ Parent ]
There is a simple reason. (3.16 / 6) (#61)
by theR on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 10:09:21 AM EST

The reason online writing is so bad is because all writing is equally as bad. If you were to take a sampling of people and go to their houses to read everything they have written that was intended to be read by others, it would be as bad or worse than a similar sample of online writing.

Most people are not professional writers or English teachers. I don't think it is appropriate to expect everyone to have exceptional grammar. Would you expect somebody who is writing a note to a friend to write several drafts to make sure the grammar is proper?

Many sites on the internet are very informal, especially sites like this one and personal websites. I am not of the opinions that grammar doesn't matter, makes no difference in readability, or does not effect the perceived meaning of what is written. I am of the opinion that people should just make an honest effort to make their writings readable and understandable. I don't think it's reasonable to expect multiple drafts on comments (stories are different) before they are posted so that the grammar is perfect.

If each person makes the best possible effort to use good grammar, I think that will just have to be good enough and we should stop nitpicking.

Corporations (2.16 / 6) (#64)
by k5er on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 10:50:24 AM EST

Proper English? Are we talking American or British?
Long live k5, down with CNN.
I'll tell you why _my_ writing is bad. (3.66 / 6) (#68)
by Zukov on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:33:05 PM EST

  • I have about 2 spare minutes to make a post. Any time I spend looking up links and including them into my post gives me even less time to write well.
  • I cannot spell, punctuate, or capitalize to save my life. I considered diagraming sentances to be a complete waste of time.
  • I have never bothered to figure out how to make ispell work with emacs (although I expect it's not hard to do)
  • I cannot be bothered to open emacs and write my post in another window, spellcheck it, see how the html looks in the browser, edit, repeat, etc.
  • I have no editor (another person, not emacs) to look over my work to point out all the glaring errors it contains.
  • My posts are not my lifes work, so my efforts to polish them are not very great.

    Keep in mind that most of the writing you see printed on paper has been gone over by an editor, the page layout people, and possibly others before it makes it onto the pages of the WSJ. And even the WSJ makes mistakes sometimes.

    Do not confuse a persons thought process/intelligence with their presentation. Some of the most brilliant people are shy and inarticulate, and may have other personality non-idealities. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. My strengths are in engineering, not in writing.

    ¿ëë±È¶ ±Hæñ ¥ØÜ (§^Ð

    Yes, I have just bumbled upon Gnome Character Map. Please ! me.

  • Not forum posts, etc.... (4.00 / 3) (#73)
    by Greyjack on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:52:17 PM EST

    I don't think crank42 was talking about forum posts, kuro5hin discussions and the like. His comments are pointed more towards sites which post articles, news, etc, for general consumption.

    i.e., in the K5 context, he's griping about article submissions rather than discussion posts.

    --
    Here is my philosophy: Everything changes (the word "everything" has just changed as the word "change" has: it now means "no change") --Ron Padgett


    [ Parent ]
    Ok, that makes more sense.. (2.00 / 2) (#106)
    by Zukov on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:32:36 PM EST

    If you are going to post a story, you should spend the time to differentiate between "for", "four", and "fore", as well as "there", "their", and "they're"

    ¿ëë±È¶ ±Hæñ ¥ØÜ (§^Ð

    Yes, I have just bumbled upon Gnome Character Map. Please ! me.
    [ Parent ]

    Grammar has its place (3.33 / 6) (#71)
    by Kellnerin on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 12:45:34 PM EST

    ... and an important one at that, but human beings are very tolerant of lapses on the whole. For instance, half of the people who voted in the last US election didn't care that the presidential candidate they supported doesn't make any sense. In fact it could be argued that Gore's pedantic, precise use of language obscured his message as much as Bush's lack of grammar did.
    Somebody go tell Kellnerin it's time for her to change her sig. -johnny
    Linguistics (4.00 / 9) (#77)
    by kubalaa on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:11:29 PM EST

    Considering this is basically a rebuttal to "English Teachers Are the Root of All Evil," it would be worthwhile for people to read that instead of making points which have already been made and countered. Also required reading is Stephen Pinker's "The Language Instinct" on so-called "Language Mavens."

    I will summarize his point (inadequately, of course, so you should still read it). It's ridiculous to say that bad grammar, as commonly practiced, is an impediment to understanding, when, after years of having "correct" grammar beaten into them, people still find it more natural to use the vernacular. Grammar rules are arbitrarily imposed by people who stand to gain by being "in" on the rules which the rest of society can do well enough without. To use those examples provided:

    • If "it's" and "there" are damagingly ambiguous in writing, why are they identical to "its" and "their" in speech? Or I suppose you'd prefer that every word had a distinct, unambigious pronunciation as well?
    • The apostrophe is just a typographic convention. Germans, and people hearing English instead of reading it, do just fine without it. Give the brain some credit! The only difficulty created by these mistakes is that of grammar Nazis taking the time to flip out every time they notice something amiss.
    • Nobody I've seen uses capitals randomly in the fashion you describe. SHOUTING is another matter, but that's just an annoying internet-ism like "l8r" and using all lower-case. It's an issue of style, not grammar, and not worth protesting.
    • I actually agree with your complaints against overwrought sentences and unclear writing:

    Unclear writing is often synonymous with unclear thinking (Pinker disagrees with me here). Ironically, I think that this has the same root cause as "good" grammar; people trying to derive a sense of intellectual superiority through writing. Except in this case, they fail at it, and end up using ridiculous metaphors, twisted sentences, overgrown words, and so on. People making up words like "francophone" is a legitimate problem; using "it's" incorrectly is not.

    Spoken vs. Written (4.14 / 7) (#110)
    by sinclair on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:05:45 PM EST

    • If "it's" and "there" are damagingly ambiguous in writing, why are they identical to "its" and "their" in speech? Or I suppose you'd prefer that every word had a distinct, unambigious pronunciation as well?
    • The apostrophe is just a typographic convention. Germans, and people hearing English instead of reading it, do just fine without it. Give the brain some credit! The only difficulty created by these mistakes is that of grammar Nazis taking the time to flip out every time they notice something amiss.

    I wish to point out at that spoken language and written language are different things. There's some different mental machinery involved, and listening involves a different parsing strategy than reading. (More later.)

    Why is this important? In both examples above, you're saying that because there's no difference in the sound of a spoken word, the written words should be interchangeable. I disagree. In speech, "their" and "they're" sound more or less the same, but you can easily pick up the difference from context because speech comes slowly, one word at a time.

    When I read, I don't read each word indivually, serially, and I don't speak them to myself in my head. Instead, I read by phrases, taking in a number of words at a time, and using the context to form a reasonable expectation of what word structure comes next. Getting the proper word in text is important, because with their different othography, "their" and "they're" signify very different concepts. I'm thinking in concepts, not sounds. This means that substitution of a homophone can easily throw off my parsing of a text, making me go back to carefully re-parse to get the correct meaning. It's like a missed branch prediction in a pipelined processor; it costs a lot of cycles.

    Of course, I'm fully capable of slowing down, reading word-by-word, and getting the meaning out of poor writing, but often I find it not worth the effort to do so. Many people say, if a message communicates the point, who cares if it uses good spelling and grammar? To which I say, it didn't communicate anything if I didn't read it!

    • Nobody I've seen uses capitals randomly in the fashion you describe. SHOUTING is another matter, but that's just an annoying internet-ism like "l8r" and using all lower-case. It's an issue of style, not grammar, and not worth protesting.

    Again, I disagree; it's worth protesting. Capitalization is a typographical convention, of course, but it's one that's intended to increase legibility by giving visual clues as to where sentences begin and end. A text in all lowercase is just damn hard to read, for the same reasons as above. I have little patience for text in all lowercase, and if it's more than just a few sentences, I don't read it. In fact, when Slashdot linked some text by Bill Joy a while back, I didn't read it. He probably had something interesting to say, but the doofus thought he was e.e. cummings or something, and wrote all in lowercase.

    Truly, I desire good spelling, syntax, and grammar because it facilitates communication, not out of a sense of superiority.

    (Of course, I do make exceptions for people with genuine limitations on their ability to write well, or for those trying hard. I reserve my ire for those who can write well, but do not.)

    [ Parent ]

    re: Spoken vs Written (4.00 / 1) (#118)
    by kubalaa on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 06:49:40 PM EST

    Getting the proper word in text is important, because with their different othography, "their" and "they're" signify very different concepts.

    You're right of course, in this case; in some others -- "its' vs "it's," colon vs semicolon, or the placement of punctuation in quotations, for example -- the distinction is easily overlooked and doesn't noticeably affect your parsing. I'd go so far as to say most common grammatical errors are too subtle for most people, which is why they're easy to make, easy to miss, and require special training as an editor to catch consistently.

    I was also trying to point out that ambiguity is rarely a problem in comprehension. If we went to a phoenetic spelling system, then you'd have no trouble with people mixing up "there" and "their" because they'd be the same. As if that could ever happen. It's not that we shouldn't have any rules, because then we'd get too much regional divergence and limit communication. Rather, we need rules which are closer to the way most people use language.

    Another thing I didn't mean to imply was that it takes no effort to write well. Easy to say and easy to understand are not the same for reasons totally unrelated to grammar. You can be blatantly inconsistent*, unorganized, wordy, and vague, all of which require care to avoid for clear communication. That's enough to worry about without bending over backwards to conform to artificial rules of grammar.

    About capitalization issues; I say they're not worth protesting because you're preaching to the choir. It's the rule rather than the exception on the Internet, and anybody that cares already aboids it. I guess you could say that of any grammar points, but while poeple often make grammatical mistakes without being aware of it, they intentionally use crazy capitalization.

    * By inconsistent I don't mean inconsistent as language mavens claim "it's" for "its" is inconsistent; this is simply consistency under a different set of rules (natural linguistic, instead of artificial grammatical). I mean obvious stuff like spelling the exact same word in different ways.

    [ Parent ]

    Their vs. there (4.50 / 2) (#125)
    by Per Abrahamsen on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 04:36:34 AM EST

    > If "it's" and "there" are damagingly ambiguous
    > in writing, why are they identical to "its" and
    > "their" in speech?

    I normally read *a lot* faster than I speak. Mistakes like "their" instead of "there" forces me to slow down, vocalize the text, and try to guess what is meant.

    I think this is particular problematic for a foreigner like me who have learned most of my vocabulary from books, and rarely think much about pronunciation. I hadn't even thought about the connection between "there" and "their" until I started reading Usenet. It confused me to no end the first couple of times I saw it. It is a mistake that is only made by native speakers.

    Its vs It's is not quote as bad, and are also made by foreigners. Its instead of It's just read like a missing character (a common error), and "It's" instead of "Its" just look like a misapplied possessive. The rules for possessive in English aren't very intuitive. They do often make parsing the slightly slower, but it is nowhere as bad as "their" vs. "there".

    Other confusing mistakes that are often made by American college students (they don't seem so common from people with .uk addresses for some reason) are:

    Right vs. Write, vs. Rite.

    Sight vs. Cite.

    Hear vs. Here.

    These words have nothing to do with each other, and they force the reader to stop up and read aloud to have a chance of understanding what the writer meant.

    [ Parent ]
    re: Their vs There (none / 0) (#142)
    by kubalaa on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:40:19 PM EST

    You're right. I blame this more on our crazy spelling system than anything else. I know "correct spelling" is an even more recent invention than "correct grammar," and while I don't know exactly how it was begun it wouldn't surprise me if it was another attempt by the upper class to create a linguistic barrier to upward mobility.

    [ Parent ]
    Socialist Claptrap... (3.50 / 2) (#147)
    by Robert Uhl on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 02:16:50 PM EST

    The reason that our spelling is so odd is not that the upper class were attempting to keep the poor down, but rather that it was solidified immediately before the language went through a pronunciation shift. The spoken form changed while the written stayed the same. `Knight' comes from `cnekht' (I use a kh for clarity). `Walked' was pronounced `walked.'

    The old method involved folks spelling a word however they pronounced it--this resulted in documents illegible to anyone who did not speak one's particular dialect. I miit wriit this sintins liik this. But yu mite write it like this. In hee maht wraht et lahk tha'as.

    Similarly, one can read ancient Chinese because the characters are the same. The spoken language is utterly different.

    [ Parent ]

    Old English (none / 0) (#180)
    by Per Abrahamsen on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 05:11:02 AM EST

    English from before standardized spelling is way harder to read for a foreigner. Not only do you have to "read it aloud" to grasp what it means, but you have to know the particular dialect spoken at the time and place where the text was written. Standardized spelling is necessity for an international language, or even a language where old text should be accessible to new generations.

    [ Parent ]
    "Francophone" as a legitimate word (3.00 / 1) (#128)
    by Killio on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:34:17 AM EST

    People making up words like "francophone" is a legitimate problem

    How is "Francophone" a made up word (more than any other word is 'made up')?

    Main Entry: fran·co·phone
    Pronunciation: -"fOn
    Function: adjective
    Usage: often capitalized
    Date: 1962
    : of, having, or belonging to a population using French as its first or sometimes second language - Francophone noun
    Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (www.m-w.com)
    1962? It's a legitimate word, so I don't know where you're coming from.

    ---
    Moo!

    [ Parent ]
    Francophone (none / 0) (#143)
    by kubalaa on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:42:21 PM EST

    Hmm, you're right. Teach me to trust "dict." To be honest, I was stretching for a nice snappy example to use as a conclusion but the writing in the article was too damn good.

    [ Parent ]
    brand-new-made-up-words (none / 0) (#145)
    by Moss Collum on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:56:29 PM EST

    Leaving aside the problem with your particular example, which you've already addressed--

    Is there really anything wrong with people coining new words? I should think the rule here, as usual, would be "if you're going to do it, do it well". There's nothing wrong with neologisms, but try to make them good ones.

    Or perhaps the emphasis was on "like 'francophone'"--new words should sound like words, not over-technical semi-latinate monstrosities that still read like jargon when they've been part of the language for years.


    This is a .sig.
    Now there are two of them.
    There are two _____.


    [ Parent ]
    Neologism (5.00 / 1) (#177)
    by flowers on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 01:01:32 AM EST

    It delights me that searching Merriam-Webster for "neologism" renders the following results:

    1 : a new word, usage, or expression
    2 : a meaningless word coined by a psychotic


    [ Parent ]
    Grammar Problems (3.20 / 5) (#82)
    by lucas on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 01:48:36 PM EST

    Yeah, it's bad... but what is complaining going to do? Make enemies with people who already feel terrible about their spelling errors? Are many people going to read this and say, "Man, I suck at grammar. I need to go back to rudimentary English class!"

    I'm more inclined to comment on the point being made in a story than to figure out which errors were committed. Such thinking sometimes degrades great stories to that of a supposed simpleton. We don't have the Queen's English anymore as our standard; let's let language freely progress in a natural state.

    If "it's" will become "its" and depend on the context and, for instance, if "to be" becomes normalized and simplified (e.g., "you be", "we be") instead of irregular, we should let it and not interfere with the way people use language.

    It is ironic that some people of Kuro5hin will argue virulently about freedom and then want to censor the way language is used by the people who speak it.

    They sometimes forget that perhaps natural progression is, indeed, doubleplusgood.

    Re: Grammar Problems (4.33 / 3) (#105)
    by Dolohov on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:21:46 PM EST

    The point I got out of the article was that it is to the benefit of posters to use correct English whenever possible. There is no doubt in my mind that sloppy organization, poor spelling, and poor grammar make it difficult to get a point across. The author, I suspect, was not trying to make people feel bad, but rather trying to encourage them to take a good long look at their writing practices.

    You have a valid point that language changes according to useage. See, as an example, the recent change of heart with regards to split infinitives on the part of the OED. But there is a certain wrong-ness to the assumption that one should not follow rules and guidelines in the faith that those rules and guidelines will change. That's the way Microsoft works, and nobody likes it.

    I see the use of grammar and spelling rules not as a series of restrictions, but as a guideline. A person is not being forced to follow them, but is reminded that without these rules, they risk being marginalized and being taken less than seriously. Observe a recent story on the Other Site, in which Harlan Ellison wrote a lengthy article about a serious topic. His point was left almost entirely undiscussed as people ridiculed his ALL CAPS writing style. Admittedly, that's beyond what we see here at K5, but in my mind, it's a similar phenomenon.

    [ Parent ]

    Some editorial feedback (4.14 / 7) (#90)
    by kellan on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:39:26 PM EST

    I wonder if K5's allure arises from the inherent limitations of its medium, like haiku. If I had seen this story in the submission queue, I would have had several editorial suggestions, all of which would have been ignored, due both to the limited ability to edit that K5 provides, and to its self imposed limits. I might as well make my observations now.

    crank42, I think its a noble project, trying to "debug" the content that appears on K5, or Slashdot, or similiar sites(Indymedia). These sites live or die by their open publishing and community participation. Anyone can write, create, publish, and so many of the old gate-keepers(like editors) are removed. However, I feel your story is a little unstructured, and confused about what it is trying to accomplish.

    You say online writing is abysmal, and give some examples of common grammatical mistakes. I would submit that in a conversation nobody cares, or would even notice (as many of them turn on homonyms), the mistakes you detail. Therefore policing these sorts of mistakes would seem irrelevant for chat, or the quick back and forth of many discussion forums. A fact supported by the overwhelming numbers of mistakes in, and popularity of said forums. You acknowledge the reality of the web's "quasi-conversational" but quickly dismiss it. This form of communication is a very important one, and your dismissal seems to have confused some of your readers. I think this is because you are discussing only a single form or writing, not all online writing as you imply. You are talking about improving the quality of crafted pieces of writing; fiction, journalism, biography. In light of that, I have some suggestions for your piece.

    Stick to a single idea, and make it clear. Especially on K5, many people are going to zoom through your story in a race to comment on it. Decide if you want to talk about the importance of clear writing, or the dearth of it on the web, or how to write clearly, or if you wish to give a grammar lesson. People will probably only take a single idea from your story, so choose it carefully. I think your discovering this. You've run into K5's notorious "grammar nazi" backlash, and the rest of your story has been lost to people stuck on how passe grammar is.

    This is the web, use links. Its too bad that "multi-dimensional" stories can't be posted onto K5; stories that contain several pages that be moved through in a web-like non-linear fashion. However Scoop does support links, so consider next time, providing a teaser, and a link to a longer grammatical lesson out of band(you could even stick it in your diary to overcome people's resistance to leaving the site). You start to educate people about clear writing, and grammar, without the story being about the proper conjugation of its, which by itself is a pretty silly topic for a story.

