Tag Archives: grammar

You’re Not as Insightful as You Think You Are

I can find a lot of problems with the world around me, and those who know me understand that I can easily go on some long-winded rants about them. (Your prayers for those closest to me are appreciated.) But it’s not a one-way street from my perspective; I’m often interested in hearing people discuss catching similar tendencies of people around us, or having humorous-but-truthful complaints about the modern world, or some other related observation, be it serious or funny, in general.

But since “it takes one to know one,” and because I spend way too much time in my own head mulling over these kinds of things, I also get really, really bugged by generic, poorly-thought-out, boring, and often flat-out incorrect observations that are brought up time and time again by people who think they’re being clever or insightful. They’re not. They’re the intellectual equivalent of tourists at the Tower of Pisa.

Fair warning: this is going to get a little mean. But I’ve been called out for being stupid and unoriginal plenty of times in my life and I know it’s for the best in the end . . . and I also know it’s much easier to take such criticism to heart when you can quietly evaluate yourself while doing something private like reading a blog post, instead of having to tuck your tail between your legs in front of people whose opinions of you matter to you. So if you get offended here because I’m nailing you perfectly, consider it a favor and join me on the endless journey of constant self-evaluation. Now, without further ado:

YOU ARE NOWHERE NEAR AS INSIGHTFUL OR CLEVER AS YOU THINK YOU ARE WHEN YOU . . .

. . . go grammar-nazi on people “misusing” the word “literally.” Because I’ve never understood how so many people are so sure about the only proper usage of “literally” but have never learned the word “hyperbole.” Perhaps its hyperbolic use became so prevalent not too long ago that many people, only hearing it in that context, assumed it meant “figuratively,” and were shocked to learn the opposite.  When I was a kid, I recall thinking the word “barely” meant “not quite” instead of “only just.” Somehow I must have misunderstood its use in a sentence I heard and carried that with me for a while. Then I then learned what it really meant through the course of a conversation and haven’t forgotten. It happens. But the thing is, if someone were to somehow use the word “barely” in a hyperbolic or facetious statement, I’d get their meaning. I wouldn’t write them off as an idiot because they didn’t strictly adhere to its definition.

This example is first because it very clearly demonstrates the Lake Wobegon Effect among two-cent intellectuals that grates on my brain like fingernails on a chalkboard. That’s actually a common theme with these: people thinking they’ve taken one step ahead of the crowd and want to show it off, when in fact they’re completely wrong. I’ve spoken before about how hard it is for me to be in a conversation with someone when I know that the information they’re sharing is incorrect; this is that except magnified a few thousand times because so many people do it.

I’d have liked to take the time to further expand on why using “literally” as hyperbole is perfectly acceptable English, but I’d really only end up quoting this video anyway because they’ve done far more research than I have, and are a much more credible source.

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. . . talk about how stupid fat people are when they drink diet soda. Because that tells me that you just don’t know anything about diet soda drinkers. Sure, the word “diet” is in the name and that implies weight loss, but at the end of the day the people that are sticking to diet soda are people that prefer diet soda over regular sodas; their reasoning is not “I need to lose a few pounds,” but instead, “regular soda is just too sweet for me.” I’m serious. Ask around. I’ve known dozens of strict diet soda drinkers (most commonly Diet Coke®) and none of them ever popped open a can saying something akin to “gotta lose five pounds,” nor are they all or even mostly overweight. Is that to say that no one ever drank diet soda with the uninformed intention of dieting? Of course not. But I would suggest that reasoning is so uncommon that it does not warrant discussion unless you’re speaking to a person who has just admitted to thinking that way.

Okay, I admit that’s pretty anecdotal. But I hold that the person rolling their eyes at a heavy woman drinking a diet soda has less real information and far more conjecture to back up their view than I do mine.

While we’re on the topic, let me also call out all the liars who talk about seeing that “fat person,” usually a woman, in line in front of them at McDonald’s who orders half the menu (with everything Super-Sized) and then add on a Diet Coke® and justify it by explaining, “I’m watching my weight.”  That didn’t happen.  It didn’t happen when you were standing in line; it didn’t happen when you were working there; it didn’t happen that one time someone else told you about it.  Some stand-up comedian at some point in time made that up and it got repeated so much that some people began to think they witnessed it.  Sure, fat people at McDonald’s have ordered diet sodas with their meals, but they didn’t throw in the “I’m on a diet” line; refer to my previous paragraphs as their likely reasoning. (There’s also a tangent I’ll only mention in passing about how easily so many people assume that this is true because they believe fat people are stupid enough to think they can lose weight by drinking something labeled “diet” while eating a 1500-calorie meal.)

