Monthly Archives: March 2016

In case you’re wondering, it’s a callow mistake

A recent cartoon from Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which is the most intelligent cartoon in existence, has been brought to my attention. You can see it at but, since Munroe gives permission, I’ll reproduce it here for ease of reference:

This interpretation is not just pedantry and not just a turn-off. It’s a callow mistake.

It’s callow because it transgresses standard expectations of interpersonal decency in conversation – if the other person is using a common turn of phrase and you understand what they mean, don’t be a dick about it (or, as I put it in a haiku for the ACES Grammar Day haiku contest, Which do you prefer: / keeping your friends’ grammar right / or keeping your friends?). But it’s also callow because it imposes an inappropriate misreading, the sort of simple-minded overbroad application of a rule that is characteristic of an immature understanding of grammar. The clause in question, you see, only looks like a conditional.

I’m put in mind of an anecdote I recall from the actor Simon Callow. When he was first trying to make it in theatre, he worked in the box office of a theatre. Later on, when he was becoming established as an actor, he was in the cast of a play that happened to be performing in the same theatre. One evening before a performance, one of the box office staff saw him and, thinking he still worked in the box office, asked him to come help with some box office function.

Thinking this if you want to hang out is a conditional is like thinking Simon Callow still works at the box office. It’s the same clause, but it’s been elevated. It’s a sentence adverbial.

In case the term isn’t familiar, a sentence adverbial is a word or phrase that, within the ambit of a verb phrase, could serve to modify the action of the verb, but that is instead applied to the entire sentence to frame it within a discursive context such as the attitude of the speaker or writer towards the utterance. “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” uses Frankly to mean ‘I speak to you frankly and say…’; “Among other things, this book explores the concept of silliness” uses Among other things to position the following statement within a larger possible set of observations (‘There are various things this book does; one of them is that…’); “Going forward, we’ll do it this way” uses Going forward to mean ‘I am making a prescription that applies to future instances when I say…’. They do not mean, respectively, that Rhett doesn’t give a damn frankly but he may give one covertly; that the book only explores silliness when the book is among other things; or that we will do it this way only when we are progressing ahead. And In case the term isn’t familiar doesn’t mean the preceding applies only in the case where the term is unfamiliar. It means I’m saying it in anticipation of the possibility of unfamiliarity.

Because sentence adverbials use words and phrases that can be used to different effect at lower levels, they are like candy to immature minds who are eager to pounce on other people’s “errors” to show their superior knowledge. But, as with so many rigid “rules” propounded by people who claim to care about grammar but really care mainly about demonstrating superiority, the “pedantic” interpretation is founded on a simple-minded misunderstanding. We have no difficulty understanding the sentences as they are intended – the pedants don’t even have the excuse that the box-office employee (who evidently didn’t read the programmes) had. The most they can argue is that the sentences are ambiguous. That can be something worth fixing, but it’s not a grammatical error. And they’re not always ambiguous, either. We usually understand them with no risk of confusion.

To add another analogy: When I was in New Zealand, I rented two different cars on separate occasions. In New Zealand they drive on the left, and so some of the driver’s controls are also the reverse of what I’m used to. With the first car, I managed to get used to the turn signal being on the opposite side from what I expected. Then when I rented the next car it was a model with the turn signal on the North American side. So I had to get used to it again and not keep turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn left or right. But in all of that, I did not say that the controls were wrong and I was right and stick to my preferred sides. I did not insist on turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn off the highway – or on signaling a turn when I wanted to wipe the windshield – because those were the correct sides for the controls to be on. I did what worked. When my expectations did not correspond with the results, I corrected my perspective. Which is what those who care about understanding language must do if they do not wish to be wrong.

So this pedantry is both a turn-off and a callow error.

Which, of course, Randall Munroe knows. He also knows that linguistics isn’t his area of expertise, and I’m not going to hold it against him for missing the analysis. He’s not the only one.