    However I think you also need to change your expectations. Good writing is important on the web, sometimes more important then in print where you often have a good deal of context. Still its difficult to convince oneself to go through the whole, outline, draft, edit, revise, rewrite process for what is largely throw away content. A few people will see this comment I'm posting. Maybe one or two will reply. If it was very insightlful, or well written (which its not) somebody might email it around, or bookmark it, but in reality this story, and its associated comments will slip into obscurity very quickly.

    kellan

    Thanks for the note about scope (4.00 / 1) (#115)
    by crank42 on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:50:38 PM EST

    kellan is correct, in reading my original as having more to do with the formal parts of online submissions, and less with the responses. I hope my revision makes that clearer.

    That said, I do think that a little bit of attention to simple things like sentence structure is useful, even in simple responses. That's because, while online responses are something like spoken communication in their formality and immediacy, they are nothing like spoken communication in their range of expression. It's extremely difficult to communicate the simplest verbal nuance in written words. A little extra effort on the part of the writer is called for, in order to make a point as clearly as it might be made verbally.

    [ Parent ]

    Note that (3.50 / 4) (#91)
    by aphrael on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 02:45:49 PM EST

    the random capitalization rule is a flexible one ... eg., sometimes Really Important Nouns can be capitalized to emphasize them, and it's stylistically ok to avoid capitalizing i in certain cases.

    Important Nouns (4.33 / 3) (#104)
    by sinclair on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:11:54 PM EST

    In my experience, and in my usage, capitalization of (non-pronoun) Important Nouns is almost always a sarcastic device, used to poke at an over-inflated sense of importance on the part of the entity described.

    [ Parent ]

    Not so! (none / 0) (#132)
    by ubu on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:31:45 AM EST

    While that is partly true, in my experience it is much more common to use capitalized words to signal specific and consistent use of a particular word with regard to a specific concept. For instance: Truth, Law, State, and Free Software.

    Some people blanch at the use of capitals because it seems pretentious, but they are probably missing the historical (literary) tradition associated with certain capitalized words.

    The best cure for this and other writing problems is to encourage more reading. Almost without fail the sloppiest writers are anemic readers.

    Ubu


    --
    As good old software hats say - "You are in very safe hands, if you are using CVS !!!"
    [ Parent ]
    Capitalization. (none / 0) (#133)
    by ucblockhead on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:45:27 AM EST

    The original rule was that you capitalized "I", "God" and any pronoun refering to God, as in "Him", "He", etc.

    I've seen in used by analogy for any noun that is, as you say, really important, even in print. Newspapers in San Francisco often refer to "the City" rather than "the city" when refering to San Francisco. (Arrogant, yeah, but acceptable to their editors, apparently.)

    Neal Stephenson likes to use it for effect, though he's mostly being ironic (as another poster mentioned).
    -----------------------
    This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
    [ Parent ]
    Spanish (none / 0) (#225)
    by aphrael on Sat Mar 24, 2001 at 07:16:55 PM EST

    still seems to capitalize 'Senor'. In German, all nouns are capitalized, as is 'Du' and its derivatives in formal writing (although not in informal). In English, though, I think this is an acceptable Style decision; Capitalization is reasonably left to the Discretion of the author. (And if you do much reading of 18th or 19th-century English, you will find that capitalization of English in that area was very much as I just described. :)

    [ Parent ]
    Revisions (4.50 / 8) (#100)
    by crank42 on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 03:16:39 PM EST

    I'm afraid that this story got accepted before I had a chance to re-work it along the lines of several of the helpful editorial comments. I didn't expect that, as some pieces seem to linger considerably longer than overnight in the submissions queue. In any case, I have worked it over again. You can see the (I hope less cranky) version in my diary entry. I did it this way to avoid re-submitting something that has already been accepted. If someone knows how I can get the original removed instead, that'd be useful (I've looked in the docs, and had no luck, but RTFM is ok with me).

    Thanks to the many helpful editors and their comments. Brickbats have already been offered.

    nazis (3.12 / 8) (#103)
    by jeanlucpikachu on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:05:28 PM EST

    Nazis are evil people who, 50 some years ago, were responsible for the deaths of MILLIONS. I mean, pick any book, video game, or movie, and whenever you want to represent pure evil, you use Nazis. Somehow, associating them with people who have a penchant for proper grammer seems slightly weird. Can't we just call them grammer fanatics?

    --
    Peace,
    Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu AIM: jeanlucpikachu
    I'm wilfully missing your point (5.00 / 2) (#108)
    by pwhysall on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:39:01 PM EST

    But it's grammar, not grammer
    --
    Peter
    K5 Editors
    I'm going to wager that the story keeps getting dumped because it is a steaming pile of badly formatted fool-meme.
    CheeseBurgerBrown
    [ Parent ]
    Re: nazis [OT] (3.00 / 1) (#111)
    by Ludwig on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 05:09:56 PM EST

    I think the phrase incorporates Nazis because of the Teutonic reputation for precision and detail, while "fanatics" conjures more of a wild-haired bomb-throwing anarchist image. "Grammar Police" works as an alternative if you're uncomfortable with Nazis.

    Of course, if one were able to post anonymously, one might suggest that you focus your critical eye on all those books, video games, and movies that use Nazis as a convenient crutch whenever they need an unassailable example of Pure Evil, itself a facile crutch to work around the problem of characterization. One might do that. Not me, though.

    [ Parent ]

    possibly why (4.00 / 1) (#127)
    by Glacky on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 05:29:15 AM EST

    I think people who bite every time someone misspells a word or puts a ' in the wrong place are referred to as grammar nazis mainly because they seem to have this idealised notion of an Aryan Master (Grammar) Race. All deviants should be culled. not that they kill people who write wrong. (intentional mistake there, hehe)

    'fanatics' doesnt quite convey the same rigid extremism of these people. I think they need to get laid more ;-)

    [ Parent ]

    Irony (4.20 / 10) (#109)
    by regeya on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 04:49:28 PM EST

    You write

    I suggest that prospective authors select a style guide -- my preference is Fowler's Modern English Usage (2d ed, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1926, 1965), but Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (3d ed, New York: WW Norton, 1993) is well-respected -- and read it. Follow its suggestions.
    and
    Even supposed professionals -- Jon Katz springs immediately to mind -- frequently post long-winded, repetitive, confused pieces which, in the worst cases, contradict themselves.
    Yet, when I read the first two paragraphs:
    Of late, there have been several discussions online about the journalistic responsibility of online news sites, their utility as sources of news, and the like. But one thing that is rarely discussed is the abysmal quality of much online prose. Below, I categorise two distinct problems, and suggest some things those writing online generally, and those moderating on this site can do.

    Whenever the topics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage or even writing style come up, especially in respect of the online world, one frequently encounters responses along the lines of, "What's the problem? As long as the message gets across, who cares?" The problem, though, is threefold. First, elementary mistakes tend to distract readers from the message. That would not be remarkable, except that the distraction (at least, for me) is largely because coherent thoughts are expressed in sentences; and badly written sentences and paragraphs indicate sloppy thinking. Finally, for user-source sites such as K5, bad writing undermines the seriousness with which the (badly-written) argument is taken elsewhere. Since writing something down is, in at least some cases, intended to communicate an idea, the resistance to that idea outside its own forum might well be an indication that the idea has been expressed badly, rather than an indication that the idea itself has been rejected.

    I got the impression that your definition of good writing is an exercise in extreme verbosity. Remember one of the great rules of S&W: Omit needless words. More importantly, use definite, specific, concrete language. I give your first paragraph a C. Not that I'm a great writer, mind you, but your writing style seems needlessly pompous and arrogant.

    Don't let this fool you into thinking I don't agree with you. I do. I just wish you'd not fallen into your own trap. :-}

    [ yokelpunk | kuro5hin diary ]

    Words = opcodes. Use them well! (4.50 / 2) (#154)
    by John Miles on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 04:13:03 PM EST

    I got the impression that your definition of good writing is an exercise in extreme verbosity. Remember one of the great rules of S&W: Omit needless words.

    I've always thought of English as an assembly language, in which words are the opcodes. You want to get your point across (i.e., execute your code on the user's machine) in a limited amount of time (machine cycles).

    Consider two implementations of the same code:

    Omit needless words. Three two-cycle operations. Total execution time in the human CPU = six cycles. Lends itself to pipelined execution on faster (speed-reading) platforms.

    Eschew obfuscation. Two 10-cycle ops -- microcoded ones at that! No hope at all for parallel execution. On some machines, this phrasing risks stalling the pipe for literally hundreds of cycles while a code dictionary (Webster's?) lookup occurs.

    Will Strunk was the Mike Abrash of his day, warning his readers against indulging in XLATs when MOV AL,[EBX+EAX] would do.

    OK, so the analogy's a little thin in places. :) But I do think this is a good way to give die-hard programmer types some appreciation for clarity and lucidity in their writing.


    For so long as men do as they are told, there will be war.
    [ Parent ]

    Barrier to entry (4.00 / 2) (#121)
    by khallow on Sun Mar 11, 2001 at 10:17:38 PM EST

    In the written world, bad prose usually stops at the desk of the editor. While in the online world, the only thing preventing me from torturing you with banalities is the reliability of my internet connection. :-) Online websites usually don't have the resources for quality editing.