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. . . rant about how Christopher Columbus was a really bad dude and/or did not actually “discover” the Americas.

“Chris Columbus killed thousands of natives!”

“Chris Columbus was the first serial killer!”

“Chris Columbus didn’t think the world was round when the rest of the world thought it was flat!”

“You can’t discover a place where people already live!”

“And so on!”

We all know already, okay? Most of us under the age of 35 or 40 learned this in high school or earlier; most of those older than that have definitely heard about it at some point in the last 20 years. “And yet we still ‘celebrate’ Columbus Day!” you protest. Except I would argue that if it’s so hard to get people to actually memorialize anything on Memorial Day or thank a veteran on Veteran’s Day, no one is celebrating Chris Columbus on Columbus Day. It’s an excuse to have a day off from work and find some great deals on carpets. If you want to lead the charge to eliminate it or change the reason for the holiday, be my guest, but I’m tired of the internet–especially my inbox and newsfeed–filling up every October with white-guilt-laden lectures about “what you don’t know about Columbus.”

Let’s also not forget how ridiculous it is to judge people who lived hundreds of years ago based on modern morals and attitudes. Calling Columbus a “serial killer,” especially within the context of the era he lived, is an egregious misuse of the term. In another 500 years, many (or likely most) of our mainstream philosophies may likely be viewed as comical or tragically misguided at best, so let’s be rational when we read our history books.

But I get it. At some point, many people figured out how ridiculous it is that we’re “celebrating” an Italian man who sailed under the employ of Spain, landed in some islands that aren’t even part of our country, was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands and indirectly responsible for millions more, and his voyages only distantly (and also only indirectly) lead to the founding of our nation; thus he should be just a footnote in our history books and not an American hero. It’s just that we’d all be better off if we assumed everyone knows all of that (and more) instead of acting like we’re interrupting everyone’s regularly-scheduled programing to bring them some breaking news. (And you know what actually might be interesting? Learning why America turned Columbus into an American folk hero in the first place; far less cynical, wouldn’t you agree?)

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. . . say something intended for kids is terrible for kids.

The past couple decades we have increased the amounts by which we shelter and coddle our children to keep them from anything that would challenge them, (mildly) disturb them, or cause them to mature a little earlier than we’d hoped.  I’m sorry that this will end up sounding like another “kids these days!” rant, but it’s not really debated that phenomena like entitlement and helicopter parenting have been on the rise since the mid-1980’s.  Very few people consider these things to be good, but the problems continue to persist.  Why?  How can we all be speaking against something we see happening all around us, yet it shows no signs of slowing?  I think it starts by paying lip-service to the condemnation of things like helicopter parenting, and then actively condemning a “kid’s movie” for having intense scenes in them that might expect something of the kids (or, alternatively, watching a movie we saw as children and questioning our parents for letting us see it).  You know what? The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal were really scary when I was a kid, but seeing them did not turn myself nor anyone I know into a disturbed sociopath or paranoid outcast. Yet I have truthfully heard many people question their upbringing because their parents had no problem with them watching Watership Down.

Your arrogance as an adult has caused you to underestimate what kids can handle, as well as made you into a hypocrite. That doesn’t sound insightful to me.

A great example is when someone tries to shock everyone at how terrible nursery rhymes are by explaining that “Ring Around the Rosie” is really about the black plague.  Because, first of all, that’s completely wrong, and secondly: what does it matter anyway?

I feel that anyone who brings this up as fact is not likely bringing it up just to impress their friends with some interesting trivia. No, instead the conversation always involves, “isn’t it terrible that we teach this to kids? Preschoolers sing this!” I guess I’m weird for not being concerned that kids may be singing a song at recess that has a deep, hidden meaning about a centuries-old tragedy that they’d never figure out, especially if they have never heard of the Black Death.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in an era of especially dark children’s entertainment, but when someone objects to themes in a piece of children’s programming being too intense (be it hidden or obvious), I feel that person should immediately be written off as to having anything valuable to say about anything. (Cough)

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. . . when you commit the logical fallacy tu quoque. Because it’s one of the lesser-cited logical fallacies, but one of the most common (if not *the* most common) today–certainly on the internet–and it’s a complete non-statement in response to anything it’s a rebuttal to.

Let’s say that in the course of an argument in a comment section, Person A makes a case for why the Oxford comma is entirely unnecessary by saying, “u dont even needs the coma its juts bad grammer lol.”

In response, Person B, an Oxford comma apologist, retorts, “Why should anyone think you’re right about something like the Oxford comma when you don’t even know how to construct a proper English sentence?”

