Another Gödel Joke

This post doesn’t have much to do with good writing, but I happen to like jokes that relate to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. The gist of the theorem is that he proved mathematically that you can’t have a complete logical system, one that doesn’t have unanswerable questions and has no contradictions. This was much to his colleague Bertrand Russell’s displeasure, who was in the midst of writing a book (Principia Mathematica) to prove the completeness of mathematics. Here’s a link to a joke about that:

Epitaphs in the Graveyard of Mathematics

It’s the second one, but they’re all funny if you know a little math.

Okay, that’s a lot of preliminaries to get to the joke in the comic Dog Eat Doug that I had in mind in the first place. Part of Gödel’s proof hinged on the fact that when something refers to itself, you can get into trouble.

Interesting bit of onomatopoeia there, too. I dare you to try this question on Siri.

PS–since it happened to come up, here’s a link to an article that actually mentions the incompleteness theorem:

The mathematics of Christmas: A review of the Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus

It Sounds Wrong, but it’s Right

Okay, the intransitive verb “lie-lay-lain” is one we often get wrong in the present tense. We say “I’m gonna go lay down,” when we mean “I’m gonna go lie down.” (note there’s no direct object.)  “Lie,” the correct word, sounds okay even when we often say “lay.”

Ah, but the past tense of lie, which is “lay,” sounds wrong even when it’s correct! I think we’re just too used to something like a “-d” at the end of past tense verbs. Here’s a guy (Mike Peterson of Comic Strip of the Day for December 7, 2017) using it correctly. It’s the past tense:

He may not have been the worst of the lot, but he lay down with the dogs and now he’s getting up with the fleas.

Sorry, he’s right. It’s “lay.” “Laid” is wrong. I suppose Mike could have written, “…he laid his body down with the dogs…” That would be a little strange, but also grammatical.

The rule: “lay” is past tense of “lie.” Deal with it.

A Testimonial for Good English

Look what Dilbert said to derogate this document: Full of typos!

The rule: typographical errors matter. I wrote about this in the past more than once.

Sigh. A couple days later Scott repeated the joke:

And a subtle dig—the gal is their tech writer. She could see what the developer couldn’t.

That’s why you need us tech writers: we can see things you can’t.

The Second Most Common Mistake

—in English! In English! I’m sure this is nowhere near the top of the list of mistakes humans make. This might not even be second on the English grammar list, but I think it comes right after the one where someone, trying deliberately to be high-class, says “between him and I.”

This error is using “whom” when “who” is actually correct (or in this case, “whomever” and “whoever.”). First, the rule: when you have a subordinate clause, work from the inside out. Here’s an example of the mistake, from Edge of Adventure. Look at the first panel in the bottom row. Can you tell why he should have said “whoever”?

Yes, “to” is a preposition, and the clause that comes after it is its object. But that clause has its own subject and verb! And since we work from the inside out, being the subject of that clause takes precedence over the whole clause being an object, so it’s “whoever did this.” If you really want a “whom” in that sentence you could say something like “…to whomever I find on the trail.” Now “I” is the subject, and “whomever” is the direct object of “I find.” Make sense?

So sometimes you have permission to use “who.” Be careful.

A tricky Construction

Let’s start with the sentence in question, from the December 2016 Scientific American, page 46:

Planetary scientists such as me have pieced together this new, three-ring circus version of the active young solar system with great help from new tools for calculating the ages of meteorites, as well as the ages of planetary dust clouds—similar to our primordial solar system—elsewhere in the cosmos.

That “me” in the first line doesn’t sound quite right, does it? You definitely don’t say “me have pieced together.”

Well, “me” is correct! First, figure out the actual subject of the sentence. The subject is “scientists.” So planetary scientists have pieced together all that stuff.

Still, why “me”? “Such as” is a preposition, equivalent to “like,” or “with.” So “me” is the object of the preposition. It just happens to sit next to the verb, and that proximity creates the disconnect.

Rule of thumb: Pay attention to what you’re writing.

Another Easy-for-me Post

(See how I did that three-word compound adjective there?)

I happen to own a copy of the US government’s official style guide, the USGPO Style Guide. It’s pretty good, and if you write, and can afford a copy, I recommend it. It’s called the US Government Publishing Office Style Manual, and you can download a pdf of it, but I recommend buying a copy from Amazon or any of a couple other sources, including the US Government Printing Office. Google it.

All that to mention that the NSA of all places also has a style guide of sorts, and you can find info about it here. This is a link to a post that mentions several related grammar guides and such belonging to the NSA.

https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008/content-detail.html

Check it out.

Really Short Lesson

I’m busy. Today’s lesson is short and sweet. Can you tell the mistake in English in this comic?

Well, it’s in the first panel. Aside from the fact that we have a false subject (it), you should say “It seems that people measure…”

thanks today to Nathan Cooper’s In the Sticks for the quick lesson.

Beware of False Plurals!

Ordinarily we make a plural in English by adding an “-s” at the end.

Almost immediately, though, things begin to get complicated. Sometimes you have to add “-es” (remember fourth grade?). Then some words don’t change at all to become plural, such as “fish” and “moose.” Some words change a vowel to make a plural, such as “mice.” I remember Tom the cat saying “I hate those meeses to pieces,” in Tom and Jerry cartoons, exaggerating the plural for comic effect.

And don’t get me started on all those Latin endings, “genera,” “alumni,” and “alumnae” for example. Some words don’t even have a plural! If you say “informations,” you betray that English is not your first language. “Lego,” by the way, doesn’t have a plural. No such word as “Legos.” It’s “pieces of Lego,” but I digress.

Finally, some words look like plurals but they aren’t. We call them false plurals. Sciences that end in “-ics” are all singular. Physics, cybernetics, fluidics, and finally, which leads to today’s comic, genetics. Can you tell what the verb should be?

Michael Cavna, the cartoonist, is a respected writer, enough to make me suspect this was deliberate. This misuse of “don’t” is often associated with being undereducated. He wouldn’t be insinuating that football fans are undereducated, would he??? Nah…

English Needs Another Personal Pronoun

An essay today, and a little linguistics. The other day I mentioned the singular they. This isn’t that, even though we could use a word for that, too. See yesterday’s post for mention of the best solution to that problem that I’ve found so far: rewrite the whole sentence.

What we need is an improvement on the word “we.” When you use “we,” whom are you including? You and the guy you’re talking to, or you and the guy with you? (And then there’s the plural of majesty, when you mean only yourself, but I digress.)

A pidgin language someplace in the western Pacific has a good solution:

youme, which means me and you, the guy I’m talking to.

mefellah, which means me and the guy with me, but not you.

Sometimes, especially when you’re trying to persuade someone skeptical to agree with you, using a version of “we” that indicates whether or not you’re including the person you’re talking to.

And all this reminds me of the old Lone Ranger joke:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto were on a hilltop completely surrounded by antagonistic Indians. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Looks like we’re in a tight spot, doesn’t it?”
Tonto replies, “Who’s ‘we,’ Paleface?”

So there you have it. Should we, um, youme start a movement?

PS—Ran into this today. Not sure what kind of “we” this is. Maybe a “youme” used to mean “you”?