    Also, most online prose is disposable. For example, this article probably will exist in some obscure data base for millenia, but I bet that no one will view it after a couple of weeks. So the question becomes, how much time and effort are you willing to devote to a message with limited circulation and value?


    Stating the obvious since 1969.

    Write for a purpose -- know it, and stick to it. (4.80 / 5) (#126)
    by taiwanjohn on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 05:06:14 AM EST

    A lot of the controversy in this discussion arises from the fact that there is a wide range of writing styles, and and each one has its uses. But only the narrow, 'proper' viewpoint is espoused in the article.

    I think the author is more concerned with "articles," rather than user comments. But he doesn't really address the fact that, because the writing "purpose" is different in these two cases, so too should the "rules" applied by both the author and the reader.

    If you're writing an article for publication, you should be ashamed to do so without thoroughly checking for spelling and grammar errors. If you're posting a comment to a user forum, feel free to butcher the language to your heart's content.

    Of course, the more you butcher, the more difficult it will be for readers to understand you. Yes, there are some people whose buthcery succeeds in making their message more understandable. We call these people poets.

    Note: If you have trouble with grammar or spelling, chances are that you're not much of a poet... If you don't know the rules, you can't know how far they'll bend before they break.

    More to the point: that "break-point" depends on the purpose you're writing (or reading) for.

    Language mavens need to recognize that in a public forum like K5 or /., it really is true that "As long as the message gets across, who cares?"

    Language slackards, on the other hand, should REALLY spend some time reviewing and rewriting their work before submitting anything for "formal" publication, even in such an "informal" venue as this one. A couple of typos are no big deal, but when it's obvious that your piece is full of errors because you really just don't know how to write, it makes you a laughing stock, at best.

    Just my 2¢

    --jrd

    Contributing factors (4.00 / 1) (#129)
    by yojimbo-san on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:35:50 AM EST

    Why is online writing so bad?

    Because there is no editorial process/review to prevent it? Because the expectation of "grammatically correct and logically coherent" is an unwritten rule, and therefore difficult to enforce?

    I've got my rights! Just because I can't "speak proper like what you do" doesn't mean my opinion isn't worth listening to!

    Publishing has been very elitist in the past. This Internet thing has reduced the barrier to entry tremendously, and this is just one of the symptoms. A forum could "enforce" a writtem language/style, as you suggest ... but do you really think this would increase the quality of the submissions, or would it just increase the language flames?

    I'm tempted to wave the flag of Americanism, but I see things in colour, not black and white ... :-)
    Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim

    Good grammar is very important (4.00 / 1) (#164)
    by jordanb on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 10:16:00 PM EST

    I've got my rights! Just because I can't "speak proper like what you do" doesn't mean my opinion isn't worth listening to!
    Perhaps, but it is an opinion to which I won't be listening.

    You certainly have the right to speak, but you do not have the right to an audience. An audience is something you must earn, both by having coherent and logical arguments, and by showing at least a little care in the formulation of clear language with which to express yourself.

    I am not a grammar Nazi, nor is my language perfect. I have an English referencearound here somewhere, but I can not recall the last time I've used it. I do, however, invest some attention to the clarity of my prose.

    On the net, there is none of the normal audio and visual information with which we subconsciously categorize people in the Real World. I believe that this is one of the greatest benefits of textual communication. However, We still do categorize people by more than what they say. The only thing I know of you is how you write, and if it is sloppy, I will place you in a category which may cause me to be jaded against your opinions before even understanding them.


    Jordan Bettis
    [ Parent ]
    Maybe, but how important is proper grammar? (1.00 / 1) (#178)
    by flowers on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 01:16:21 AM EST

    The only thing I know of you is how you write, and if it is sloppy, I will place you in a category which may cause me to be jaded against your opinions before even understanding them

    What makes you think this is his problem?



    [ Parent ]
    Problem (4.00 / 1) (#186)
    by spaceghoti on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 10:52:07 AM EST

    Perhaps it is his problem, but it's a common one. I recall reading an article sometime in the last decade about a minor controversy in US universities over the Southern dialect. It seems that at least in academia, that slow Southern drawl causes people to underestimate and disrespect otherwise talented and intelligent individuals. The dialect sounds "lazy" and "imprecise," causing others to assume the speaker isn't entirely intellectual. Some people were even taking diction lessons to try to overcome the stigma their speech patterns create. Many more stand their ground, claiming that dialect shouldn't make a difference in people's assumptions about your intelligence. And they're right, it shouldn't. But it does.

    The same goes with writing style. If you're unable to put together a coherent sentence, the natural and automatic assumption is that you're failing to meet some intellectual standard. Whether or not that's true is irrelevant; people lose patience because you fail to communicate on a basic level. The assumption is, if you can't take the time to format your statements correctly, why should I take the time to pay attention?



    "Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

    [ Parent ]
    Fuck diversity? (none / 0) (#196)
    by flowers on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 05:46:10 PM EST

    This really angers me. The mentality that suggests that people with slow Southern drawls need to change their speech so that they are not burdened by the prejudice of unintelligence that other people seek to belabor them with is the same mentality that causes homosexuals to pass as straight people in order to maintain privilege. There is nothing wrong with speaking with a Southern drawl or being homosexual -- the problem belongs to the people with prejudice, not to the targets of that prejudice. I certainly wouldn't judge any person unfavorably who gave up their Southern drawl or someone who passed as straight; the system is inarguably weighted against them and they're the ones who have to live with their decisions. However, every time someone does this, they are bowing to pressures to homogenize our society. Is diversity important? Is acceptance important? Every time someone chooses to homogenize themselves for the unwashed masses they are strengthening the position of intolerance and weakening the position of diversity. People should not have to suppress that which makes them different in order to gain what those who aren't different take for granted.

    There are good reasons to try to use what is generally accepted as good grammar, spelling, and so on. Catering to the prejudices of others is not one of them.



    [ Parent ]
    Diversity and communication (4.00 / 1) (#197)
    by spaceghoti on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 06:18:09 PM EST

    No one said discouraging diversity was the point. I certainly did not say that people who grow up speaking Southern American dialect are stupid; that's often a fatal mistake. But the impression created is that such people are slower and less intelligent. Obviously this needs to be corrected, but the underlying problem involves communication.

    Even within the rules of English grammar there is room for a broad range of diverse styles and talents. No two people speak exactly alike, or write exactly the same. It's possible to mimic styles, but the result will always be different of our inherent diversity. It's also acceptable to divert from accepted rules of grammar so long as you're able to make yourself clearly understood. This seems to be the underlying principle that escapes people.

    I find a lot of the arguments presented are that they don't want to take the time to learn the rules and correct their errors, or that the rules are stupid and should be rejected en masse. I feel that both of these positions are a mistake. Going back to edit your own work (correcting spelling mistakes where you find them, paring down your words or sentences for brevity and clarity) can only help your position when you're trying to argue a point. Using common rules for language helps ensure that everyone is on the same page so that we all understand what's being said. That isn't about intolerance and diversity, it's about communication. If I arbitrarily decide that vowels are a waste of my time and I either don't want to use them properly or even at all, you're going to have to spend extra time trying to decipher what I'm saying. After a while (particularly with the way I post), you're going to get tired of trying to translate and just skip my posts. Does that mean you're suppressing my right to individuality? Or does it mean I'm forcing you to expend extra effort so I don't have to? Either way, communication breaks down and we cease to understand each other and diversity becomes a chasm.

    I don't see this discussion needing to bring class into it. I brought up the Southern dialect because I remembered the article I'd read and saw a correlation to what's happening here. Impressions are difficult barriers to overcome, and I'm not suggesting we just accept it as is. I am suggesting that the better we learn to express ourselves, the easier it will be to come together in mutual understanding.



    "Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

    [ Parent ]
    Surprising it is as good as it is. (4.16 / 6) (#131)
    by error 404 on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 10:32:57 AM EST

    Professional grade literature doesn't just happen. It is the result of skilled, trained, experienced professionals working through a rigourous revision cycle.

    Web writing is done by amateurs, with no real review process.

    What web writing provides is the "from the trenches" part. I love it. I'm willing to work a little for it.

    I used to write for a living, until my company decided they value my web skills. If you want professional grade literature, my PayPal account information is available on request. Will care about grammar for food^h^h^h^h^h cash. And my editor (self-editing is self-delusion) is on your dime.


    ..................................
    Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
    - Donovan

    One minor addition (2.00 / 1) (#136)
    by astyanax on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 12:24:40 PM EST

    Or perhaps it's just my personal pet peeve, is the constant use of "loose" for "lose", as in "to lose one's temper". My theory is that there is some associative problem with the words loose and lose in the brain's word queue. This causes it to send loose rather than lose to the fingers as the correct word when the verb indicating loss is requested. Simple lazy behavior is an unlikely cuplrit, because that would dictate the use of a shorter word than "lose", not a longer one. A fine article by the way.

    Hey. Hands off my writing style. (4.00 / 3) (#139)
    by Minuit on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:13:23 PM EST

    j0O R @b5ol|_|73Ly r0nG. DA w4Y T#at 3y3 sp31L 0r us3 gR4M|\/|ar SH0u1d GOTs |\|o 83@ryNG 0N #0\/\/ MY W0rDz c@n b3 rEaD oR H0w w31L MY +H0uGHtS c4n B UN|>3RS70oD. |F J00 <an+ Re4D \/\/#@t I wr17E +HEn u m|_|5t |\|0t B l33T eN0|_|9#.

