Unsurprisingly, corpus linguists have already answered your question

This post is a response to a corpus search done on another blog. Over on What You’re Doing Is Rather Desperate, Neil Saunders wanted to research how adverbs are used in academic articles, specifically the sentence adverb, or as he says, adverbs which are used “with a comma to make a point at the start of a sentence”. I’m not trying to pick on Mr. Saunders (because what he did was pretty great for a non-linguist), but I think his post, and the media reports on it, makes a great excuse to write about the really, really awesome corpus linguistics resources available to the public. I’ll go through what Mr. Saunders did, and list what he could have done had he known about corpus linguistics.

Mr. Saunders wanted to know about sentence adverbs in academic texts so he wrote a script to download abstracts from PubMed Central. Right off the bat, he could have gone looking for either (1) articles on sentence adverbs or (2) already available corpora. As I pointed out in a comment on his post (which has mysteriously disappeared, probably due to the URLs I in it), there are corpora with science texts from as far back as the 1375 AD. There are also modern alternatives, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC), both of which (and much, much more) are available through Mark Davies’ awesome site.

I bring this up because there are several benefits of using these corpora instead of compiling your own, especially if you’re not a linguist. The first is time and space. Saunders says that his uncompressed corpus of abstracts is 47 GB (!) and that it took “overnight” (double !) for his script to comb through the abstracts. Using an online corpus drops the space required on your home machine down to 0 GB. And running searches on COCA, which contains 450 million words, takes a matter of seconds.

The second benefit is a pretty major one for linguists. After noting that his search only looks for words ending in -ly, Saunders says:

There will of course be false positives – words ending with “ly,” that are not adverbs. Some of these include: the month of July, the country of Italy, surnames such as Whitely, medical conditions such as renomegaly and typographical errors such as “Findingsinitially“. These examples are uncommon and I just ignore them where they occur.

This is a big deal. First of all, the idea of using “ly” as a way to search for adverbs is profoundly misguided. Saunders seems to realize this, since he notes that not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. But where he really goes wrong, as we’ll soon see, is in disregarding all of the adverbs that do not end in -ly. If Saunders had used a corpus that already had each word tagged for its part of speech (POS), or if he had ran a POS-tagger on his own corpus, he could have had an accurate measurement of the use of adverbs in academic articles. This is because POS-tagging allows researchers to find adverbs, adjectives, nouns, etc., as well as searching for words that end in -ly – or even just adverbs that end in -ly. And remember, it can all be done in a matter of moments (even the POS tagging). You won’t even have time to make a cup of coffee, although consumption of caffeinated beverages is highly recommended when doing linguistics (unless you’re at a conference, in which case you should substitute alcohol for caffeine).

Here is where I break from following Saunders’ method. I want like to show you what’s possible with some of the publicly available corpora online, or how a linguist would conduct an inquiry into the use of adverbs in academia.

Looking for sentence-initial adverbs in academic texts, I went to COCA. I know the COCA interface can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated, but there are very clear instructions (with examples) of how to do everything. Just remember: if confusion persists for more than four hours, consult your local linguist.

On the COCA page, I searched for adverbs coming after a period, or sentence initial adverbs, in the Medical and Science/Technology texts in the Academic section (Click here to rerun my exact search on COCA. Just hit “Search” on the left when you get there). Here’s what I came up with:

Click to embiggen
Top ten sentence initial adverbs in medical and science academic texts in COCA.

You’ll notice that only one of the adverbs on this list (“finally”) ends in “ly”. That word is also coincidentally the top word on Saunders’ list. Notice also that the list above includes the kind of sentence adverbs that Saunders’ search deliberately does not, or those not ending in -ly, such as “for” and “in”, despite the examples of such given on the Wikipedia page that Saunders linked to in his post. (For those wondering, the POS-tagger treated these as parts of adverbial phrases, hence the “REX21” and “RR21” tags)

Searching for only those sentence initial adverbs that end in -ly, we find a list similar to Saunders’, but with only five of the same words on it. (Saunders’ top ten are: finally, additionally, interestingly, recently, importantly, similarly, surprisingly, specifically, conversely, consequentially)

Click to embiggen
Top ten sentence initial adverbs ending in -ly in medical and science academic texts in COCA.

