Feb 062017
 

I had long been puzzled by how many people don’t get the saying “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” This morning it occurred to me that the opacity is not in the minds of my friends but in the phrase’s antique construction.

Say “That’s the exception that proves that there is a rule,” and a world of lightbulbs will go on. And lovers of euphony shall be dismayed.

Mar 062016
 

As a teacher and as an editor, my counsel to students and writers often seems too obvious even to say. For instance: “You can’t complete a large project in a short time. Proceed bit by bit” (or “bird by bird“).

I have found, though, that repeating such counsel, many times, loudly and then quietly, and in different contexts, can reduce its obviousness to reveal its plain urgency.

What is more obvious than “practice something to get better at it”? Here is my friend Jonathan Mayhew in a post called “Jazz Piano” from his superb blog “Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly Writing and How to Get It Done“:

Every thing begins with an idea. I have always wanted to play jazz piano, and now I am doing it, albeit at a lowish level. I see no possibility of getting worse with practice. There will be a plateau or two, with steady progress between the plateaux, and then a point at which I won’t get better.

It strikes me that the key with these kinds of things is neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the difficulty of it. If you think it is going to be easy, then it is easy to get frustrated. If you think of it is impossible, then you won’t even imagine doing it. My approach is just to get lost in it when I am doing it. I could spend 15 minutes trying out variations of a few chords. The other day I closed my eyes and I could still play some of my songs fine.

Most things, you can probably do. Ride a bike, make ceramics, or grow plants. If you are interested enough in it, that is. I am quite sure that I could be a crossword puzzle constructor. Some day I’ll want to do this, though not now.

Mayhew’s blog slices into the topic of practice again and again – lucid, brilliant, entertaining, and always very useful variations upon a theme. It is profound stuff. What one says about getting better at playing piano, writing books, constructing crossword puzzles – one is saying about living life.

“I see no possibility of getting worse with practice.”

Nov 142015
 

A friend in the media emailed me this morning: “Everyone keeps talking about hostages having been taken in Paris. Doesn’t the word ‘hostage’ imply a demand on the part of the terrorists? They made no demands; they intended all along to slaughter them. Wouldn’t captive be a more appropriate word, or am I over-thinking this?”

I replied: “You are definitely right about ‘hostage’ being the wrong word and for the reasons you say. I would say that ‘captive’ is also the wrong word, because captives are prisoners – not intended victims of murder. At the very least, one ‘holds’ a captive for a predetermined period of time; this was not the case yesterday. To see how ‘captive’ is the wrong word: One would not say that a person killed in his/her or another person’s home is a captive – same for a person killed in a restaurant in a drive-by. I think ‘intended victim’ is the closest. There is no single word for ‘terrorist victim,’ and it seems discourteous to refer repeatedly to the slain as ‘terrorist victims’ – two awful words to describe innocent souls.”

My friend’s reply: “Alas, ‘intended victim’ is clumsy.”

True.

About this one can truly say, There is no word.

Oct 192015
 

Sophos, the esteemed network-security company, is starting a new series on its always erudite blog. It is called “What Is …,” and it promises to turn “technical jargon into plain English.”

The inaugural post, written by Paul Ducklin, is called “What is … a VPN?

VPN stands for “virtual private network.” Writes Ducklin:

On your own network, you get to set the security rules.

You can make sure your router has a decent password; you can keep everything patched; you can run security software on all your devices; and so on.

But once you’re on the road, whether it’s free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop or the business network in the airport lounge, you don’t have the same control.

For all you know, the network you’re using might not merely have been hacked by crooks, it might have been set up by crooks in the first place.

One solution is to be careful, and stick to secure websites for sensitive work such as uploading documents or online banking.

But you are probably giving away plenty of information anyway:

  • Some secure websites include links to insecure sites, which leave a visible trail.
  • Some applications use secure connections, but don’t bother to check if they’re talking to an imposter server.
  • Some applications use insecure connections, but don’t tell you.
  • When a program connects to, say, https://bank.example/, it first asks the network, “I need bank.example. Where do I find it?”