    *cough cough*

    Ow. That made my head hurt. Actually, it made my head hurt so much that had to use an English to Leet Translator to do must of the work, but will still need years of intense therapy to recover from the horror.

    I've read a number of comments here suggesting that anyone who argues about grammar; and speling must be some kind of poorly toilet trained "Grammar Nazi" who should just lighten up and let the language evolve. While I agree that languages do change over time (which is why we aren't having this discussion in Latin or Aramaic or grunting and hooting while beating on our chests and flinging poo at one another) (except for you. Yes, you know who you are.) and that modern "internet" (or even "usenet") style tends to be more fluid than "print" style, I do know one thing for certain.

    I wouldn't want to live in a world where Jeff K was a respected online journalist. And if that means having to whack a few people upside the head with "Elements of Style" then that's okay with me.

    -D

    If you were my .sig, you would be home by now.

    My $.02 (4.60 / 5) (#141)
    by spaceghoti on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:15:23 PM EST

    I agree with the intent of this post, even though I had to spend a while re-reading it to filter out the extraneous topics. Unfortunately, I confess to being guilty of that crime as well so I'll let it drop here.

    A few things. The link to Harlan Ellison's Webderland Q&A kept me amused for a while. The line that caught my attention the most was this: "HE did not object to this notion, although he did not like the idea of my re-using the title of his previous question/advice column, Ask Unca Harlan, due to some bad blood that column caused between him and a friend." The reason this amuses me so much is because Harlan Ellison is possibly the progenitor and arguably the foremost expert in making controversy an art form. HE gets his point across in the most controversial ways possible to get your attention, and it seems HE occasionally regrets how this approach can come back to bite you. But that was an aside, and I'll move on.

    Ultimately, this article is about how the web seems to breed bad writing. What's worse, quite a few people feel obligated to defend their poor writing habits! What irony! People want me to take them seriously when they express themselves, but they want me to forgive them their inability to express themselves coherently! It's a delicious contradiction.

    I will confess to taking a great interest in the written English language; as a native English (okay, American) speaker, I much prefer the written word over the spoken. Several years of Hell Desk gave me a healthy distaste for phones and poor communication. While there are some things that simply cannot be properly conveyed without the spoken element, I've spent a long time learning how to make my prose powerful enough to capture your attention while explaining what I want to say.

    Language, verbal or written, is an ongoing process that never really finishes. As several people have pointed out, it's an evolution as we learn new ways to express ourselves all the time. The point is, this evolution should enable us to be more coherent and intelligible, not less. ifiwritethisstatementasquicklyandsimplyasipossiblycanyoucanstillreaditifyoutakethetimetoparse. It's been argued that the previous sentence could reasonable become the English standard, particularly for the online forum. The reason we have difficulty with it is because we're simply not used to it. I'll concede that point, but counter with this: why would you want to? The convention of spaces, apostrophes, commas, grammar (et al) were designed to help clarify the written word so we aren't forced to spend more time parsing; we're better able to focus on content rather than format. Content versus style is the argument, and I submit that the more time you spend focusing on style, the less you have to worry about your content getting lost.

    Learning to format your statements in a clear, concise and easily understandable manner takes a lot of work and effort. Some people simply aren't willing to make that effort, and I honestly can't expect them to. Everyone has different priorities, and that diversity is a strength as well as a weakness. But let's not forget that a poorly written piece is far more difficult to understand, and far less likely to be appreciated. I don't care if you're an English major, Engineering or Mathematics or just a Basket-Weaver. If you can't say what you mean in the best possible way, your message gets lost. Complaining about it isn't going to change it, and while I can mostly tolerate (and translate) some of the worst attempts at communication online, I have far more respect those who take the time and effort to convey their message intelligently.



    "Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

    I have some doubts (4.00 / 2) (#144)
    by Moss Collum on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:43:00 PM EST

    You're right that most online writing is very bad, but the focus on individual rules weakens your argument. While your objection to misuses of apostrophes is correct [1], there are good reasons to break the other two rules you list, at least in certain styles of writing. Capitals are used for emphasis, for an effect that is charming, at least, though admittedly not useful, throughout the Winnie the Pooh stories. A sentence lacking a proposition may still have an emotional impact, and such sentences can be used well in fiction, or, more generally, in any writing that is closer to poetry than logic.

    The best point in your article, and one that bears repeating, is the advice to re-read and revise. No simply-stated stylistic rule can substitute for thoughtful, polished writing. As others have said, the single reason so much online writing is so weak is the lack of a formal editing process.

    I would also note that the demands we make of a piece of writing vary with context. In a long article, clarity is of the highest importance. In the ensuing conversation, though, where posts are shorter and more frequent, we may tolerate writing that is less polished, giving up some clarity to encourage the rapid exchange of ideas. Cryptic, nonsensical statements that would be worthless on Kuro5hin might still be charming on a personal weblog.

    Finally, let us never forget that what is truly important in a piece of writing is its content, not the style with which it is delivered. Articles like yours, reminding us all of the value of good writing, are valuable; spelling and grammar flames are not. As for mailreaders, so too for people: "be strict in what you generate, generous in what you accept".

    --Moss

    [1] You might note, though, that all the apostrophe rules are ultimately reducible to one rule: use an apostrophe in place of omitted letters in a contraction. The special cases--most especially the possessive ending--can be understood by reading a bit about the history of the English language. While this is hardly a requirement for good prose style, I can heartily recommend it for its entertainment value alone.


    This is a .sig.
    Now there are two of them.
    There are two _____.


    Formal Editing Process's (4.00 / 1) (#181)
    by Akaru on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 05:39:22 AM EST

    > The best point in your article, and one that bears repeating, is the advice to
    > re-read and revise. No simply-stated
    > stylistic rule can substitute for thoughtful, polished writing. As others have
    > said, the single reason so much online
    > writing is so weak is the lack of a formal editing process.


    Then the answer is simple, create a peer review process before publication, get 3 or 4 other people to read it comment on it and then return it to the writer to be improved. The publishing process has to change because the Internet is a completely different medium, even if this means instead of having one editor having 5, or having each writer an editor as well.

    Of course it all does depend on the person writing, at the best of times i completely fail to get my point over just because the way my mind works is fundamentally different to the way others work. Add that to my awful grammar spelling and then typing and by the time it actually come to being "Published" I may as well be Dr Suess on Acid.

    Or Maybe you want to publish before someone else, so it means low quality poorer writing, but to be honest I would prefer clear consise and an hour later. Over Exclusive Typofest from Hell.

    -------------------
    All your grammatical errors are belong to us!

    [ Parent ]
    Editors (4.00 / 1) (#187)
    by spaceghoti on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 11:00:48 AM EST

    Finding editors willing to take the time on the Internet is a tough job. I occasionally browse through fanfiction on the web, and there's high demand for editors, also known as "beta-readers." I have occasionally volunteered for the duty, as well as asked for others to "beta" for me. Let me just say that it's akin to pulling teeth and leave it at that.

    Getting people to edit for you is a painstaking process, only slightly less painful than the actual editing process itself. It's a necessary evil, but I believe that for an online forum such as this, the disadvantages will generally outweigh the advantages. With notable exceptions, most K5 participants won't be willing to use it.



    "Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical." -Saavik, ST: Wrath of Khan

    [ Parent ]
    Sounds good to me... (3.00 / 1) (#190)
    by Moss Collum on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 12:13:14 PM EST

    This sounds to me like a good idea, though spaceghoti is right to remark on the difficulty of finding editors.

    So, perhaps the best thing to do, on Kuro5hin at least, is to click Moderate Submissions and start editing!


    This is a .sig.
    Now there are two of them.
    There are two _____.


    [ Parent ]
    Check out StorySprawl (2.00 / 1) (#146)
    by tunesmith on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 01:58:58 PM EST

    Most of the stories that are being added to on StorySprawl are pretty strong. Most of it is because of the moderation scheme we use which requires a lot of responsibility on the part of the writer (or else their chapter would just be deleted).

    http://www.storysprawl.com/

    tune


    Yes, I have a blog.

    It had to be said... (3.00 / 2) (#148)
    by Mr Z (The Z is silent) on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 02:27:06 PM EST

    All your base are belong to us! ... Ok, got that out of my system.

    Seriously, I agree that poor grammar is a barrier to effective communication. One of my coworkers is really bad in this department. Although he is fairly intelligent, he has a difficult time describing his ideas to others and has a difficult time understand ideas people describe to him. It's very frustrating. It's worse when he interfaces with customers, as the customer is less accustomed to "decoding" what he has to say.

    What's even more ironic is that not only is English is first language, he is from England. Of all the people I've seen get uptight about language usage, it's usually the English that seem to get the pickiest (particularly with us 'Merkins). Ah well...

    Some of the other posters in this forum do have a very valid point, though, which is that the importance of editing changes according to context. Articles and prose that attempt to convey a detailed or complex idea need to be written as clearly as possible, particularly since such messages tend to be static. Conversational posts that tend to incrementally advance discourse need not be as carefully written, as the conversation evolves fairly quickly. ICQ or IRC messages have an even lower standard as the emphasis is on real-time conversation.

    My 0x02 cents...