So what does this tell us? Well, for starters, my shooting-from-the-hip research is insufficient to draw any great conclusions from, even if it is more systematic than Saunders’. Seeing what adverbs are used to start sentences doesn’t really tell us much about, for example, what the journals, authors, or results of the papers are like. This is the mistake that Mr. Saunders makes in his conclusions. After ranking the usage frequencies of surprising by journal, he writes:

The message seems clear: go with a Nature or specialist PLoS journal if your results are surprising.

Unfortunately for Mr. Saunders, a linguist would find the message anything but clear. For starters, the realtive use of surprising in a journal does not tell us that the results in the articles are actually surprising, but rather that the authors wish to present their results as surprising. That is, if the word surprising in the articles is not preceded by Our results are not. This is another problem with Mr. Saunders’ conclusions – not placing his results in context – and it is something that linguists would research, perhaps by scrolling through the concordances using corpus linguistics software, or software designed exactly for the type of research that Mr. Saunders wished to do.

The second thing to notice about my results is that they probably look a whole lot more boring than Saunders’. Such is the nature of researching things that people think matter (like those nasty little adverbs), but professionals know really don’t. So it goes.

Finally, what we really should be looking at is how scientists use adverbs in comparison to other writers. I chose to contrast the frequencies of sentence-initial adverbs in the medical and science/technology articles with the frequencies found in academic articles from the (oft-disparaged) humanities. (Here is the link to that search.)

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Top ten sentence initial adverbs in humanities academic texts in COCA.

Six of the top ten sentence initial adverbs in the humanities texts are also on the list for the (hard) science texts. What does this tell us? Again, not much. But we can get an idea that either the styles in the two subjects are not that different, or that sentence initial adverbs might be similar across other genres as well (since the words on these lists look rather pedestrian). We won’t know, of course, until we do more research. And if you really want to know, I suggest you do some corpus searches of your own because the end of this blog post is long overdue.

I also think I’ve picked on Mr. Saunders enough. After all, it’s not really his fault if he didn’t do as I have suggested. How was he supposed to know all these corpora are available? He’s a bioinformatician, not a corpus linguist. And yet, sadly, he’s the one who gets written up in the Smithsonian’s blog, even though linguists have been publishing about these matters since at least the late 1980s.

Before I end, though, I want to offer a word of warning. Although I said that anyone who knows where to look can and should do their own corpus linguistic research, and although I tried to keep my searches as simple as possible, I couldn’t have done them without my background in linguistics. Doing linguistic research on Big Data is tempting. But doing linguistic research on a corpora, especially one that you compiled, can be misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst if you don’t know what you’re doing. The problem is that Mr. Saunders isn’t alone. I’ve seen other non-linguists try this type of research. My message here is similar to the one in my previous post, which was directed to marketers: linguistic research is interesting and it can tell you a lot about the subject of your interest, but only if you do it right. So get a linguist to do it or see if a linguist has already done it. If either of these is not possible, then feel free to do your own research, but tread lightly, young padawans.

If you’re wondering whether academia overuses adverbs (hint: it doesn’t) or just how much adverbs get tossed into academic articles, I recommend reading papers written by Douglas Biber and/or Susan Conrad. They have published extensively on the linguistic nature of many different writing genres. Here’s a link to a Google Scholar search to get you started. You can also have a look at the Longman Grammar, which is probably available at your library.

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Book review: Punctuation..? by User Design

This is by far the hippest book on punctuation I’ve ever read. That may sound strange, but I study linguistics, so I’ve read a few good books on punctuation.

Front and back covers of Punctuation..?
Front and back covers of Punctuation..?

Punctuation..? intends to explain the “functions and correct uses of 21 of the most used punctuation marks.” I say “intends” because it’s always a toss up with grammar books. Some people get very picky about what is verboten in written and spoken English. The problem is that when these people get bent out of shape one too many times, they start convincing publishers to bound their rantings and ravings.

