Tuesday, 21 July 2015


In the Guardian, ages ago now, Stephen Poole defended 'basically' against the charges brought against it by Harris Academy in Upper Norwood:* 
The case of "basically" is similar to that of "obviously", also regularly dismissed as vapid huffery. I once worked at a newspaper where an editor sought to eliminate all use of "obviously" from the pages, on the grounds that, as he wrote: "If it's obvious, there's no need to say it."
This sounds pithily convincing until you consider common rhetorical strategies. Very often, it helps to state the obvious before moving on to more debatable claims that you will argue follow from it. To signal this, one may preface the statement with the word "Obviously", as an economical way of saying: "I know you know this, for it is obvious, and you are no fool, but the rest of my argument depends on our agreeing on this, so I beg your indulgence for stating it at the beginning; if you can be patient just a little longer, I promise I will at length have something more interesting to say." In this way, the use of "obviously", like that of "basically", is a little show of deference, a drop of conversational lubricant.
This kind of thing catches my eye when I mark essays. I always, without fail, cross out words like basically, obviously and so on, for the same reason Poole attributes to his editor. In my opinion (and it is just my opinion, as it's a style choice, even though I'm obviously right), these words do not belong in formal academic writing at all. I wonder if this is a reflection of linguistic style. In some disciplines, I think rhetorical flourishes are prized but linguistics likes a very pared-down, spare style, with no fiddle-faddle. To linguists, elegance means simplicity. That means that everything included is there for a reason, and so you don't need obviously in the way Poole describes it.

*For a comment on the idiotic and unnecessary re-spelling of woz in their poster, see this post.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Hot water is hot

This sounds like an oxymoron or a tautology or whatever: please note, hot water is very hot. 

Well, thanks for that. Hot water is hot. Big surprise. It sounds like the 'redundant adjectives are redundant' meme (which pleasingly derives from the Simpsons: Ralph says 'fun toys are fun').

But it's just a warning telling us that the water coming from the hot tap is hotter than is comfortable, and to be careful. How do we get from one to the other?

The 'hot water is hot' interpretation arises if we understand the sentence as telling us something about hot water in general, namely that it has the property of being (very) hot. Note that in this context, 'very' seems to have lost some of its meaning and all hot water is very hot, not just some of it.

The warning about the hot tap interpretation relies on us knowing that wording on signs often omits function words like 'the' and interpreting it as if it was there: 'the hot water is very hot'. Then the definite article 'the' makes the sentence about some specific, relevant hot water that is known to us; in this case, it must be the hot water in the immediate environment, which is to say the water in the hot tap. Then it means that the water in the hot tap is very hot, where 'very' has its full meaning of 'more than usually'.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Redefining objectively defined facts

In the budget yesterday, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a new National Living Wage which will replace the National Minimum Wage. It's a bit higher, at £7.20/hour from April compared to the current NMW of £6.50. This is to reflect the fact that the minimum wage is not a 'living wage'.

Except of course this is ridiculous. This is an astonishingly audacious misuse of names of things.

The National Minimum Wage is whatever the government says it is. It's the minimum that companies are legally allowed to pay their employees who are aged over 21. It could be £1.50 or it could be £25 - it's not related to anything in particular. The living wage is a measure of how much money is required to live on, and it's based on the actual cost of living in the UK (currently £7.85, or more in London). That means that you simply can't introduce a 'living wage' that is anything other than the actual living wage. If you do, you're just using a name for one thing to label an entirely different thing. This is at best a bit daft and at worst deliberately deceitful. He might as well have just promised everyone a kitten and then introduced a new tax called a Kitten.

It's so brazen. Already there's a #CallingThingsTheLivingWageThatArent hashtag.

(For those who prefer their wages conceptualised as an annual salary, the current NMW is about £12,500 (£11,500 after tax) and the current living wage - the real one, not the made up one - is about £15,000 (£13,300 after tax).)

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Explicit instructions

Instruction manuals ought to vary in size and detail with the complexity of the technology in question. Therefore, a car has a very detailed manual because it's a complicated piece of machinery, while a desk lamp has very minimal instruction because it just has one switch and one function. 

This isn't actually how things work, though. For one thing, sometimes we don't use all the functions of a thing: my desk phone at work came with incomprehensible instructions because it does fancy things, but I literally just use it to dial numbers and answer incoming calls. My washing machine came with a booklet but I just turn the thing to the same option each time and press 'on'. 

Other times, the manufacturers have just made the instructions unnecessarily complicated: my slow cooker just has one knob with Off, Warm and High but it needs a booklet of explanation so you can't sue them if you electrocute yourself or whatever. 

And sometimes, it reflects a change in our relationship with technology. Here's a photo of a hand dryer in the Quarterdeck in Margate (there's a side note about my collection of photos of hand dryers which I will relate at the end of this post): 

As you can see, it has the following instructions:
Shake off excess water
Place hands in dryer
Starts automatically
I expect that these instructions seemed fairly minimal when the thing was made, probably about 20 years ago. Now, though, I think this is more instruction than anyone really needs - we all know that you stick your hands under a dryer to make it work. We are used to things starting automatically. I doubt anyone except me reads these instructions and certainly not before they've already done what they say.

Compare this to something like a smartphone. Mine came with no instructions whatsoever. That's not strictly true; it has 'hints and tips' and a 'setup wizard' built in, which are instructions. But there was no manual. I can't remember what the first piece of tech I bought was that came with no manual, but I do remember it feeling a bit weird (it was on a CD that came with whatever it was). We are used to things now - we know that to work a gizmo you press the 'on' button and see what happens. Everything more or less works the same, and as you would expect. Things are relatively intuitive. So we don't expect careful step-by-step instruction on how to dry our hands. And I think manufacturers have got better at writing for their audience, and anticipating what you actually want to know and can understand.