Set this down, put this down: this is thesis, the sister of dissertation. This is thesis and you are Theseus, setting out to prove yourself. You have beaten Periphetes, left repining disarticulated Pityokamptes, hammered the big pig, kicked Sciron off the cliff, and disconcerted Cercyon; you have turned all the tides and used their methods against them to vanquish them. Are you the master? You will be once you have mastered one more: Procrustes has made his bed and you must make him lie in it. The one who racks him with the sisal or curtails him with the scythes is the victor. Now is the time to show your chops and put him in his place as you have put them all in their places.

A thesis is, after all, something set down, put in place. The source is Greek θέσις, noun, ‘putting, placing’, from verb τιθέναι tithenai ‘put, place’. It is the object that you put down to study and the objection that you subject your readers to; it is, in the spirit of scholarship, meant to be the antithesis of the pat statement – it is an enthusiastic synthesis of learnings, an exploration, a key with which to open the golden door to the ivory tower.

Lockmakers had their masterpieces, their intricate show-works that admitted them to the highest levels of the craft, ornate locks with involuted keys that proved they were worthy of the title master; Freemasons have their third degree, the detailed examination that elevates a Fellow Craft to Master Mason; scholars have both: the intricate showpiece flourish of scholarly endeavour and the examination that certifies it. The meat of the thesis may be Greek to hoi polloi, but to those in the know it must best them at their game. They are the teachers and you must teach them something, and at the end you must be examined by them on the one thing you should know better than they. The crowning effort of your assault is your defence. You, a crusty amateur, must best Procrustes: rack your brains and stretch your logic, find the shortcuts and use Occam’s Razor. And then, after a minute or two, you may have to slay the minotaur too: thread the labyrinth so briskly you are dizzied as with labyrinthitis, but keep your labour in thesis form standing even as the man-bull falls. To produce something fitting and show you fit, you must reshape the scholarship – or anyway add a new plank to the scholars’ ship.

The ship of Theseus, which he took back to Athens after slaying the Minotaur in Crete, was preserved by the Athenians for centuries after his return, sitting in the harbour. When a plank would rot, it was replaced. Over time, all the planks had been replaced, some many times, but the ship was still there. The original shape of the thing was there, and the endeavour remained – though not venturing forth anymore – but nothing that had been there in the first place remained. Was it the same ship? This question has entertained scholars, too, but even those who say it was not the original participate in a scholarship that is built on the same model as Theseus’s ship, evolving until nothing that was once true is true now… and they argue using bodies and minds that have been entirely replaced with new bits over time, and yet have an apparent persistence (nothing you were born with remains in you). Bodies and minds that for some, locked in the ivory tower with keys of their own making, set sail no more often than the ancient and honoured ship of Theseus.

But ah, no need to be bitter. Don’t put down what has been set down; respect the effort that is a thesis. I do: I have written three (the second of which I call a dissertation). My mother has written one; my father has written three. It may be an initiation; it may be labyrinthine; it may be somewhat Procrustean; but it is a good way to show that you have the intellectual and academic fitness to claim mastery of your subject. And it is a good excuse to spend time doing an in-depth examination of something that fascinates you.

My first thesis, defended and passed in 1995, was called “Paratextual Pragmatics: A study of usages of printed paratexts in commercial and nonprofit theatre in Boston, 1993–4.” It was about how theatre posters and programs (and so on) are used by those producing them and received by those reading them. It earned me a Master’s in drama. I do not have a complete concatenated electronic version of it; it was done using a word processing program now obsolete. But I published a chapter of it (mutatis mutandis) in Semiotica, “A case study in the pragmatics of American theatrical programs.”

My second thesis was a dissertation – a term most commonly reserved for theses to qualify for the doctorate (and not used by everyone for that). It was “‘Containment Is the Enemy’: an Ideography of Richard Schechner,” an interesting extended look at the work of an experimental director and theorist. I am not normally given to focusing on persons, but I was advised that it would be a good move. I enjoyed doing it. But when I was done it I was done it – nothing further was ever made of it. I received my golden key, the PhD, in 1998.