But Punctuation..? takes a different approach. The slick, minimalist artwork matches the concise and reasonable explanations of punctuation marks. This book will not tell you that you’re going to die poor and lonely if you don’t use an Oxford comma. Instead it very succinctly explains what a comma is and how it is used.

According to the book’s website, Punctuation..? is for “a wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert).” As someone who probably resides on the more expert end of punctuation intelligence, or who at least doesn’t need to be told what an ellipsis is, I still found this book enjoyable for two reasons.

First, the explanations are not only easy to understand, they’re also correct. This is kind of important for educational books. While it was nice that the interpunct (·) and pilcrow (¶) were included, it was even better that the semicolon got some (well deserved) respect and that the exclamation point came with a word of caution.

Pages 34 and 35, which feature some semicolon love.
Pages 34 and 35, which feature some semicolon love.

Second, although Punctuation..? is of more practical benefit to learners of English, it’s probably more of a joy to language enthusiasts because the book is actually funny. If a punctuation book has you laughing, I think that’s a good sign.

I guess the only problem I had with this book was its definition of a noun, which was a little too traditional for my tastes (you know the one). But I think that’s neither here nor there, since if you have another definition for a noun, you’re probably a linguist. And in that case you’ll just be glad to see such a cool book about punctuation aimed at wide audience.

Check out the User design website for more info and links to where you can buy it.

 

 

Up next: A twenty-years-too-late look at a seminal work in pragmatics, Cross-cultural pragmatics: the semantics of human interaction by Anna Wierzbicka.

Autocorrected

James Gleick has a recent article in the New York Times about Autocorrect (“Auto Crrect Ths!” – Aug. 4, 2012), that bane of impatient texters and Tweeters everywhere. Besides recounting some of the more hilarious and embarrassing autocorrections made, he very poignantly tells how Autocorrect works and how it is advancing as computers get better at making predictions.

But in the second to last paragraph, he missteps. He writes:

One more thing to worry about: the better Autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it. It’s happening already. People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain.

I don’t know whether Mr. Gleick’s writing was the victim of an editor trying to save space, but that seems unlikely since there’s room on the internet for a bit of qualification, which is what could save these statements from being common cases of declinism. Let me explain.

“People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic” probably refers to the use of calculators. But I would hesitate to say that the power and ubiquity of modern calculators has caused people to unlearn arithmetic. Let’s take a simple equation such as 4 x 4. Anyone conducting such an equation on a calculator knows the arithmetic behind it. If they put it in and the answer comes back as 0 or 8 or 1 or even 20, they are more than likely to realize something went wrong, namely they pressed the minus or plus button instead of the multiplication button. Likewise they know the arithmetic behind 231 x 47.06.

Mr. Gleick writes implies that the efficiency of calculators has caused people to rely too much on them. But this is backwards. The more difficult that calculations get, the more arithmetical knowledge a user is likely to have. Relying on a machine to tell me the square root of 144 doesn’t necessarily mean I “unlearned” arithmetic. It only means that I trust the calculator to give me the correct answer to the equation I gave it. If I trust that I pressed the buttons in the right order, the answer I am given will be sufficient for me, even if I do not know how to work out the equation on pen and paper. I doubt any mathematicians out there are worried about “unlearning” arithmetic because of the power of their calculators. Rather, they’re probably more worried about how to enter the equations correctly. And just like I know 8 is not the answer to 4 x 4, they probably know x = 45 is not the answer to x2 + 2x – 4 = 0.

Taking the analogy to language, we see the same thing. Not being able to spell quixotic, but knowing that chaotic is not the word I’m looking for, does not mean that I have lost the ability to spell. It merely means that I have enough trust in my Autocorrect to suggest the correct word I’m looking for. If it throws something else at me, I’ll consult a dictionary.

If the Autocorrect cannot give me the correct word I’m looking for because it is a recent coinage, there may not be a standard spelling yet, in which case I am able to disregard any suggestions. I’ll spell the word as I want and trust the reader to understand it. Ya dig?