    --Joe</P

    It's difficult to form an opinion. (3.00 / 2) (#150)
    by Nurgled on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 03:15:24 PM EST

    I have mixed views on grammar. The programmer in me looks apon language as a concise set of rules: a lot like a programming language. My "syntax" (grammar) is therefore quite rigid, and the inacurracy of spoken and written language sometimes bothers me as my point is misunderstood due to inadequate context.

    On the other hand, I also think that we are built to be flexible. We, as native English speakers, can often understand some rudimentary written Spanish with a relatively short period of education, and make ourselves understood by a Spanish person even if we aren't 100% correct. We have the ability to be flexible with language, and having everyone speak and write in exactly the same way makes language dull and boring.

    It is for these reasons that I'm having trouble coming up with a definite opinion on this subject. I think in an ideal situation we'd have a halfway house: people would get it reasonably correct so their points can be understood, but there would be left some flexibility.



    The rush to the top. (4.00 / 2) (#152)
    by Langley on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 03:34:45 PM EST

    This is a very good post, and it states some important topics that needed to be brought to the forefront.

    I, myself, am a constant offender of grammar rules, and I'm sure many will appear even in this reply. Perhaps even in this paragraph (grammar is not a strong point for me).

    The online world, especially web logs that allow for public posting, seem to be specifically geared to generate the errors that you exemplify in your essay. I find that main reason for this is public forums seem to be designed so that you must try to get your post up first, lest you gain less 'karma', post redundantly, get lost in the flood of messages, etc.

    A possible solution, perhaps, is to not allow replies to stories immediately after they have been posted. Perhaps a story need to be up for 10 minutes or so before accepting replies.

    This would give users time to read the referenced articles, and structure a proper, on-topic reply. It would also give them time to proof-read.

    Of course, I am not going to proof read this post (just spell check it), because I don't get paid to reply to web logs. I get paid to code, and I must get back to it.


    A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded. -Abraham Lincoln (Sixteenth President of the United States of America)
    Thank you! (3.50 / 2) (#153)
    by GusherJizmac on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 03:48:19 PM EST

    Well said. It infuriates me when people misuse "your" and "you're" and "their/there/they're". I think I remember a post about some non-Americans making fun of Americans for misusing the English language so frequently online....
    <sig> G u s h e r J i z m a c </sig>
    more... (3.00 / 1) (#156)
    by Epicurus on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 05:25:23 PM EST

    One thing I notice a lot of people do (I even do it myself, so I can't complain much) is using the plural of one to describe many things. "Those ones over there". Unless you're talking about dollar bills, that's just not right. Usually "ones" can simply be removed to fix the problem.

    Another thing that bugs me is the misuse of the word "to" ("too" and "two" as well).

    to means towards
    too means also
    two means one plus one, or "2".


    ones (3.00 / 1) (#161)
    by Moss Collum on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 06:46:24 PM EST

    What's wrong with doing that? It seems perfectly reasonable to me. Is there something I'm missing?

    This is a .sig.
    Now there are two of them.
    There are two _____.


    [ Parent ]
    hmmm (2.00 / 1) (#163)
    by Epicurus on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 07:24:40 PM EST

    maybe there isn't anything wrong with it, but it sure sounds wrong...you can have this one and that one but if you've got both, you've got "these" or "those" not "those ones" or "these ones"...and if there's more than one, how can they be ones? unless they're "1"s or dollar bills (or anything else you might refer to as a 'one'). like I said, you can just get rid of the "ones" and it makes sence...if nothing else, it makes writing a little more terse and a little less confusing...heh, for a post about writing style, mine is sure lacking ;)

    [ Parent ]
    A dose of its own prose. (4.50 / 2) (#165)
    by hal on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 10:35:16 PM EST

    While, too, I happen to also agree, while not in whole, but in part, that online grammar can be a horrid affair, at times, I couldn't help noticing the occasional comma-ridden run-on senctence, every once in a while, while reading your prose on prose. You see?
    -- Look out honey, 'cause I'm using technology; Ain't got time to make no apology
    Re: A dose of its own prose. (4.00 / 1) (#172)
    by johnathan on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:42:03 PM EST

    While, too, I happen to also agree, while not in whole, but in part, that online grammar can be a horrid affair, at times, I couldn't help noticing the occasional comma-ridden run-on senctence, every once in a while, while reading your prose on prose.
    That was, indeed, an awful sentence, and I agree with your point. Overly long sentences impede understanding and show poor style. However, they are not necessarily gramatically incorrect. Run-on sentences are incorrect, but your example was not one of them. A run-on sentence is two or more independent clauses joined by inappropriate punctuation (usually a comma), or no punctuation at all.

    Just wanted to set the record straight. It's a common misconception that run-on == long.

    --
    Her profession's her religion; her sin: her lifelessness.
    [ Parent ]

    well said, but... (2.00 / 1) (#167)
    by pustulate on Mon Mar 12, 2001 at 11:13:07 PM EST

    you're preaching to the choir, and the choir is deaf.

    I think some of the problems you describe are due to the relatively technical nature of the audience and writers. Technical people (a broad generalization) tend to be iterative when they work. How many people get that chunk of perl (or C or whatever) working on the first try? Almost none...and yet, once an article is posted it's for all intents and purposes uneditable.

    The problem may not be bad writing per se; bad writing is writing with no point. The problem is bad form. Unless you train yourself to write final draft quality prose, you're doomed to bad form unless you create multiple drafts of your posting before you post it. The first takes years to learn, the second takes even longer. In the technical arena, the first draft is usually good enough + tweaks.

    Anyhow, my personal pet peeve is when writers confuse "discrete" and "discreet." I've seen this enough times that when I think "discrete" is coming in a sentence I cringe because I expect the writer to do the wrong thing. Discrete != discreet!

    site (1.00 / 1) (#184)
    by mstevens on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 08:21:55 AM EST

    I can't stand the frequent confusion between the worse 'site' and 'sight'.

    Flaunt vs. flout etc. (1.00 / 1) (#201)
    by Ray Chason on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 09:54:13 PM EST

    Here are some that irritate me:

    • "Flaunt," when "flout" is intended. If you're wearing a T-shirt with the First Amendment printed on the front, that is flaunting the law.
    • "Nuclear" pronounced "nucular." (This is slightly off-topic as it refers to spoken rather than written English.) English orthography is bogus enough as it is; why hose it up more? Just pronounce "nuclear" the way it is spelled: new clee er.
    • "Calvary," when "cavalry" is intended. Calvary is the place where Jesus was crucified; it doesn't ride very far.

    --
    The War on Terra is not meant to be won.
    Delendae sunt RIAA, MPAA et Windoze
    [ Parent ]
    What about ... (4.25 / 4) (#185)
    by beka on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 10:12:12 AM EST

    Excellent post. Online writing style and grammar has been ignored for too long.

    I think I can understand how grammar and style initially fell by the wayside. In 'the beginning' the Net was a fairly small group of like-minded peoples. In that situation grammer and style isn't very important. Just was when we talk to our friends we don't use wonderful, award-winning style and vocabulary.

    But now that the Net is very well establish, complete with 'experts' and sites like K5, I agree it's time we pay some attention to not just what we are saying but how we are saying it.

    Which brings me to two points I didn't see mentioned in the original article or the many responses.

    1. What is with all the ...-ing. Some people use it very excessively.
    "Hi... What are you doing?... I read this .. article... " I have never understood how or why that started.

    2. The vocabulary level in many postings is quite low. I can understand that in hardcopy newspapers and their online versions that vocabulary is purposely targeted for around Grade 7-8. This is done, I think, to open up news for a large section of the population. And, indeed, many papers write with higher levels of style and vocabulary aiming at a more educated, or curious, audience. I say curious because I find that many of the mainstream publications use such simple style and wording as to not really say anything.

    I would like to add my suggestions:

    1. In most cases ... can be replaced with a .(period) or nothing. Sometimes it can have place in stream-of-conciousness <sp> discussion (such as those on irc, icq etc).

    2. Think about how you are arranging your responses, but also give some consideration to the words that you choose. By using a resonable section of words the article is a bit more interesting, and can be easier to read. I find repetition of the same words over and over quite distracting while reading (probably just as I have used vocabulary one too many times). Although, it's important not to over-do the vocabulary thing, it's not good to become obtuse. =)

    3. I think one of the fastest and easiest ways to improve style is to start using proper grammer (capitialization) in all online discussions. Most of the basic elements of grammer and style are burned into us as kids in school. I have found that by reminding myself to think about what I'm saying, no matter where I'm saying it, I get my point across faster and better. Well, at least I hope so.

    My $0.02.

    /* <>< ><> beka */
    sic (none / 0) (#221)
    by use strict on Mon Mar 19, 2001 at 08:32:50 AM EST

    back in the bbs community that I 'grew up' in, we had one user who was nigh unto vigilant about spelling and grammar errors.

    she would take quotes of the user's comments, chop them up and do them the 'favor' of correcting their errors.

    this had to be, the most annoying, crass, pompous, and abusive practice that I have seen from anyone in an online forum. not to mention, it was (apologies) fucking annoying. i have a copy of the source code to a BBS where one rogue community hacker proceeded to hard code her standard login from entering the system, it was that annoying. I beleive at one point he was considering doing a caller id hack to accomplish a much more robust version of it :)

    my grammar isn't going to win me a pulitzer anytime soon, but then again, it's not that horrible. However, to be corrected on my semantics when the point is not absorbed completely invalidates the point of communication altogether.


