A Difficult Read with a Simple Goof

This post pulls out a mistake from an essay from the Hoover Institute that is heavy-duty reading. If you’re looking for something with more, um, substance than your average internet article (Heavier than even something from Scientific American), go read it. It’ll take a while. It’s about system security (such as computers, national infrastructure, and so on) and it’s good. Here’s the link. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Now having said all that, they spoil it (okay, some of it) by making an elementary error in grammar that introduces an ambiguity into something that ought not be ambiguous. The article is hard enough to follow already, (and most of the writing is actually fairly well done) so we don’t need more difficulties. Here’s the bad passage:

In the absence of purposeful disconnectedness at critical points, the mechanics of complexity then take hold so that we undergo “a switch between [continuous low grade volatility] to . . . the process moving by jumps, with less and less variations outside of jumps.”

Should that be “less and less variation,” or should it be “fewer and fewer variations”? At least they’re quoting someone else (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion,” accessed January 23, 2018, http:// docplayer.net/48248686Thelongpeaceisastatisticalillusion.html), but they need to fix the grammar here so we have at least a chance to know what they mean.

I mentioned this error a couple times in the past. Here’s one link: http://writing-rag.com/1863/another-lesson-about-less-and-fewer/ You can find a few more if you do a search in the upper right corner of the page.

A Word About Comparing

This Real Life Adventures comic makes my exact point today:

In high school I read a book titled How to Lie with Statistics, and this was one of its points. Here’s the rule:

When you mention a comparison, say what you’re comparing to!

If someone says, for example, “My product is better!” Ask: Better than the competition? Better than it used to be? Better than the worst similar product? Better than the reviewers say it is? Better than a first grader could do?

The point of expository writing is to explain things, so don’t leave your reader guessing.

A Comment About Commas

Commas are useful punctuation marks. They serve to separate, and they show a weaker separation than semicolons, which are weaker than periods. We’re familiar with commas separating the parts of compound sentences and the parts of lists. Commas are used for another kind of separation, and I’m not sure what to call it. Here’s part of a sentence:

 “If we do end up finding something that’s good,

I’ll stop there for a moment. What’s good here? It looks like something is good, right? But when you see the rest of the sentence, you discover that it’s the finding that’s good!

 “If we do end up finding something that’s good, but even if we don’t find anything, that works as well,” says Marco Bortoletto, one of the archaeologists on the team.

We should have a comma after “something” so we can tell that what’s good isn’t the something. That’s the separation I’m writing about. Beyond representing a pause in spoken language, I’m not sure what to call it. Sorry.

So here’s how the sentence should be written:

 “If we do end up finding something, that’s good; but even if we don’t find anything, that works as well,” says Marco Bortoletto, one of the archaeologists on the team.

Notice that I changed the comma after “but” to a semicolon. It’s a good idea to use a semicolon to separate the parts of a compound sentence if the parts have their own commas. But that’s another lesson.

A Technicality That I Think No One Cares About

Seems I can’t resist Darren Bell’s Candorville comics in which the protagonist, who is a writer, interrupts and corrects someone’s grammar. Here’s another one. I think I make this mistake myself sometimes. After all, can “read” have both an active and passive meaning?

Two Related Lessons

I mentioned this solecism before, but comics about two versions of it appeared on the same day, so I thought I’d do a little combining. The first is Understanding Chaos. The comic is funny because it uses the word for measuring when they are counting. It’s fewer Gyms, guys.

And the next comic, Soup to Nutz, is also funny because he uses the word for measuring when he’s counting. It’s number of legs, kid.

Aaand a third one! Mother Goose & Grimm. It’s FEWER wrinkles!

Sigh. I wish the comics was the only place I ever saw this goof.

How to Tell a Noun from a Verb

Nouns are one word, verbs are two words. —What???

Here’s what I mean. It’s part of a headline to an info security article.

Breaches don’t actually happen at the speed of light: Security firm CrowdStrike has determined that the average time to breakout is less than two hours.

What’s “breakout”? Here’s a definition, using “breakout” as an adjective (okay, a noun used attributively, but that’s another lesson):

The breakout time is the time that it takes for an attacker to escape the initial beachhead machine that they were able to compromise.

Here the word is a verb:

How long does it take to break out of the system?

Seeing that article reminded me that the habit of making nouns out of separable verbs is common in English. A common example of getting this wrong is misusing the words “login” and “log in.”:

Verb: Enter your password to log in. (NOT Enter your password to login.)
Noun: Your login succeeded.

Here’s another:

Turnover in low-paying jobs tends to be high.
How often do you turn over in bed?

So remember, if you’re doing something, use two words.

Yes, English has other ways of relating verbs and nouns, but I’ll save that for later.

Some Good Advice

This article is about work as an illustrator, but it could just as well be about writing, any writing that has a deadline. Term paper, article, blog post, something your boss asks for, anything. I read the whole article and didn’t find anything grammatically remarkable (except, perhaps, the lack of errors), so I can’t even make that kind of comment as an excuse to post a link. Here’s the link. Go read the article.

The Creative Life 101: Never Late than Better

The gist is that you should let people on your team know as soon as you do that you might not meet the deadline. But go read it. If I find a related comic before this post posts (I’m writing this about a month ahead of posting date), I’ll include it. But if you do anything on a deadline, read the article.

A Speech Lesson

This isn’t about writing, but it’s still a good thing to know. Here’s the rule:

Drop the pitch of your voice when you stop saying something, even if what you’re saying is a question. You come across as stronger and more poised.

Gray Matters shows how not to do it:

PS—I found someone who already knows this: