May and Can

When I was a kid, my teachers (several of them, in grade school) taught us that “may” meant permission, so when a clerk asked “May I help you?” They were being deferential—”Do I have your permission to help you?” Use of “may” in this circumstance is still considered to be polite and high class. “Can,” my teachers said, meant ability. So “Can you open this pickle jar? It’s too tight for me,” is appropriate (unless the speaker is being manipulative or something, though most manipulative would be to assume the person can open the jar by using “would,” but I won’t get into that). Anyway, this Retail comic does a nice job of describing the subtleties of these words.

Retail - 04/23/2017

All that said, The language seems to be changing. I wrote some math curriculum for IBM once, and the PhD SMEs we worked with insisted we use “can” even when “may ” was technically more correct. And I see “may” used a lot as a weak version of “might.” On that last usage, if you can use “might” instead of “may,” use “might.” Your writing will have more punch.

A Word about Apostrophes

Okay, Brooke McEldowney (he of Pibgorn and 9 Chickweed Lane fame) is one of my favorite cartoonists, but I don’t get the punchline in this one. That doesn’t matter, though, because I want to mention the references to apostrophes in the first cell. [I just figured out that it’s not “cell,” but “panel.” At least that’s what I see the cartoonists using, and they ought to know. Several panels make a strip, and a “cel” is a single frame in an animated movie. I guess a “cell” is where you put prisoners or honey.]

Okay, in the first panel, she mentions that apostrophes are to indicate a missing letter in a contraction, and separately to indicate the possessive case. As it happens, the possessive is also derived from a missing letter! We still see it in the German, whence we get a lot of our possessive forms. Originally the possessive was -es, and we took out the e and replaced it with an apostrophe.

My other comment is the pair of apostrophes in one word. You can actually do that, sometimes. For instance the helping verbs in the future perfect, “will have” can both be contracted, mainly in informal spoken English: “I’ll’ve been writing this blog for nine years come January.” If I think of (or see) any other examples, I’ll add them.

Meantime, if you get the joke, explain it to me.

A Mathematician who Changed my Life

Or at least had a profound influence on my life. This post doesn’t have much to do with writing, but I ran into a comic that serves as an excellent illustration of Gödel’s Proof. This proof also revolutionized mathematics, but that’s another story, which I’ll tell a little of next.

Kurt Gödel was a German mathematician who escaped Germany in time to miss being there for the second world war. He moved to Princeton and he and Albert Einstein were best of friends. A famous British mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, and philosopher Bertrand Russell had an ambition at the time to write a book that unified all of mathematics, beginning to end. The title was Principia Mathematica. The multi-volume book is extremely dense reading and I don’t recommend it. It’s not finished either. Kurt Gödel proved that they couldn’t do it. When the Brits learned of it, (long story short), after trying to figure a way around the Proof, they gave up.

Fortunately for me and non-mathematicians everywhere, Gödel’s proof, although is is not light reading, it can be understood if you’re willing to stop and think, and sometimes re-read parts. I recommend that you give it a read in you’re into this sort of thing.

It was back in my college days. (Paul Fosmark, you might remember me mentioning this in one of our U of M campus evangelistic street meetings.) I was asking a lot of questions about the meaning of life, what is true, and so on, as people that age are wont, and I ran into an article about this piece of mathematics (later I found the book, but I loaned it so someone, and it, shall we say, went into the ministry) and, as I mentioned in the first line of this post, it had a profound effect on me.

What he proved, among several other things, was that no logical system can be complete. You can always ask questions within a system that the system can’t answer.

Another way of putting this is that all systems contain statements that are true within the system but you can’t prove that they are true. A corollary of this was that you could generate contradictory statements and still be following the rules of the system.

(Still with me?) Gödel showed that a logical system gets into trouble when it makes self-referential statements. Statements that refer to themselves. And that’s what this comic contains an example of.

Two outcomes of this proof (of many): You will never have 100% bug-free software, and the problem of free will versus God’s sovereignty will never be solved by any living theologian. Whitehead and Russell did figure a way around the proof, but it’s not very practical for us here on earth. You can get around the incompleteness if the system is infinite. Think about that!

I’ll do my best to make the next post lighter reading.

PS—Here’s a simpler example. Is it breaking news or not?

Mutts - 04/19/2017

The Most Broken Rule in English

—or so I’m told. In fact, I read somewhere that we have more words with -ei- than with -ie! I wouldn’t even have mentioned this poor rule except I ran into a cartoon about it:

So why the part about ‘except after c’? Certain Latin words begin with c followed by a vowel, and they ended up in English with an e immediately after the c. Hence conceive, perceive, receive, and so on.