    [ Parent ]
    Mixed Feelings (3.25 / 4) (#189)
    by Happy Monkey on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 11:23:12 AM EST

    First, the grammarians did not invent the English language. Who gave them the right to make rules? Their job ought to be describing how it works rather than attempting to make it work in a certain way. A language changes continually. I would like to know what year grammarians think English grammar was frozen.

    That said, it shouldn't be taken too far. Personally, I'd say that 'too far' is when you are unable to make yourself understood easily. I'd say that the risk of mutually unintelligable dialects arising is getting lower and lower as global communications (including the internet) increases exposure of various dialects, and merges them. The absorbtion of languages is English's strongest point.
    ___
    Length 17, Width 3

    I would mod this article down if I knew how. (4.71 / 7) (#192)
    by Hernan Laffitte on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 02:59:30 PM EST

    Some of you probably read that and thought, "This guy's an idiot. How can he not know how to mod down an article?"

    If you thought that, you are knowledgeable about computers, and value technical savvy, so this kind of incompetence is intolerable to you.

    Now think: For somebody who values good writing, bad ortography and grammar is equally annoying. And you can cram a lot more ortographical errors and typos per page than you can cram technical inaccuracies.

    Disclaimer: English is my second language. I can also bitch about ortographical errors in Spanish.

    argument... (none / 0) (#220)
    by use strict on Mon Mar 19, 2001 at 08:16:40 AM EST

    my only argument to this is one simple thing.

    the computer does not understand. you do.

    i can write 'nit', 'rpint', etc, and the compiler explicitly tells me it cannot understand.

    should I type 'dc' at a shell prompt, I might get a calculator instead of changing a directory. spelling is the only way to dictate to a computer (well, the only accurate way), and therefore is required, and should be expected when discussing technical aspects.

    however, when I make a typo or use the apostophe in the wrong place, or heaven forbid, make a run on sentence or one that has too many breakings in it (like the pun? :), you still know what I mean, even though if translated verbally I might sound like i've been smoking some of the really good stuff or perhaps writing dialogue for an episode of speed racer. (heh)

    however, those who profess knowledge of linguistics and/or study it *should* know the language. IE, Journalists.

    but i'm not going to bother to tell my mother that she can get 20% more performance out of her modem by using ATSxx and compression forcing commands (AT&Kx, etc) -- are you? Does she give a shit? No. If I were to do it for her, however, she would probably appreciate it, but again, would she even notice or care after the fact? See above for my previous answer.

    Not trying to be crass, but spoken language is not something that is parsed, it's something that is understood.

    [ Parent ]
    Books are the root of all evil (4.60 / 5) (#193)
    by Hernan Laffitte on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 03:01:55 PM EST

    I disagree with the poster that said that in order to write well you have to "memorize arbitrary grammatical trivia."

    If you want to avoid the most common spelling and grammar mistakes, there is a simple solution: Read.

    Books.

    Regularly.

    Magazines and Kuro5hin don't count.

    That will take care of the most common ortographical errors. You will learn how to write by seeing how other people do it. Just like you learned how to speak.

    You can never learn ortography by just memorizing a bunch of rules: you have to learn it by reading well-written text. Eventually, when you see an error, it just won't look right. It will be a gut feeling, like hearing an out-of-tune note in the middle of a symphony.

    A lot of people don't read books, and they tend to have terrible ortography and grammar. And money doesn't have anything to do with that. On the contrary: some rich folks have it so easy that they never make the effort to learn their own language (I'm not naming any names here).

    Disclaimer: I am not an English native speaker, but I think these concepts should be independent of the language. I would like to know if English has grammar rules so obscure that you can't learn them by reading and seeing them applied. (The correct use of apostrophes is not one of them, that's for sure.)

    Doesn't necessarily work. (4.50 / 2) (#202)
    by Estanislao Martínez on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 10:32:55 PM EST

    If you want to avoid the most common spelling and grammar mistakes, there is a simple solution: Read. Books. Regularly. Magazines and Kuro5hin don't count.

    Nope. It will work for some people, but for most it just doesn't. Reading and writing are separate skills, and doing one of them won't necessarily help you with the other. You might be one of the persons for whom this works, but it is wrong to generalize it to everybody, and, above all, it is wrong to generalize it to native speakers of the language in question.

    When somebody reads, they typically don't absorb all the orthographic details of what they're reading. What they get is the gestalt, the whole thing. You can perceive the whole word you're reading before you perceive all of the individual lettters, for instance-- this has been shown experimentally. (Well, more precisely: people identify letters more quickly when they appear in words than in isolation; this means that word recognition is an input that feeds letter recognition.)

    You can never learn ortography by just memorizing a bunch of rules: you have to learn it by reading well-written text. Eventually, when you see an error, it just won't look right. It will be a gut feeling, like hearing an out-of-tune note in the middle of a symphony.

    What you are talking about here is positive evidence, i.e., data that tells you that certain kinds of grammatical constructions are "good". However, in principle, no finite amount of positive evidence is ever enough to tell you what the bad constructions are-- for some particular construction, you can't really distinguish "bad" from "not encountered before". You need negative evidence, statements about what constructions are bad. (Of course, for children it's different-- children acquire language on the possibly exclusive basis of positive evidence. What to make of this is a huge controversy in psycholinguistics.)

    Let's put it in a simple way. Suppose we want a native English speaker to learn the prescriptive rule "never end a sentence with a preposition". She is a native speaker, so her speech normally contains these. We give her tons of books to read, none of which has such a sentence (which is actually a bit of a stretch). How can she learn that rule from the just reading the books?

    As far as we know, she might simply never notice that no sentence she encounters in those books ends in a preposition. So if we later confront her with a sentence which does, and ask her whether this is "good" English, do you really expect her to be able to tell?

    --em
    [ Parent ]

    My single datum (4.00 / 1) (#217)
    by plastik55 on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 08:41:44 AM EST

    Well, I'm a native speaker, and my experience is fully consistent with the parent post. I had little or no prescriptive gramar training; I just read a lot as a homeschooled child. I went to high school with almost no experience doing writing assignments and found I was a better writer than most people; now here I am at a Major Research University and that's still the case--though of late, I may have been uncomsciously miming the turgid technical articles I've been reading... good science writing is largely a lost cause. That's another thing I've noticed: I tend to mime people's writing styles if I've been reading a lot of their work. The best writing I've ever done has always been in the context of being assigned to write a story "in the style" of the author we were reading in class.

    Let's put it in a simple way. Suppose we want a native English speaker to learn the prescriptive rule "never end a sentence with a preposition". She is a native speaker, so her speech normally contains these. We give her tons of books to read, none of which has such a sentence (which is actually a bit of a stretch). How can she learn that rule from the just reading the books?

    She probably won't be able to consciously express that rule, no.... But I would dismiss the question by saying that perscriptive grammar is largely bullshit.

    Is there any empirical data relating the amount of reading one does to the quality of one's writing (or some simpler measure; maybe scores on certain sections of standardized tests)?
    w00t!
    [ Parent ]

    Revisions, and the nature of moderation (4.75 / 4) (#199)
    by crank42 on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 07:28:54 PM EST

    Without wishing to bore everyone with repetition, I should point out one more time (the first one is some way down the page, now) that I revised this submission, albeit too late to withdraw my original. Several of the points people have raised (even, in some cases, since I posted the revision) are, I hope, addressed, so I encourage anyone who wants to offer suggestions about this article to read the revised version, too.

    I should also note that I'm very bad at titles: neither of my titles really describes the entitled article, so I should fix that.

    All of this has me thinking about how the moderation system seems to have failed in this case. I wanted to revise my article according to the helpful editorial comments I received. I couldn't, because the article was accepted before I had a chance. What to do about that? For any sufficiently controversial article, it's going to be very hard to enact the "take the editorial comments, and do some more work" approach that I advocate. Is there any approach that would address that problem?

    A different perspective (5.00 / 2) (#216)
    by theboz on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 07:51:47 PM EST

    I wanted to revise my article according to the helpful editorial comments I received. I couldn't, because the article was accepted before I had a chance.

    I can see what the problem is and sympathize with you, but at the same time I think that you may need to look at how kuro5hin works in a different way. You should post an article here, as a finished product. From there it should be determined that the topic is interesting or not, and if the article was written in a way that expresses to all of us editors something that we feel is important. The time for refining and fixing grammatical errors is before you even put it in the queue.

    Now, the problem is that there really isn't any stage where you can edit for errors and rearranging things to flow better. However, one trend that I have noticed a lot of times is that people will first post something to their diary. That seems to work pretty well, so you can get your draft there where there are a lot of people that will read it and make their editorial comments, and then you can post it to the story queue later and at that point have it judged completely on the content. Content is really what people vote for here, not style or grammar (although both of those can help tremendously.)

    The other thing is that when problems do come up, such as MLP without a URL, rusty and company seem to often go in there and fix it. These are usually only spelling and html errors but it does help to have someone that can fix those minor things (although you should look carefully when you preview a story.)