And then I decided to study linguistics. I started from the very beginning, all the necessary undergraduate classes (and then some), and then graduate seminars again (at last – so much better than undergrad lectures), and finally, to show I know, another thesis. Only this time while working, and travelling, and generally having a life. And linguistics involves much more dull repetitive scut work than humanities and fine arts do, though the resulting material gains an added solidity as a result. It was a Thesean labour, and written to a prescribed form. How does one be so formal and still be informational? Well, that is to others to judge. I defended my thesis on March 8, 2016. It was not a battle with a Minotaur; it was a pleasant colloquy. And now it is done: “Relative Use of Phonaesthemes in the Constitution and Development of Genres.” In it, I quantitatively analyze the way words such as splash, gleam, and clump help us know what kind of thing we’re reading. If I want it to sit on my bookshelf, I will have to print off a copy; the university requires only electronic submission now. And now I – again – am the master. Of linguistics this time.

So. Three theses. Theseus three times. And now I exit the labyrinth and, as the tide turns, take my scholar ship home; the bed is made.

From Much Wenlock to Ashby-de-la-Zouch

My latest article for the BBC is a road trip: 60 miles and 2500 years through the history of British place names – including Featherstone, Appleby Magna, the River Tame, and Newton Burgoland. Find out why England has a Great Snoring, a Westley Waterless, and a Shitterton!

Why does Britain have such bizarre place names?

And if you’re inclined to survey the route yourself and perhaps do a little street view to see how it all looks, turn to Google Maps.


Does this seem like a meek, mild, moderate, gentle word to you? Results may vary. On the one hand it may meet you ever so gently like the Everly Brothers and their youthful but proper romantic laments, the sound of nice boys for whom things just don’t seem to work out but you know they’ll come even eventually and all will be loverly. But on the other hand it has that sound of peeve and evilly perhaps vermin and measly. That ee gives it the high wheedling /i/ sound, with a sense of diminution (and maybe even not merely that) and perhaps the buzz of an insect.

But that’s just how it seems to me. It’s not a word from my own dialect, so why should I expect to have a well developed taste for it? Just as you’re used to the foods and flavour profiles you grew up with, you’re used to the words and sounds you grew up with. I grew up eating cereal for breakfast, and a modest and unseemly morning repast might be corn flakes or oatmeal or – in my current years – a croissant. Those who grew up in Japan are more likely to have fish and other things that hardly seem fitting for breakfast to a whitebread Canadian. Even Anglophones from another place might expect different things. Bacon and eggs is almost extravagant to me, but those plus baked beans and fried tomato might go quite moderately, even modestly, in northern England, perhaps more so in earlier times.

And so too with words. I would not likely say or write “A’ wor goin’ up nice an’ meverly like,” let alone “Un aw thowt awd nare sin hur lookin more meeverly,” but those are two of the quotations for meeverly in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s nearly universal that /i/ sounds smaller than /a/ or /ɛ/, and so either more endearing or more contemptible, when it comes down to matters of sound symbolism, but that doesn’t always play out equally everywhere, and not nearly all words are sound symbolic; there’s an immoderate amount of other influence. Words just don’t always mean what the naïve ear would expect them to mean, and what the naïve ear would expect them to mean varies from place to place.

So yes, this is a now-rare word, mainly from northern English dialects, meaning ‘moderately, mildly, gently, easily’. It’s not clear where it came from, but it’s much like meeterly, which in turn seems to be an altered form of meetly, which is an adverb from the adjective meet, which means ‘fitting, proper, suitable’, as in it is meet and right so to do (if that phrase sounds familiar you must be Anglican). It appears to have mutated immoderately from its origins. But it has risen to meet the need and feel of its time and place. Which may just not be here and now.

If you do wish to add this word to your usage, though, I hope you will use it meeverly.

More honoured in the breach or the observance?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

It is tempting to say that getting classical quotations right is more honoured in the breach than the observance. But if we did, we’d be guilty too. In the original, Hamlet is telling Horatio about the tradition of drinking sprees in the Danish court; he says it makes Danes look bad to other nations. So when he says

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance

he doesn’t mean they don’t do it; he means they shouldn’t do it. Honour’d here means ‘honourable’, not ‘complied with’.