Some other exceptions to this rule: eight, reign, neighbor, weigh, weight, freight, feign, neigh, vein, deign, veil, beige, sheik, sleigh, feint, and lots more. At least these are all pronounced -ay. Hmm…

Notice that a lot of the words have a -gh? Maybe we could make a rule about -ei- that refers to -gh. —Nah, that would create even more problems, right?

You can also get an -ei- when a syllable intervenes, such as deionize and absenteeism.

To save you having to look it up, here’s a link to a list with more than a thousand of them. Not all the words are common, but you might enjoy looking over the list. Once anyweigh. Oops.

Tricky Plurals

Today’s lesson is tricky. Maybe even boring! The problem is with the difference between “each,” “every,” and “all.” These words can appear when you refer to a group of things, including things in a list. This tempts you to use a plural verb, especially if you mention the group itself. But “each” refers to the items one at a time, and though “every” refers to them as individual parts of the whole group, they are both singulars, so they get singular verbs.

If you want a plural verb with a group, use “all” or “some.” (If it’s not a group, “all” can be singular: All of the cake is eaten!)

So:

Each of the computers is shut down. (Not Each of the computers are shut down.)
Every one of the computers is shut down. (Not …are shut down)
All of the computers are shut down.

Let’s try a trickier one:

Opening the file, reading the file, and deleting the file—each is a separate module.
Each of opening the file, reading the file, and deleting the file is a separate module.
Every one of opening the file, reading the file, and deleting the file is a separate module.
All of opening the file, reading the file, and deleting the file are separate modules.

Just remember, “each” and “every” are singulars, and “all” is a plural when you refer to a group.

A Surplus of Hyphens

lately I’ve been seeing a lot of three-word phrases unnecessarily hyphenated. Here’s an example:

Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have peace-of-mind knowing the contents on your computer are protected.

Sorry, those hyphens aren’t necessary. A couple more: inch-by-inch, time-of-day, up-to-date, over-and-over. These would all make fine compound adjectives, but don’t hyphenate them unless they are adjectives! For those hyphens to be correct, the writer of that sentence would need something like:

Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have a peace-of-mind situation knowing the contents on your computer are protected.

Those other examples might be inch-by-inch examination, time-of-day readout, up-to-date message, over-and-over excuses. An exercise: when you see one of these, supply your own noun the adjective phrase to modify. But when they’re by themselves, don’t hyphenate them.

Keep your Thoughts Together

English is a relatively uninflected language, so word order is important. In declarative sentences, for example, we put the subject first most of the time, and the verb after it. It can get tricky when we insert modifiers. The rule is to put modifiers as close to what they modify as possible. Here’s an example of breaking this rule:

After President George W. Bush announced a plan to return to the Moon and move on to Mars in 2004, NASA began to consider how best to carry out that vision. ​

We moved to Mars in 2004? What is this, science fiction? I suppose the likelihood that most readers would know that we’re not on Mars yet would make them think a bit to figure out what did happen that year. But as a writer you want the information to flow into your readers’ brains effortlessly. So put that date where it goes, at the beginning:

In 2004, after President George W. Bush announced a plan to return to the Moon and move on to Mars, NASA began to consider how best to carry out that vision.

Now the readers can tell exactly what the writer means without having to interrupt themselves to figure out what’s going on.

Compose and Comprise

I’ve been posting things that people get wrong a lot lately, and here’s another one, that someone (the folks at This Day in History) almost got right! They seem to know the way most people get this wrong, and they avoid that: NEVER use “is comprised of”! That’s a pretentiousism. (You may say “is composed of” when appropriate. See the last rule below.)

The winning teams from those regions comprise the Final Four, who meet in that year’s host city to decide the championship.

But they still got it backwards. Here are the rules:

Use comprise when you start with the whole thing and then mention its parts. It means “is made up of.”

Use compose when you start with the parts (winning teams) and then say what they make (The Final Four). You may use “is composed of” if you have a need to put the whole thing first and the parts second and you don’t want to use comprise. So, “The ‘Final Four’ is composed of the winning teams from each region” is correct.

 

Eager or Anxious

Here’s a pair of words that a lot of people get wrong. First, the comic (he gets it wrong).

Both anxious and eager refer to anticipating something in the future, but they are different in an important way:

Eager means looking forward to something with pleasure

Anxious means looking forward to something with fear.

I’m eager for you all to get this right, but I’m a little anxious that not everyone will.