My tendency is to agree with Person B on his support of the Oxford comma, and I also agree with the sentiment that Person A has no ground to talk about grammar when they obviously don’t understand grammar in the first place.  However, Person B has made no case whatsoever as to why the Oxford comma IS necessary.  They have simply observed the hypocrisy of Person A.  Nothing was added to this debate or topic as a result.

Here’s a recent real-world example.  Not long before writing this, one of the stars of the popular reality show Duck Dynasty, Phil Robertson, was suspended by the network A&E for stating his beliefs about homosexuality in an interview.  Naturally the internet erupted in a firestorm over “freedom of speech” vs. “tolerance.” At least one person in my Facebook newsfeed responded to the outrage by posting an old image of the Dixie Chicks protesting the war in Iraq, with the following text: “The same people who censored and protested the Dixie Chicks right to free speech opposing the war 10 years ago . . . are the SAME people fighting for the Right of FREE SPEECH today. Ironic.” This is an example of tu quoque.

The tricky thing about tu quoque is that any given instance of it almost always sounds like it’s a great point.  “Hmm, you know, it is mostly conservatives upset over the suspension of that Duck guy, and it WAS conservatives who boycotted the Dixie Chicks back in the George W days . . . interesting.”  Except what is the point?  Let’s take the time to break down what this actually says.

So people upset over the controversy surrounding Phil Robertson’s suspension are, according to this assessment (which we will presume true for the sake of argument), guilty of hypocrisy because years ago they spoke out *against* the right to free speech of some once-beloved musical artists. What does this tell us? It tells us exactly that, and only that.  These people are hypocritical.  Fine.  Except the issue at hand is not whether or not these people were consistent with their positions on inalienable rights, but instead the issue is whether or not Phil Robertson had the right to say what he did vs. if A&E was right to suspend him for it.  The person who posted that thing about the Dixie Chicks gets to walk away thinking that they’re bright and profound for calling out the hypocritical conservatives, but they neglected to actually discuss the issue at all.

This was my thought process in reaction to the Dixie Chicks post, and it essentially is my thought process every time I see this logical fallacy: “Do they think that free speech is WRONG?  Well, I doubt it, but that’s certainly the implication. If they believe free speech is a good thing, why are they condemning people for supporting it?  Shouldn’t they be glad that these peole finally came around? Wait . . . are they saying that because conservatives didn’t respect free speech 10 years ago that now no one has the right to stand up for free speech?  This is very confusing.”

And so on.  I could write on this error for days if I let myself, though I would stop covering new ground pretty quickly; so we’ll leave it at that.

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BONUS ENTRY!

Here’s one more that doesn’t exactly fit this theme but is definitely related.

It’s about when someone makes an error or is a “two-cent intellectual” in a mass-distributed form of media and is called out for it. Instead of taking a step back and partaking in my beloved activity of self-evaluation, they justify their clear errors or poor judgment by saying, “It’s just entertainment.

People do this to defend the poor science behind the cited-as-health-gospel documentary Super-Size Me.  “Spurlock set out to make an entertaining documentary and he succeeded.”

People do this when they make a Youtube video filled with generic and/or incorrect “interesting facts” and their commenters hold them accountable for it. “So I’ve seen a bunch of comments on this video from people over-analyzing some of these facts. . . . Stop over-thinking everything and just have fun. . . . It’s meant to be entertainment. Treat it that way.”

People do this when The Onion makes a joke that’s considerably tasteless and people complain.  “It’s The Onion! It’s not meant to be taken seriously!”

However, the logic is as poorly thought out as the content.  You have presented some kind of media to the world–be it a Youtube video or a documentary or a humorous article; be it your original creation or something you’re sharing with others.  Except the information does not pass close scrutiny.  Now you’re in trouble.  You’ve been revealed to be someone who just takes things at face value because they are either easy or support your biases, or to be an outright liar, and it’s kind of embarrassing.  So what’s the response?  “Hey! This is not meant to be some kind of academic journal entry or anything! It’s meant to be fun!”

There are two problems with this, and both demonstrate how you thought out your defense about as much as you thought out the information in question.

First, the entertainment value of something presented in the spirit of, “ZOMG! YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE THIS THING I’M GOING TO SHOW YOU!” is heavily influenced by how true it really is. (I wanted to say they “the entertainment value of factual content is directly proportional with how true the facts are,” but I’ve seen too many factually-sound PBS documentaries to try to support that claim). If you give me ten facts about H.G. Wells that are supposed to blow my mind, and it turns out every single one of them are made up, I’m not entertained by what you’ve presented. At best I’m apathetic, but if it’s actually ME we’re talking about, I’m irrationally bugged for weeks. Regardless, I am not entertained, Maximus.

