Thursday, March 29, 2007
Thursday, March 22, 2007
The referents desk
We’ve retained the words but lost the meaning of this magical childhood incantation. When I learned it, as a young child, the word hurt had to do with physical harm. There was no suggestion that my feelings weren’t or shouldn’t be hurt, only that, hey, look, I’m still in one piece and capable of standing to fight another day. The chant was used as a retort to the tormentor: You’ll have to do better than that if you really want to hurt me; your slur has no power over me; there is no magic in your nasty words, but there is magic in my response.
The modern critique—that it’s a lie, that people can truly be hurt (emotionally) by name-calling—ignores the original focus on the absence of real, physical injury and changes the focus to the supposed emotional harm caused by name-calling. The chant itself is seen as damaging to the self-esteem of the person who invokes it. Huh? I don’t get that. That’s a complete reversal of the original use.
[In that children today have graduated from sticks and stones to knives and guns, I think a child would be an idiot to actually use the above chant on a playground; but that’s not the point I’m making. We might also note that in the not-too-distant past it was considered normal for children to engage each other with sticks and stone; we’ve come a long way, baby.]
The more general problem
Many years ago I ran across a column filler in the New Yorker, under the heading “Our Forgetful Authors,” that quoted a line from an unmemorable new novel. The sentence described a character as being, to the best of my recollection, “a flaxen-haired beauty with tresses the color of wheat straw.” The point was that the author had lost the connection between the descriptive term “flaxen-haired” and its origin as a comparison to the color of flax, which is different from the color of wheat (being an unrelated crop and all).
Given that in 1890, approximately ninety percent of Americans lived in a rural environment, mostly subsisting on what they themselves produced on their own small farms, it is not surprising that a lot of the metaphorical referents in our language presume a familiarity with the commonplaces of that environment. And it is not surprising that today, because only a tiny fraction of Americans have any rural background at all, such figures of speech are often misapplied.
Going back further, to the adages we inherited from before there was a United States, we run into all sorts of things we’ve lost the original context for and therefore the original meaning of.
- “A watched pot never boils.” Today I think we all assume this means that a process seems to take longer than it really does if you focus on it impatiently. I submit that its original meaning was an admonishment to the apprentice chef to keep an eye on the pot so as not to spoil the sauce by boiling it. (I could be wrong, but there is no internal evidence to decide the meaning one way or the other.)
- “Three Blind Mice”: My guess is that the farmer’s wife originally cut out their eyes with a carving knife (hence their blindness) and that this was judged too gruesome and therefore Bowdlerized. (No, I cannot confirm my guess with an early citation, but I think the scholars have gone down a blind alley, so to speak.)
My point is that this is an aspect of usage editors should pay attention to. When an author throws around stock phrases and common metaphors, partly we editors want to expunge them because of their triteness. But if we let them stand, we should at least examine whether they make sense in the context. If the editor doesn’t have a clear notion of the referent, chances are the reader won’t either. The editor can look it up and decide if it makes sense and then query the author as to whether it ought to be explained for the benefit of people who don’t look it up or rephrased to eliminate the problem.
Monday, March 19, 2007
The rules of writing
My eleventh grade English teacher, on the first day of class, distributed a two-page handout consisting of rules of English composition. These were rules, such as the one above (Johnson’s version, not Quiller-Couch’s) on the basis of which he was going to grade our compositions. Want an A in the class? Learn the rules. Ignore the rules? Fail the class. Shades of gray? Nonexistent.
This was a salubrious experience for me, because until then I had developed a keen ability to ace multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank grammar and vocabulary tests, but I had been unsuccessful in writing cogent paragraphs, let alone compositions of any length. But when I relate this experience to people of later generations, they recoil in horror at the rigidity of it all. Oh, we couldn’t possibly teach people to write like that. Think what it would do to their fragile self-esteem! (Ever notice that people indoctrinated in the Whole Language movement cannot utter self-esteem without prepending fragile)?
So when are rules appropriate?
People have different learning styles. Some people induce the rules of language just by listening and repeating. Others do better with a cheat sheet. Others are not oriented toward expressing themselves in writing at all, and neither aural immersion nor lists of rules nor gloom of night will turn them into writers.
But for those who might be amenable to studying a set of rules, we also need a set of metarules. Here’s an attempt:
- If you don’t write well and you know you don’t write and you don’t know why you don’t write but you want to or need to write better than you do, grab yourself a convenient and easy-to-comprehend list of rules for good writing and practice following them.
- When you know you can follow all the rules on your list and you do so consistently, set the rules aside. Recall that you chose one of many available such lists and other writers chose different lists. Understand that these lists are teaching devices, not comprehensive descriptions of all good writing.
- With your newly acquired framework, read widely and notice that a lot of good writing strays from commonly accepted rules, intentionally and to good effect. Understand that the grammar of the English language is quite flexible and admits of all sorts of shenanigans but that these shenanigans come with a price: You have to understand what register or diction you are working in and use figures appropriate to it.