None of the infamous stories of Autocorrect turning normal language into gibberish involve someone who didn’t know how to spell. None of them end with someone pleading for the correct spelling of whatever word Autocorrect mangled. As Autocorrect gets better, people will just learn to trust its suggestions more with words that are difficult to spell. This doesn’t mean we have lost the ability to spell. Spelling in English is a tour de force in memorization because the spelling of English words is a notorious mess. If all I can remember is that the word I’m looking for has a q and an x in it, does it really mean I have unlearned how to spell or that I have just forgotten the exact spelling of quixotic and am willing to trust Autocorrect’s suggestion?

Learning arithmetic is learning a system. Once you know how 2 x 2 works, you can multiply any numbers. The English spelling system is nowhere near a system like arithmetic, so the analogy Mr. Gleick used doesn’t really work for this reason either. But there is one thing that spelling and arithmetic have in common when it comes to computers. Calculators and Autocorrect are only beneficial to those who already have at least a basic understanding of arithmetic and spelling. The advance of Autocorrect will have the same effect on people’s ability to spell as the advance of calculators did on people’s ability to do arithmetic, which was not really any at all.

By the way, I once looked up took (meaning the past tense of take) in a dictionary because after writing it I was sure that wasn’t the way to spell it. And that’s my memory getting worse, not my Autocorrect unlearning me.

[Update – Aug. 6, 2012] If our spelling really does go down the drain, it should at least make this kind of spelling bee more interesting (if only it were true).

Poetry and Prose, Computers and Code

Back in February, I analyzed WordPress’s automated grammar checker, After the Deadline, by running some famous and well-regarded pieces of prose through it. I found the program lacking. What I wrote was:

If you have understood this article so far, you already know more about writing than After the Deadline. It will not improve your writing. It will most likely make it worse. Contrary to what is claimed on its homepage, you will not write better and you will spend more time editing.

I think my test of After the Deadline proved its inefficiency, especially since I noticed that the program finds errors in its own suggestions. Talk about needing to heed your own advice…

A comment by one of the program’s developers, Raphael Mudge, however, got me thinking about what benefit (if any) automatic grammar checkers can offer. Mr. Mudge noted that the program was written for bloggers so running famous prose through it was not fair. He is right about that, but as I replied, the problem with automated grammar checkers really lies with the confidence and capability of writers who use them:

[The effect that computer grammar checkers could have on uncertain writers] is even more important when we think of running After the Deadline against a random sample of blog posts, as you suggest. While that would be more fair than what I did, it wouldn’t necessarily tell us anything. What’s needed is a second step of deciding which editing suggestions will be accepted. If we accept only the correct suggestions, we assume an extremely capable author who is therefore not in need of the program. As the threshold for our accepted suggestions lowers, however, we will begin to see a muddying of the waters – the more poorly written posts will be made better, but the more well written posts will be made worse. The question then becomes where do we draw the line on acceptions to ensure that the program is not doing more harm than good? That will decide the program’s worth, in my opinion.

As it turns out, after that review of After the Deadline, I was contacted by someone from Grammarly, another automated grammar checker. For some reason they wanted me to review their program. I said sure, I’d love to, and then I promptly did nothing. In truth, I was sidetracked by other things – kids, work, beer, school, the NHL playoffs, more beer, and recycling. So much for that.

Now R.L.G. over at the Economist’s Johnson blog has a post about these programs and a short discussion of Ben Yagoda’s review of Grammarly at Lingua Franca, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog. I want to quickly review these posts and add to my thoughts about these programs.

First, R.L.G. rightly points out that “computers can be very good at parsing natural language, finding determiners and noun phrases and verb phrases and organising them into trees.” I’m happy to agree with that. Part-of-speech taggers alone are amazing and they open up new ways of researching language. But, as he again rightly points out, “Online grammar coaches and style checkers will be snake oil for some time, precisely due to some of the things that separate formal and natural languages.”

Second, Mr. Yagoda’s review of Grammarly is spot on. (I’m impressed by how much he was able to do with only a five day trial. They gave me three months, Ben. Have your people call mine.) Not to take anything away from Mr. Yagoda, but reviewing these checkers is like shooting fish in a barrel because they’re pretty awful. A rudimentary understanding of writing is enough to protect you from their “corrections”. But it’s the lofty claims of these programs that makes testing them irresistible to people like Mr. Yagoda and myself.

