Why Can’t We Say “Ain’t”?

This Speed Bump comic reminds me of the joke: There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary, and those who don’t. You know, of course, that 10 is binary for “two,” right?

When I was a kid, the conventional wisdom was that people tended to be good at (or like) math or language, but not both. I think it’s kind of true, but I’ve met a lot of exceptions, including myself.

But this comic also reminds me of a problem we have in English. (ahem) We ain’t got a good contraction for “am not.” I remember my sixth-grade teacher telling us that if we wanted to ask “ain’t I?” we should say “am I not?” It sounded strange to me, but I’ve gotten used to it.

“Ain’t” is a perfectly good word, but I’m afraid it’ll never escape its low class roots. Of course you can still use the word—just say you’re being just a wee bit folksy.

Two Scientific Puns

Sarcasm can be hard to detect in writing. But first, the humor:

We’ve all heard of Ivan Pavlov and his dogs, how they learned that food was on the way after a bell rang, and they started salivating before the food showed up. Even if the food didn’t show up! (We call this a conditioned response. It has several other names, too.) Hence the first pun in the comic.

The other one is a little trickier. You have probably heard of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It’s the rule that you can’t measure both the location and speed of a subatomic particle at the same time. A key here is that we’re talking about subatomic particles, where any way we try to measure the particle affects it. Makes it twitch, you could say. When you try this with large objects, though, measuring it doesn’t have a material effect, so you can measure both. Shining radar at an airplane, for example, doesn’t make the plane twitch enough to count.

Quantum physics came up with a corollary of the uncertainty principle, that until you measure a particle, it could actually be in more than one state. Edwin Schrodinger thought this was paradoxical, and he made an analogy of the situation by describing a cat in a box with poison and a triggering mechanism and we didn’t know whether it had triggered or not. Thus, he said, quantum physics claims that the cat would be both dead and alive until we look. That’s a lot to say to arrive at this: he was being sarcastic. The cat is a large object, not a subatomic particle, so it is either dead or alive, but not both.

So the comic is funny because it cleverly alludes to two heavy-duty scientific discoveries, but you should still be alert for sarcasm.

Evolution of an Acronym

The Freedom of Information Act is a law that allows people to request (and get) information from the government by filling out a form. It doesn’t apply to classified info, but it does apply to a lot of information that, perhaps, the people who own the information would prefer stayed out of the news.

This law is commonly abbreviated “FOIA,” and people who deal with the law, either as dispensers or requesters of the information, pronounce the acronym “foy-uh.” Two syllables for eight, not a bad trade.

The linguistic rule in English is that if you can pronounce an acronym, it’s a word. Another rule, less popular with grammarians, is that if a word is a noun, you can make it into a verb by putting it into a verbal situation, such as putting it after “to,” making it an infinitive, or putting “-ed” on the end, making it past tense.

All that to say I recently ran into my first example of the acronym for the Freedom of Information Act being, um, verbed:

This blog post will address, first, the widespread nature of this misunderstanding; second, how I came to FOIA certain documents trying to figure out whether the numbers really added up; third, what those documents show; and fourth, what I further learned in talking to an intelligence official.

In fact, he did it twice:

That prompted me to FOIA the NSA for the other documents from the docket that led to the Bates rulings.

See? You can do it, and no one will stop you. Worse, everyone will understand you perfectly. This is from an information security blog called War Powers, by the way.

PS—If you read my recent post about future and present tense usage, you’d immediately recognize that the quote above should have started “This blog post addresses…”

 

Onomatopoea

The other day I wrote about alliteration, so let’s take a look at another figure of speech, onomatopoeia, pronounced ah-nah-ma-ta-PEE-a. It’s from the Greek, meaning literally, “doing the name.” As you no doubt remember from seventh grade English (Hi, Miss Austin!) it means “a word that sounds like what it means.” Or is supposed to, anyway. Words like “peep,” “woof,” and “moo.” A lot of these words don’t actually sound like what they say they sound like. Ever listen to an actual rooster? It doesn’t really sound like “cock-a-doodle-do.” What about “bang,” “crash,” and “pow”? And the French word for the sound of a dog barking is pronounced something like “ngaf,” or so I’m told. Sometimes we don’t have a word for some sounds, a problem comic artists deal with often. For example, what sound does a rake on concrete make? Here’s a panel from Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries. Or what about the sound of a subterranean critter, maybe a Bobbit Worm, being eaten? The Edge of Adventure, by James Allen and Brice Vorderbrug, has something to say about that:

 

 

 

Well, those aren’t likely to end up in the OED, but here’s a good commentary on the subject. Thanks, David Malki, of Wondermark: ''You teach the KIDS, Ray! You teach it to 'em when they're KIDS!!'' I think you should feel free to make up your own onomatopoetic words. If you think up a good one, share it in the comments.

Two Bad Jokes

But they’re about language, so I guess it’s okay. First the pun. It’s the last word in the comic.