- Practice wriggling out of the straitjacket you imposed on yourself. Swing your arms a bit. See if you can exercise this freedom responsibly or if it instead gets you arrested for disorderly writing. Keep your list handy, just in case. Writers tend to get sloppy after a few decades. Guard against that.
- Get feedback from an editor.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
A vista into the office of the future
By now you’ve probably heard about or seen the new Microsoft Office user interface, the future of office computing, the productivity suite for the twenty-first century. Uh, yeah, whatever.
So what does this grand new GUI use as an icon for the Save command?
A floppy disk.
- What percentage of computers that will be running Vista Office have floppy disk drives?
- What percentage of new users are old enough to recognize the icon?
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Deceptive typography ON SALE SALE SALE!!!
What am I ranting about? This is what I’m ranting about.
I’m walking through the store shopping for clothes, something I enjoy about as much as I enjoy being mugged (this is the only chain that still carries clothes in my size, so I can’t really go elsewhere), and I’m focusing on the clothes on the racks, trying to find something I might actually wear. I’m here to buy clothes, not to read signs. So I just skim. And when I see “50% Off” or “SALE 29.99” in gigantic type at eye level, I think, okay, maybe I’ll go for the more expensive brand. I pick something out. I go to the checkout counter. And the clerk rings the item up at full price. I say, “What about the sale price on the sign over there?” and she says, “You only got one. The sale price is for the second item.” Okay, I go back and rummage around, but either they don’t have a second one in my size and color, in which case I pay full price for the one I picked out in the first place, or they do have another one and I end up spending more than I planned to. But at this point I’ve invested the time in going to the store and if I don’t buy something today I’m going to have to come back that much sooner. Which I hate. Did I mention that I hate shopping for clothes?
This is wrong! The same company has been designing their window posters and rack cards this way for many years, even though they’ve recently rebranded the store exteriors with new colors and a new name. You big guys know who I’m talking about—at least those of you in the US. If they were in the grocery business and used this kind of size disparity on package labels, they would be afoul of the Code of Federal Regulations and their products would be pulled from store shelves.
This is an intentional strategy designed to fleece customers. The designers responsible for this work know full well that a distracted shopper is not primarily focused on studying the fine print of sale terms when he’s trying to find something that fits and looks more or less presentable (the best that can be hoped for in this store); trying to remember to check the fabric content, care instructions, and workmanship; and trying to get out of the store as quickly as possible.
Oh, I’m sure the company’s lawyers have assured them that as long as all the words are there, they can’t be sued for false and misleading advertising. But that’s only because we don’t have the same kind of regulations in place for point-of-sale advertising that we do for food labeling. The people in charge of marketing for the company should be ashamed of themselves anyway.
Friday, March 02, 2007
Typographic notes from all over III: Indian English
Typographic notes from all over II: Music typesetting
Music publishing has long been an industry unto itself, with its own history of technical developments. Setting music, if you think about it for a moment, is a much more difficult problem than setting lines of text. Notes have to be clustered into chords of various shapes. These have to be placed at various positions on the staff and then tied to each other with curves pitched at various angles. And so forth. This is not a trivial problem, and in the days of mechanical typesetting, it was not within the capability of standard machines.
Now, of course, it is all done with computers and specifically with music typesetting programs, many of which take their input from an electronic musical instrument’s keys.
Fortunately for me, for the few little snippets I’m responsible for, all I need to do is purchase a suitable font and position elements manually. Phew! Don’t call me for typesetting the score to your next symphony.
Typographic notes from all over I: Monet in Normandy
As with many traveling exhibits of this sort, the curators provided paragraphs of background information on the gallery walls. Sometimes the lettering is applied using laser-cut vinyl. In this instance, although I did not rub my fingers against it to check, I think the text was silk-screened onto the walls.
The graphic artist who executed the wall panels chose a font based on Claude Monet’s handwriting to use for the titles. Going from memory, I suspect it was this one:
This is a considerably more graceful and legible handwriting font than the actual hand it was based on, although I suspect Monet’s handwriting as a young man may have been closer to what the font represents than this autograph suggests.
Anyway, that was a nice touch, but the text font the designer chose is anachronistic. It was a font designed by Hermann Zapf in the mid-twentieth century, probably this one (still going from memory):
This seems inappropriate in the context of nineteenth century France. It is more evocative of sixteenth century Italy and was never the sort of letterform popular in France. In any case, it is anachronistic as it did not exist in its modern incarnation during Monet’s life I found it jarring. While I grant that not many museum visitors are as consciously aware of such subtleties as a working typographer is, nonetheless the whole point of font choice is to evoke a subconscious sensibility of period, place, and mood.
I think that had I been consulted, I would have chosen something very French and very formal, such as this:
It would have contrasted nicely with the soft, diffuse paintings, and it would have been a font very much part of Monet’s physical environs.
Such an extreme, rationalist font, though, can present legibility problems and that’s something I’d have wanted to test. As a fallback, if it turned out not to be a workable solution, I might have chosen something we associate with an earlier period in France, like this:
Inappropriate, anachronistic typography is all around. See if you notice.