In other words, your computer’s internet connection is a bit like a conversation two rows behind you on the bus: even if most of it is inaudible, you can nevertheless be pretty sure what it’s about.

That’s where a VPN, short for Virtual Private Network, comes in.

The idea is surprisingly simple.

You get your computer to encrypt all your network data (even if it’s already encrypted!) before it leaves your laptop or phone, and send the scrambled stream of data back to your own network.

When the scrambled data is safely back on home turf, it is decrypted.

Only then is it sent onto the internet in its unscrambled form, just as if you were at home.

The encrypted internet link, known in the trade as a tunnel, acts like an long, secure, extension cable plugged into your own network.

Unless the crooks can crack into the encrypted tunnel itself, they’re no better off at hacking you than if you were back at home or in the office.

So, you have neutralised any advantage the crooks were hoping for because you were on the road.

And that, very briefly, is a VPN.

Read the whole thing. It is completely lucid.

This is a wonderful start to the series.

Jul 122015
 

From the great Language Log:

Most of the ambiguity contained in normal language use is passed over without any awareness on the audience’s part of the potential for double meanings. If one of the two intended meanings in an ad happens to be too faint, the ad must do something to fortify it and nudge it over the threshold of awareness. For instance, an ad that ran some time ago for British Airways used the tagline “Showers expected upon arrival.” To make it clear to the reader that showers could also refer to the bathing facilities that were available in the airline’s lounge at Heathrow Airport, the advertisers resorted to a fairly crude visual technique: a photo of a showerhead accompanied the tagline.

Much more sophisticated is the use of ambiguity in the following:

Are you up in the air about your future? Maybe that’s where you belong.

The ad was placed by the U.S. Air Force, whose logo appeared in the usual lower right hand corner of the print ad. I’m guessing that a typical reader response looks something like this: The idiomatic reading of “up in the air” is far more accessible in the first sentence than the literal one, and is perhaps the only meaning that the reader registers. The second sentence prompts a reanalysis, with the anaphoric where pointing to a definite spatial location, but it’s still not really clear how this second sentence fits in coherently with the first, on either the literal or idiomatic reading—until the reader’s eye lands on the logo, and voilà—the literal reading is further primed, and the identity of the sponsor now allows the reader to fit all the pieces together.

Such manipulation of context, to render meeker meanings more assertive, is part-and-parcel of the adept use of ambiguity. …

Jun 082013
 

“We have somehow not successfully received your professional-development documentation,” a Dean’s Office colleague wrote me in an email early in my career at Kwantlen.

The sentence both charmed and alarmed me, especially the phrase somehow not successfully received, which seemed so artfully composed. Why had such care been taken in writing this simple request?

Because I had been habitually late and/or sloppy with my paperwork. Because I always needed guidance and reminding. And because now my colleague was *mad*.

I had to remember where I was: British Columbia, Canada. People here really are polite, just like the Americans say. My colleagues back in New York might have made such a request with explicit impatience, or even invective, to make sure I understood what they needed and what I had been doing wrong.

The language used for disapproval where I now worked was identical, it seemed, to the language of approval, in terms of vocabulary and tone. What gave the game away was the inordinate amount of care given to a simple writing task.

One could infer that this care came from irritation rather than pleasure.

Thereafter I have always wondered whether I am able – whether I am Canadian enough – to hearken to the subtle ways my colleagues and neighbors can scold.

Jan 082013
 

One of our resources over on the right-hand side of the page is “The Plain Language Style Guide,” published by the BC Securities Commission to help securities professionals in the composition of correspondence and public documents. Drafted with the assistance of Wordsmith Associates Communications Consultants Inc., the guide’s goal is to make sure that all stakeholders – investors, public-company management and directors, brokers, and the like – easily understand the Commission’s written prose. Although it is an in-house style guide, we’ve found it useful in a numerous other workplace environments as well as in the classroom. Its sections on planning, designing, and writing professional text are uniformly lucid and helpful.

The “plain style” is also making in-roads in some literary criticism. Professor Jonathan Mayhew’s “defense” of “writing that is clear, concise, elegant, and free from unnecessary jargon” is worth reading, as is his blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly writing and how to get it done.


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(Photo by Bob Basil)