So who uses automated grammar checkers and who could possibly benefit from them? The answer takes us back to the confidence of writers. Obviously, writers like RLG and Ben Yagoda are out of the question. As I noted in my comment to Mr. Mudge, the developer of After the Deadline, “a confident writer doesn’t need computer grammar checkers for a variety of reasons, so it’s the uncertain writers that matter. They may have perfect grammar, but be lead astray by a computer grammar checker.” It’s even worse if we take into account Mr. Yagoda’s point that “when it comes to computer programs evaluating prose, the cards never tell the truth.”

We do not have computers that can edit prose, not even close. What we have right now are inadequate grammar checkers that may be doing more harm than good since the suggestions they make are either useless or flat out wrong. They are also being peddled to writers who may not be able to recognize how bad they are. So there’s a danger that competent but insecure writers will follow the program’s misguided attempts to improve their prose.

It’s strange that Grammarly would ask Mr. Yagoda or myself to review their program since Mr. Yagoda is clearly immune to the program’s snake oil charm and I wasn’t exactly kind to After the Deadline. But such bad business decisions might prove helpful for everyone. Respected writers will point out the inadequacy of these automatic grammar checkers, which will hopefully influence people to not use them. At the same time, until these programs can really prove their worth – or at least not make their inadequacy so glaringly obvious – they will not receive any good press from those who know how to write (nor will they get any from lowly bloggers like myself). In this case, any press is not good press since anyone reading R.L.G. or Ben Yagoda’s discussion of automated grammar checkers is unlikely to use one, especially if they have to pay for it.

[Update – Aug. 9, 2012] R.L.G. at Johnson, the Economist’s language blog that I linked to above, heard from Grammarly’s chief executive about what the program was meant for (“to proofread mainstream text like student papers, cover letters and proposals”). So he decided to put Grammarly through some more tests. Want to guess how it did? Check it.

The Problem with Computer Grammar Checkers [Updated]

When I moved this blog over to WordPress, I noticed that under the Users > Personal Settings page there is an option to turn on a computer proofreader. The program is from Automattic (the same people that make WordPress) and it’s called After the Deadline. While an automatic proofreader isn’t anything spectacular in itself, the grammar and style mistakes that this proofreader can supposedly prevent you from making are eye-popping:

bias language, cliches, complex phrases, diacritical marks, double negatives, hidden verbs, jargon, passive voice, phrases to avoid, and redundant phrases.

It’s an impressive looking list, but anyone with even mediocre writing skills and experience with computer proofreaders is likely to be wary. How often has Microsoft Word mistakenly underlined some of your text? How many times has your smartphone autocorrected you into incomprehension?

The thing is, when presented with such a list, even a confident writer couldn’t be blamed for being curious. Are you unwittingly making grammar mistakes in your carefully crafted prose? Have you been straying outside the accepted limits of complex and redundant phrases? Are there verbs hiding in your text? And holy shit, what the hell are diacritical marks?

Let’s put those ridiculous questions aside for a moment. Many people have pointed out what’s wrong with automatic spelling and grammar checkers. What I want to do here is show you why there are problems with these programs by using some highly regarded prose.

Let’s fire up the incinerator.

"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf*

At the first green line, After the Deadline suggests, “Did you mean… ‘its fine tomorrow?’” Things are not off to a good start. The three other green lines warn me (or Ms. Woolf) about the Dreaded Passive Voice™. The blue line suggests that “Complex Expression” be changed to “plans.”But perhaps the worst suggestion is given by clicking on the red line – “Did you mean… ‘sense,’ ‘cents,’ ‘scents?’” Moving on…

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

The blue line is another “Complex Expression,” which After the Deadline suggests be changed to “way.” That’s not so bad. The green line, however, is (according to the proofreader) an example of a “Hidden Verb.” What’s a hidden verb, you ask? As the After the Deadline explains, “A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.” But this doesn’t make any sense. Constant had not been nominalized, while had is one of the most common (and easiest to read) verbs in English. I’m told to “revise ‘had a constant’ to bring out the verb,” but I don’t know what that means. Alert readers will begin to see the problem here. So will everyone else.