And that leads to the less jokey joke, use of a figure of speech that we call alliteration. Alliteration is when you start two or more words with the same letter. The Peter Piper tongue twister is a good example of alliteration. The fewer non-matching words you have, the better the alliteration is considered to be, and the non-matching words should never be emphasized. So this comic is a decent example of alliteration.

It’s still bad, though. But I like it. Thank you, Stephen Beals.

Another Curmudgeon!

His name is Brian Patrick Byrne and he wrote an article about a NASA-sponsored computer game that he says is riddled with errors, both of fact and of English. He seems to be correct. If you’re interested in mistakes in video games, go read the article. It’s not bad, (though once he used “within” when just “in” would have been fine). Here’s a quote:

Cosmic Quest teaches players bad math about the size of solar arrays, and gives false instructions for an important process used to make fuel and water in space. It also screws up the name of a vital chemical element needed to power NASA spacecraft. Among the game’s typos are misspellings of the words “analyze” and “oxide,” and confusing the verb “affect” for the noun “effect.”

As a writer and editor, I think these are pretty serious errors, even if they occur only once each. NASA has the excuse that an outside company did the development, and I’m certainly glad it’s not a real NASA project. Here’s a screen shot, by the way. I put the pointer under the misspelled word, but you probably didn’t need the assistance, did you?

The Difference Between “That” and “Which”

I usually ignore things like grammar checkers, but Microsoft Word’s grammar checker happens to be pretty good at this distinction. I should add that we have lots of uses for both words, but today we’ll look at only one use. Here’s the rule:

Use “that” in restrictive clauses.
Use “which” in non-restrictive clauses.

Whatever that means, right?

Restrictive means the information is necessary. Non-restrictive means the information is added info; an aside or parenthetical remark.

Restrictive: The list includes an account that has been set up in the general ledger.

Non-restrictive: The list includes uncollected funds, which is what distinguishes this list from the collected balance.

I should add that you need to use a comma before this usage of “which” to show that the remark is parenthetical.

Here’s an example:

We set up an account that includes uncollected funds, which is what distinguishes it from a collected balance account.

A good exercise is to watch for this construction in your daily reading. You will see a lot of people using “which” when they should use “that.” They’re being pretentious. Don’t you be pretentious.

The Present Tense in Technical Writing

Here’s the rule:

Use the present tense to indicate customary behavior, no matter when it happens.

That’s right, when you do something, something happens. Doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually done it yet. Here are a few examples:

When true, the boolean indicates acceptance; when false, it indicates rejection.
When you press Enter, the window appears.
When I get hungry, I eat!
Tomorrow I go to the dentist.
Every day I get up before 6:00.

Maybe you’re writing instructions for operating a machine that hasn’t even been built yet. Use the present: When you turn the key, the engine starts.

When may you use the future? I can think of four times:

  • When you want to be vague:  Someday we will get married.
  • When the time is important:  Tomorrow I will go to the dentist, but the next day I won’t
  • For a command:  You will clean your room! (In military tech writing they use “shall.”)
  • When something isn’t customary: We will go on the trip if we can ever get the car started.

By the way, this is a good rule even if your writing isn’t strictly technical.

A Quick Book Review

If you’re looking for something to get me for Christmas, this book would be perfect.

It’s The Lexicon of Comicana, by Mort Walker, the writer of Beetle Bailey. Here’s the cover:

Amazon’s blurb can’t be beat, so I’ll just quote it:

Written as a satire on the comic devices cartoonists use, the book quickly became a textbook for art students. Walker researched cartoons around the world to collect this international set of cartoon symbols. The names he invented for them now appear in dictionaries.

You have a choice: If or Whether

If you’re a programmer, you know about “if.” We even call then “If statements.”

If some sort of code thing,
then some sort of code thing
else some other code thing.

We also have conditional sentences in English that have an analogous structure.

If you have short hair, it’s pretty hard to tie a ribbon in it.

But there’s another construction where the “if” is more or less in the middle of the sentence, and here it can get tricky, because you can put “whether” in the same spot where the “if” goes, but the meaning is significantly different. In this case, the “if” refers to what came before in the sentence, and “whether” refers to what follows.

The light tells you if the door is open. (Otherwise it doesn’t shine.)
The light tells you whether the door is open. (Maybe different colors of light for open and closed)

The message tells you if the car is ready. (Otherwise, it doesn’t tell you.)
The message tells you whether the car is ready. (The message says “car is ready,” or “car is not ready.”)

In other words, the “if” applies to what comes before, and it tells of the existence of what comes after.
But “whether” applies to what follows, and shows an alternative.  I should add that “Whether” always implies or says “or not.” If you can fit “or not” into the sentence, you should use “whether.”

Using “if” when you should use “whether” is easy, but don’t do it. Your meaning will be crisper, and nobody will get a mental hiccup from getting your meaning wrong at first.