    Another thing that I think of is that kuro5hin is considered a discussion site more than a news site. When you are having a conversation with someone in real life, you can't retract what you say. I think the same is mostly true here. Rather than trying to have a certain style and form, we tend to write things more like if we just wanted to talk about them. Sometimes our minds jump around and that can be evident in story postings. Other times, we can sit down and make something look like a term paper. However, the most important thing is that it is something we can all talk about. People vote stories up because they find the topics interesting, and don't necesarily view the story itself as anything but an intro. I think that is how I look at it, because there ends up being a whole lot more said on the comments than what the story says. So rather than looking at things as this being a news site, maybe a round table discussion is closer to the truth.

    Of course, if you want to complain about slashdot's journalism, I'm with you on that one. They have specific editors that sometimes don't do too well. :o)

    Stuff.
    [ Parent ]

    "Bad writing" by choice? (3.40 / 5) (#200)
    by redelm on Tue Mar 13, 2001 at 09:28:20 PM EST

    I was quite disappointed by this article, and its' grammarian bent. There are some simple technical reasons why online writing is poor: the text entry screen/boxes are usually small [10-20 lines] and the writing is hurried.

    Small text entry/edit areas produce excessive focus on minutiae and lead to blow-by-blow [line-by-line] shredding comments on emails and USENET. They also deprive the writer of a complete oversight of his work that might lead to thoughts of editing. Instead, in Santayana's words, "The pen, having written, moves on ..."

    The fast pace of online correspondence and reporting also takes its' toll. I notice myself making many for typographical errors and homophonic substitutions when I type rapidly. Not always are they caught. Yet I persist in fast typing and accept it from others because I prefer immediacy over letter-perfection. Others can make their own choices, but I insist mine be respected.

    This gets into another area: author choice. All the great English-language authors have bent and broken grammatical rules when it served their purposes. Precise adherence to the rules of grammer can often produce a verbose, dry and dilute document. Errors are an [unintended] element of style.

    Still another valid author choice is not to bother. Most writers of english have been exposed to the rules of grammer. They aren't difficult to learn -- certainly easier than `c`! Why don't they obey? Perhaps online authors simply don't think grammar important compared to the other things they do with their time. I can understand most writing, even if it contains mistakes. I'm certainly smarter than a compiler!



    Er, that's Omar Khayyam, not Santayana (none / 0) (#222)
    by Rylian on Wed Mar 21, 2001 at 10:30:19 AM EST

    Sorry to nitpick, but it's such a great quote I had to correct the error. The quote you mention is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, an Arab poet of the 13th century.
    The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
    The full text is in Gutenberg, for example here.

    [ Parent ]
    Bad? Compared to what? (4.00 / 2) (#211)
    by redelm on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 09:00:31 AM EST

    Online writing is bad compared to printed media? Naturally! Print is written by professional writers and thoroughly grilled by professional editors. But the lawyer and the ad salesman sit with the editor and inhibit the writer. Prior restraint is very insidious.

    Consider that most online writing is done by specialists who happen to write rather than writers who specialize. Often you trade insight for style. The difference is as stark as translating towards or away from your native language.

    So the choice isn't between good grammar versus bad but between {good grammar, delayed, sometimes missing the point, and watered-down} versus {poor grammar and style, up-to-the-minute, understanding the issue, and punchy}. Pick your poison.

    That said, a little editing would sure help online writing. Alas, technical difficulties intervene. Who trustworthy is going to do the editing? Should rusty hire some editors? They cost money, and the editors are likely to misunderstand and make mistakes occasionally. An editing delay would also hurt.

    Still this is better than self-editing. Those most in need are least likely to do it! Also the edits may substantially change content in ways repugnant to those who have previously moderated a story up. Also imposters may deface good writing. A computer can't tell. Human can tell, but might disagree.



    False dilemma (4.00 / 1) (#213)
    by danb35 on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 01:48:30 PM EST

    So the choice isn't between good grammar versus bad but between {good grammar, delayed, sometimes missing the point, and watered-down} versus {poor grammar and style, up-to-the-minute, understanding the issue, and punchy}. Pick your poison.

    You seem to be claiming that good grammar necessarily entails delays, missing the point, and watered-down writting, while being up to the minute and understanding the issue mean that the writer will write poorly. I couldn't disagree more.

    It is neither more inherently difficult nor more time-consuming to write with reasonably good grammar than to write with poor grammar. It does demand somewhat more skill with the language to do so, but the skill required is not great, and should be present by the time of high school graduation.

    Grammar is, however, not the main issue. Grammatical errors can be annoying, but they don't tend to obscure the meaning of a message unless they are are very frequent or severe. The bigger issue (which is considerably more difficult to quantify) is poorly-structured messages/articles/whatever. Without some decent structure, the piece doesn't flow well, is not "punchy", and may appear to the reader to lack a point entirely because the reader can't tell what the writer's trying to say.

    There is never a need to trade insight for style, and you certainly don't have to be a professional writer to convey ideas in a moderately logical progression. Nobody's expecting Shakespeare on k5 or elsewhere, but an orderly structure in a submission makes it much easier to determine what the author meant, and makes his point more forcefully.

    [ Parent ]

    Pick your poison (4.00 / 1) (#214)
    by redelm on Wed Mar 14, 2001 at 03:06:39 PM EST

    While I agree that good grammar doesn't necessarily entail the negative consequences I mentioned (delays, missing the point, and watered-down prose), it often still occurs.

    The difference is between technicians who write, and writers who try technical subjects.

    All too often in print, I've seen writers miss key points simply from lack of understanding their material. The prose is flawless, but they lack insight.

    Now if someone technically knowledgeable is doing the writing, this is much less likely to happen. But then the grammar may be less than perfect. It doesn't have to be, but it may be.

    The trade-off is made in choice of author: writer (print) or technician (on-line). It is not hard-and-fast, you'd expect most writers to write better than technicians, and most technicians to be more knowledgable than writers.



    [ Parent ]

    My Frustration (3.00 / 1) (#218)
    by iorek on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 09:29:12 PM EST

    You touched on the point that came to mind as I read this article. The intricate process behind printed media on the stands is often missing on-line. I find this puzzling and frustrating.

    I take pride in what I write and how I write it. If I suspected for a moment that I was contributing to the afore mentioned noise, I would remain silent. Editing signals, to continue the metaphor, would be a much more rewarding use of my time.

    My frustration stems from a feeling of isolation. Do others feel the on-line community would benefit from more editors? I fear the answer when I read comments about punchy articles.

    Shameless plug: A bright star in this sky is Nupedia. Take a moment to learn about the project.

    Iorek



    "Ted Dibiase is a f***ing genius!" - W
    [ Parent ]
    having knowledge != imparting knowledge (2.00 / 2) (#219)
    by dangerousdan on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 07:09:13 PM EST

    So the choice isn't between good grammar versus bad but between {good grammar, delayed, sometimes missing the point, and watered-down} versus {poor grammar and style, up-to-the-minute, understanding the issue, and punchy}..
    I am not sure that I agree with this. There is a difference between a writer who knows the topic {has up-to-the-minute knowledge} and and an article written by them that conveys the same level of knowledge. While the author may know what he is thinking - a lack of clarity (through bad style/grammer/structure) in the article will mean that the reader has missed the point by the time they have finished reading it.
    What is the point of being punchy if no one understands what you are saying?
    dan

    Give a man a match and he is warm for a day. Set him alight and he is warm for the rest of his life.
    [ Parent ]

    "All Your Bases Belong To Us" is better (none / 0) (#224)
    by patspruntcastle on Thu Mar 22, 2001 at 07:27:09 AM EST

    It took several hours, but the grammarian scientists at the Ridiculopathy Institute of America have diagramed the he familiar sentence "all your base are belong to us."

    What we found profoundly disturbed us.

    We have also spent several weeks going over Slashdot posts with a red pen. Actually, it would be more accurate to say "several red pens."

    Why do this? Well, given that grants are easy to come by these days, it's easy money. Also, it just makes us feel better about ourselves.

    Speed (none / 0) (#227)
    by char on Thu Apr 05, 2001 at 06:29:50 AM EST

    Writing has always been more neat, measured, and standards-compliant than speech. It last longer, takes more time to produce, and -- as those of us who still use snail mail know -- generally inspires patience and suggests permanance in one's communication.

    Well....

    The net changes that. I see an interesting topic on K5, I want to make a point, and I post. Do go sit outside for a while, eat some slow food, chill to some Bach, and then -- when I'm good and ready, with tea and a dictionary on my desk -- compose a short yet thoughtful essay on the matter under discussion? No. I whip off something as fast as I can so people see it before it recedes into dead-archive limbo. I'm not wasting time reading over what I've written (good gosh -- I already know what it says, don't I?); I'm just trying to get a little content up as fast as possible.

    Writing on the net tends to be bad because the net is so fast. Speed is change. Nothing here stays the same; how long has your parent site gone since the last re{design,organization,structuring,evaluation}? Ever seen Slashdot's first posts?

    I'm good at everything from orthography to paragraphing, and proud of it. I've written some stuff I think is pretty darn hot. But right now, I'm in make-a-point mode, not make-a-convincingly-self-exemplary-point mode -- and it's saving me a good half-minute per paragraph. Of course, this post will be more widely read than the stuff I'm proud of -- and thus numbness to sloppiness spreads.

    Speed is the cause, if not the reason. The 'cure' is low turnover to encourage thoughtfulness.

    -- Charlie Loyd

    Why is online writing so bad? | 227 comments (218 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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