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

Here’s the Dreaded Passive Voice™ again. Geoffrey Pullum would have a fit with this program (comments are open, Geoff! Let us know how you really feel!). I guess the proofreader wants me to change the sentence to something like, “So I called myself Pip, and people called me Pip?” It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

All I really need to say here is that the second green line says “Hyphen Required” and suggests I change the phrase to “out-of-the-way.” Really? Yes, really.

To be sure, I ran some other styles of writing through After the Deadline, such as Pulitzer Prize winners, and got the same results. You’re welcome to run anything you want through there, but I got $20 bucks saying you’re going to get the same nonsense I did.

Getting back to those ridiculous questions, the answers are all irrelevant. If you have understood this article so far, you already know more about writing than After the Deadline. It will not improve your writing. It will most likely make it worse. Contrary to what is claimed on its homepage, you will not write better and you will spend more time editing.

I can’t believe anyone except the most inexperienced writers would be fooled by After the Deadline’s “corrections.” This isn’t exactly surprising when it comes to grammar checkers because they are at best useless and at worst harmful. But the way in which we rely on technology threatens to undermine our own writing. Insecure writers might be tricked into believing that After the Deadline’s suggestions are legit. And that is the real problem with these programs. Their potential to do more harm than good is a ratio approaching one since it’s almost impossible for them to do good.

Finally, I’d just like to add that when I used After the Deadline on this post, two terms were underlined in the explanation of hidden verbs:

“A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.”

The program says that nominalization isn’t a word and that I should write “fewer words” instead of “less words.” But that is a quote from the program itself! If even the makers of After the Deadline can’t (or won’t) follow their own guidelines, why should you?

And so I have decided to destroy the machine. Feeding this next piece of prose into your grammar checker is equivalent to setting its controls for the heart of the sun.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

 

[Update – Feb. 28, 2011] It’s always nice when someone with first-hand knowledge weighs in on the discussion. In this case, former After the Deadline developer Raphael Mudge was kind enough to stop by and leave his thoughts, to which I responded below.

[Update – Mar. 16, 2012] I heard from the WordPress staff about why they chose to incorporate After the Deadline into their software. Actually, I was directed to the post on the WordPress.com blog about the incorporation. I’m a bit disappointed in this, however. First, although the WordPress staff tells me that “There are many reasons to explain why we chose this service to help WordPress.com users with their writing, but you can read our announcement post for the full details,” their post is not full of “details.” Second, neither the email I got nor the WordPress blog post addresses any of the problems with automatic grammar or spell checkers. Oh well.

But most importantly, I don’t think the author of the post is serious when he says he “was blown away” by After the Deadline. Did he run his own post through there? What the hell did it look like before he did? And why didn’t he accept all of the suggestions? And judging by the comments on the post, when will a psychologist do a study with an automatic grammar checker with incorrect suggestions just to see how blindly people will obey their master?

By the way, running this update through AtD underlines “incorporate,” “was directed,” and “all of the.” Feel free to guess why if you really have nothing better to do.

 

 

 

*So much for only using said to carry dialogue, amIright, Elmore? Way to go, Virginia, you dope.

Write as Elmore Leonard Says, Not as Elmore Leonard Does

Speaking of how to write well, Dangerous Minds contributor Paul Gallagher has posted Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing Fiction.” The list is from a 2001 New York Times article and it goes like this:

1. Never open a book with the weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I commented that Leonard breaks at least two of these rules in his books. That knowledge came from five minutes worth of what us in the business call “using the internet.” I’m not going to spend more time on this, but I wanted to relay another comment by witzed that had me rolling:

A lot of people don’t know it, but Elmore Leonard is also an architect, and he has some really good rules for that, too.
1) Do not start with the roof.
2) Make sure there is another room on the other side of the door.
3) Carpeting must always face left.
4) No boilers in the elevator!
5) All arbitrary lists must have at least ten items.
6) A bedroom is not a bowling alley.
7) Make up your mind: shoes or no shoes.
8) Think first: Is this supposed to be a bathroom?
9) Pay attention to the stuff everyone can see.

