Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bad Linguistics ... and Good Linguistics

One of the things I have learned from several years of reading Language Log is just how absent the science of linguistics is from the radar of your average intellectual. Otherwise highly educated people spout nonsense about language that has long since been utterly discredited by serious scholarly study of language.

So I should not have been surprised to read a tweet by Ben Goldacre that addressed the use of the passive voice: "dear everyone, when i read your passive sentence constructions i sort of have to convert them into active ones in my head because i'm thick." I was not surprised, but I was disappointed, since I love Goldacre's ongoing critique of "Bad Science" on his blog and in his Guardian column and his book with that title. He is unrelenting, for example, on the nonsense that is "alternative medicine," while also being highly critical of "bad science" when he finds it in more mainstream scientific settings.

His critique of the passive voice as a supposed "stylistic problem," however, is first-order bad science — perhaps not quite on the order of homeopathy, but still utterly unfounded. If you, like Goldacre, think that "passive voice should be avoided," then you should read some good science by Geoffrey Pullum from Language Log: "The Passive in English." I hope that Goldacre, too, will follow my tip and recognize the Language Log linguists as his fellow campaigners against "bad science."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Rule of Law


what might have been

The suicidal perpetrators died,
but those behind the scenes were hunted down
and put on trial for the crimes they had
abetted. Now they are in jail for life.

The citizens feel safe to know their land
is ruled by law, not fear, nor force, nor vengeance.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Spelling Rage

I just saw a Facebook page called "Learning How To Fucking Spell Properly":

1. When I first read it, I put the fourth word after the fifth word, which changed the meaning.

2. Then I wondered why such a page would be necessary anyway: I rarely see anyone misspell "properly."

3. Then it struck me as odd that someone with spelling rage would split an infinitive. Not that split infinitives are incorrect, but that most people with spelling-rage issues also have grammar-rage issues.

Tennis and The Change

12 years ago, Venus Williams was the emerging star in a sport that wasn’t always so hospitable to a young woman of color who dared to be great.

All Madison Keys heard on Wednesday were cheers and chants of “Maddy.” On the subject of change, it was the kind that a 16-year-old with a long climb ahead could believe in.

This is the end of Harvey Araton's September 1 New York Times article "As Williamses Age, Here Comes Youth." For most readers, the final sentence will read like a reference to Barack Obama's election slogan "change you can believe in." But for followers of the American poetry scene, there's another echo: Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," the subject of much recent discussion on racism in poetry.

Whether Hoagland's poem is a depiction of racism or is itself racist, this article shows that there has been a change in the tennis world: when the Williams sisters emerged as the dominant forces in women's tennis, much latent racism became manifest. And now, Madison Keys's victory in the first round of the US Open and hard-fought, three-set loss in the second round is simply celebrated by the fans and the press as the success of a promising young American player.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

What is a monster?

This Wondermark cartoon (in a very different style than usual; see the note to the cartoon) nicely captures the problem of identifying the monstrous. The bull-headed minotaur of mythology might seem like a monster to the knight in the image, but he won't seem like a monster to himself. And the man-headed monster that chases them both probably thinks they are the monsters.

Something to keep in mind whenever you consider somebody "monstrous" in some way: his actions probably seem "human" to him, while yours may seem "monstrous."

At first, I thought this was another angle on "the banality of evil," but perhaps it's not:

In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do.

The monsters, that is, do not see themselves as monsters.