Sometimes our errors come from shifts in culture. In a time when fires were the main source of heat, for instance, a fire that burnt bright but didn’t give off much heat was not much use. So when Polonius advises Ophelia to watch out for the ardor of young men (such as Hamlet), he uses this metaphor:

I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.

These days, we use light as a positive metaphor in conversation, and heat more often as a negative one, so people often say a topic generates “more heat than light” – quite the reversal from the original.

We may look on such misinterpretations and say “Now is the winter of our discontent” with cultural knowledge. But we would be stopping short; here’s the whole opening sentence of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

So he’s saying that their unhappy period is now made happy by the new king. (Admittedly, the man who is saying this is not happy about the state of affairs.)

Sometimes we just get a word wrong, perhaps because another word seems to go better with it (and another author, perhaps). We play our cats to sleep and say “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” – and think it’s from Shakespeare – when the original is from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride, and it’s “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

Now, why not use a popular variation when appropriate, right? But we’re editors, and part of our job is to keep writers from looking bad, which means we have to take a do-or-die approach to quotations. Or, um, well… Tennyson’s original in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is as follows:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Do and die? Perhaps we would do better to quote Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Just as long as we get the wording right.

Something about me

I have lately had the very flattering experience of being “interviewed” by email by  Rebecca Findley of Capioca, a site that features interviews of people someone there has found interesting. For those who are curious about the route I took to this point and have 15 minutes to read something that would probably have been better expressed in 4 or 5, the interview is here:




Today’s word is very useful for Scrabble players: its form fills an important function, allowing a word with a K to be played alongside a word with an A to connect two words. It can give a shot of life to an ailing rack. Scrabble players of a certain level are likely to use it as often as once every three or four games. It has a certain kinetic something to its form, too, the angularity of the K and the A, each made of a rotated V plus a cross-stroke: angular, hard, but moving.

But what does it mean? Ah, well, now, I’m glad you asked. Allow me to turn to my bookshelf, to a section that has a miscellany of books not otherwise categorized.

There is a book I bought when I was 11 years old. I bought it in the Banff Book and Art Den on February 11, 1979, for $8.95 (marked down from $12.50). Oh, no, my memory is not so good as all that. The book still has the receipt in it. That’s how I remember things: with persistent concrete objects.

Which book? Why, this one, of course:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, taken from the papyrus of Ani, with translation and commentary. At that time, I had something of a fascination for Egyptology, fostered in no small part by a copy of this book that I had found in a school library.

The truth is that what I really liked was not so much the myths and practices of the Egyptians as their writing, the hieroglyphs. The book has the original hieroglyphic text, sometimes with interlinears. The library copy also had transliterations; this copy, alas, does not. But look, all those iconic representations, a code, so exotic, carrying some meaning – but what? The form has persisted, but the sense? Lost for a long time until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which had the same text in Greek, demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphs. A parallel text! It came back to life, reaching out to us across the millennia. And among the Egyptian words that gained a new spark of life was ka.

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary defines ka as “the spiritual self of a human being in Egyptian religion.” This is not quite accurate. What we would think of as the spirit or soul was the ba, the personality that went to the afterlife; it was depicted in hieroglyphs as a sort of bird. The ka was a vital spark, distinct from the body but living in it while the person lived. And after death? The ka roamed as it wished, but it could be given a statue of the person to dwell in – a persistent memorial, a concrete (stone, really) object. It had to be given food, however; if there was none, it would wander in search of it, and might even die.

Its hieroglyph was two arms extended as if to embrace someone.

In a way, then, we might say that the ka is meaning. A word, like a body, is form. While a word is in use, it has that thing that animates it, that sense. If a word passes out of common use, it can be maintained in a stiff, memorialized form, brought out and venerated as needed, as thou may be. We can still maintain an understanding of its meaning if we feed it some thought every so often. But it can also wander away to take up residence elsewhere. And if we simply run out of a need for the sense and stop thinking of it, it can die.

Does that seem like a bit of a reach? Well, so is the ka. Like meaning, it always reaches out. It is the will to connect, and it does not depart as easily as breath or birds.