Remember, folks, the best players often make the worst coaches. For more hilarity, check out the contest held by the National Post and CBC Radio. The contest is closed, but you can check the comments.

The Real Reason Short Words Are Best

In the opening of a recent Macmillan Dictionary Blog post, Robert Lane Greene quotes the editor of the Economist’s style guide, who in turn quotes Winston Churchill as saying “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Greene then goes on to discuss how difficult it is to write clearly. If you think you’ve heard this one before, don’t. Greene’s post is brief, practical, and a touch insightful. He believes that journalists often get a “bad rap” as writers of plain English because of the schedules they are under. I can go along with that.

Greene also says that metaphors are one way writers can improve. He says there are “three ways to use a metaphor to get ideas across, and two of them are bad.” The two bad kinds are tired metaphors and strained metaphors. Greene suggests using the best kind of metaphors, those that are “simple, clear, memorable and quite often short.”

Greene uses the conventional meaning of “metaphor,” of course, since that’s how most people still understand the term. But the updated meaning shows us that phrases like on Wednesday and the sun came out are also metaphors (for those unfamiliar, think about actually putting something on a day in the way we put something on a table). This realization of metaphors lurking all around our language is important because it adds what I think is the most important element of Greene’s (and Churchill’s and the unnamed Economist editor’s) belief that short words are best. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into Conceptual Metaphor Theory or Blending. I’m trying to keep your attention, believe it or not.)

Consider the opening to Greene’s post, which is really the opening to the Economist editorial:

“Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Thus, quoting Winston Churchill, began an editorial in The Economist that consisted entirely of one-syllable words. It went on:
“AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are.”

Churchill, Greene, and our anonymous editor aren’t the only ones that love short words. You’ll hear language gurus promoting them all over the place. It’s a common idea, but a good one. It goes: Keep it simple, stupid.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that short words are anything but “plain.” The more I think about them, the more I realize that short words are downright complex, especially ones like prepositions. For example, you know what on, of, at, in, etc. mean, but could you define them? It’s pretty tough when you think about it. Fortunately, every language has a way of expressing the notions that prepositions in English express, such as spatial relations. So when you encounter a new language, no matter if it has prepositions or suffixes doing the job of English prepositions, you will be able to understand them. That’s not plain, in my mind. Prepositions do some complicated things.

I don’t think Greene, Churchill or Mr. Editor were talking about prepositions, though. So let’s think about some other short and “plain” words. The English word set, according to Macmillan, has fifteen definitions. Stand has seventeen definitions. Run has nineteen. And that’s not counting the entries for phrases that include these words.

These are not plain words. Short words are not great because they are “to the point,” but because they are to so many points. The fact is, I can do a lot more with set, stand, and run than I can with Australopithecus, midi-chlorians, and Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s because English packs a lot of information into little tiny words.

Or, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes we’re forced to say yesterday or tomorrow, pretentious or university (two unrelated words), Superman or Professor Xavier. That’s just the way things are.

In his editorial, the Masked Editor uses literature as an example of what can be done with short words – “to be or not to be,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.” But he’s using a double-edged sword and he’s not using it well. Sometimes people write thinigs like this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door–
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Or this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Or this:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

So it goes. I guess some folks know what they’re doing. Neither Churchill, nor Greene, nor the artist formerly known as an editor tell us what a short word is. One syllable? Two? Three is stretching it, I guess.

The point is, Greene, Churchill, and the editor who wasn’t there are correct. Everyone should keep it simple (stupid). They should do that all the time. It’s a good rule to follow. But we should realize that in English our “short and simple” words are often only the former, not the latter. I’m not picking on Greene, who I think is a great journalist (seriously, DuckDuckGo his name, read his articles, watch his TED Talks). It’s just that his article made me think of this idea, which has probably been brewing for a while.

By the way, here are the first three sentences of The Gathering Storm, the first book in a series which won Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature:

After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all the peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into a reality.

And then there’s the rest of Hamlet’s speech that our friendly neighborhood editor used as an example. Guess what, there’s disagreement over its meaning. So much for short words. Shakespeare does away with them after the first line. To wit:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come…

[Update: Mr. Greene was kind enough to drop by and leave a link to his reply, which you can find here.]