So, that side-note. I have a collection of photos of hand dryers in Margate establishments because, adorably, the hand dryers are mostly made by this local company, Arlington Supreme. Everywhere else in the country, they're made in Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex, HA7 2PY (yes, I know that from memory - if I look at words for long enough and enough times I apparently commit them indelibly to memory).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some cheeky findings

[This relates to my recent post about 'cheeky Nando's'. If you want to take the survey, do so here. We'd be really grateful!]

Do you call a misbehaving child a cheeky monkey? Do you ever go for a cheeky beer after work? Would you take your Significant Other out for a cheeky Valentine's Day dinner at a nice Italian restaurant? Chances are you said no to the last question, not because you wouldn't make such a romantic gesture, but because cheeky doesn't sound right in that sentence. What's more, if you're from the United States, you probably aren't as keen on the word cheeky in the first place. At least that’s what we thought when the cheeky Nando’s meme went viral a few weeks ago. 

The cheeky Nando’s meme  involved British internet users coming up with ever more incomprehensible (to Americans) explanations of what a cheeky Nando's means. But how come Americans don't know what it means? And, actually, what does it mean? We tried to find out by sciencing.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Gove's random writing style rules

Michael Gove has been the subject of this blog in the past. These days, he's no longer Education bod and is now Lord Chancellor, if you can believe that. Because this job apparently doesn't involve much actual work, he's got a lot of time on his hands and is spending it complaining about the way people write and making lists of things his people should do or not do when they respond to letters.

His list of things is a mixture of surprisingly sensible advice on general style (don't be repetitive, don't be pompous, be nice and thank people for their letters), content (refer to the inherited economic situation at every opportunity) and really random concerns about punctuation and grammar.

He also seems to have been influenced by Strunk and White, as his advice also includes 'if in doubt, cut it out' (which is good advice if you are writing formal documents), and 'in letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less'. (There is a point here, although it cannot be taken too literally, as 'little', 'even' and 'less' are all adjectives or adverbs.)

According to the Independent article I linked above, his 'rules' include the following:

Use active voice and present tense. 
This is a well-worn rule. It's good advice in some ways, because people do sometimes use passive sentences to 'pad out' their writing, but there's so much nonsense written about it and people are so demonstrably unable to tell what's active and passive anyway (scroll down to section 3 at that link for examples), it's not actually very helpful advice.
Don't use 'impact' as a verb.
Lots of people have peeves about words that were originally nouns being used as verbs. That's fine. It's illogical, because so many of our verbs were originally nouns it seems silly to pick out just one or two, but whatever. I think it's because this particular one is perceived as a 'management-speak' buzzword, which is indeed annoying.
Don't use contractions.
Fair enough. Formal writing does usually avoid contractions (so 'don't' should be 'do not', for example). I used to enforce this quite strictly in student essays, but these days I let it go, as I recently noted, because I'm on a mission to discourage the lumpen, clumsy, underconfident writing style I see too much of. I don't know what kind of letters these civil servants write; if it's very formal then they should follow Gove's rule, but if they want to adopt the 'warm tone' he elsewhere encourages, I'd use contractions.
While 'best-placed' and 'high-quality' are joined with a dash, very few others are. 
Bit of a weird thing to say. There are well-established rules about when you use a hyphen. There are some that are a matter of preference, such as with prefixes (so some newspapers prefer to hyphenate 're-think' while others prefer 'rethink'), and these are (or should be) flexible enough to allow for violations in cases of potential ambiguity. If we turn to examples of the type Gove cites, there is a rule: 'best-placed' and 'high-quality' are spelt with a hyphen if they are used attributively (which basically means before a noun, like I used 'well-established' just now) and not if they are used predicatively (which basically means after a verb like 'to be', as in 'the rules are well established'). You would not write 'the food is very high-quality', for instance. So it's daft to pick out two random examples and incorrectly state that they always have a hyphen and incorrectly state that others don't, when you could just follow the correct way we're all already doing it. But hey - what do I know.
Don't use 'unnecessary' capitalisations.
Agree. Some people like to use capitals to make words seem more important, I think. Capitalisation rules are pretty arbitrary (compare English with German, which capitalises nouns) and it has changed even since I was at school (when I was taught to capitalise seasons), but there are rules and not following them makes you look like you don't know them.
Replace 'ensure' with 'make sure'.
OK. Random, but I guess it seems simpler.
Don't start a sentence with 'however'. 
As I recently wrote, 'however' is tricky. Sometimes people introduce a silly rule in order to rule out a genuinely incorrect usage without having to explain its complexity, but in the process rule out a lot of other correct usages. 'Don't end a sentence with a preposition' used to be one of these. I have a strong suspicion that the common ban on first person pronouns in essays is one too - if students can't write 'I', they can't write stupid waffly phrases like 'I believe that'. Likewise, banning sentence-initial 'however' would also rule out some incorrect used of 'however'. But it would not catch those I complained about in my post linked above, and it would rule out a lot of perfectly fine ones. So I think this another Strunk & White rule, who apparently allow uses like 'However much you complain, I'm not going to stop doing it' but dislike it when it's used with a comma: 'However, we were unable to change her habits'. This is silly, out-of-date advice which will lead to old-fashioned, distant writing. I'm saying nothing about whether that says anything about Gove's character.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Overly specific signage

It's been a while since I mocked some signage. Let's do that today. Sorry about the poor quality photo:

'Please do not store items under these stairs for fire safety reasons'
You can store items under these stairs for other reasons though.