Second, if the content of said media is truly “just entertainment,” then nothing you’ve presented has any bearing on anything and is as worthless as burnt paper. If you lecture me for eating McDonald’s because you saw a movie about a guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days and his health fell apart, and then I could easily demonstrate to you how every conclusion he came to in that movie was exaggerated or fabricated, and then you retorted, “None of that matters–it was an entertaining movie!” . . . doesn’t that seem silly to you? The reason that information was provided in the movie was to tell people that eating fast food is far worse for them than they thought–so when people who understand the concept of too many variables can show that the information is wrong, its entire existence is suddenly unjustified.  It has no value anymore except as a reference piece in a class on how to be a snake oil salesman. How does, “well, it entertained me!” justify that?

I’m not sure, and I unfortunately know that this post isn’t going to have any effect on these things re-occuring in the future, to me or otherwise. But I guess as long as they do, I’ll always have something to complain about. And that’s something in and of itself.

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A Response to Stephen Fry’s “Language”

I had the pleasure of seeing this video a while back and enjoyed its creative structure, its intelligent prose, and the discussion it stirred up in my mind.  I really should hunt down the whole essay, as it’s obvious there are parts taken out so the animator didn’t go mad putting this together, but for right now let’s just focus on what is here.

I think there’s a kink in Stephen Fry’s rationale when he says “the free and happy use of words appears to be elitist or pretentious,” and then goes on to complain about pedants setting out to correct the grammar of the English-speaking world.  He seems to want to use the explanation that those who claim to be “protecting language” are nothing more than snotty people with nothing better to do than tell others they’re wrong, and the people against whom they stand are all budding linguistic geniuses setting out to write love stories and poems.  That is simply not the case, though.  Perhaps things may be different in England; I do fully understand that our cultures are immensely more different than many Americans tend to automatically assume, but in America we have this problem of people mixing “lack of education” with “entitlement” that would LOVE the opportunity to justify themselves under something like Fry’s essay.  Those of us who resist it are, in essence, standing up for the value of education and the importance of understanding the true nature of language as an enjoyable medium.  As I will show, having no grasp on how to properly use punctuation is not the same as using punctuation creatively, though incorrectly.

I want to start with where I agree with Stephen.  It is very tiresome to be regularly exposed to people who have adopted the crusade of pointing out every “your” that should be “you’re” or misspelling of “there” and its kin, and so on.  While I completely understand the temptation, I, like Stephen, have outgrown such nitpicking.  Errors here and there are acceptable when the point is what they meant, and you understood that.  I’m going to risk suffering from the “Lake Woebegone Effect” by stating that I see myself as less of a Grammar Nazi than other Grammar Nazis.  I try to take careful consideration of the context and situation of the written words which I read before I step out on a self-important ledge and suggest they be corrected.  I do not ridicule someone else’s poor language skills as a way to discredit their position in a debate.  I carefully live by the “take the plank out of your own eye first” rule when it comes to my observations of the grammar and spelling of others.

Mr. Fry has even succeeded in having me call into question some of my own “pedantry,” as he would call it, in a broad sense.  After watching this video, I saw the error in my own condemnation of internet languages, most specifically “LOL speak.”  It is a creative use of language and, for those who do it, a fun way to write about their pets on sites about pets.  I still find it really stupid, but in the end it’s not harming anything on its own.  I can say the same thing about text speak in text messages (though I’ve had nary a problem using proper English in my texts) and l337, or leetspeak, in casual websites and online gaming sessions.  Again, I think they’re really dumb and unnecessary, but in their appropriate contexts there’s ultimately nothing wrong with them, and they actually do demonstrate a degree of creativity.  But it appears to me that Stephen Fry seems to think that’s where it stops.  He didn’t mention these new approaches to English in his essay, but I think it’s a simple inference that he would say this is people having fun with language, as they should, and it’s as simple as that, end of story . . . but it isn’t.

He mentioned music at one point, and since music is something I understand fairly well, I’m going to use that as my comparison to demonstrate how he hasn’t looked at this far enough.

A person learns an instrument with a strict set of rules—proper ways to hold it, correct ways to bend your fingers, certain ways to play specific notes, how to read music and play it as it is written, etc.  It’s all very rigid and tends to be boring, especially to younger learners.  But what happens is those students learn all of those rules so that they can be free with their own music later.  Talk to any freestyle jazz musician and they will explain to you that they can “break the rules” and yet get such masterful results because they fully understand the rules they are breaking.  That allows for artistry and creativity.  When you attend a piano recital for a seven-year-old, you expect and understand that the song will be simple and there will probably be more than a few wrong notes and irregular rhythms.  Yet when you go see that same child play a recital ten years later, you expect to hear more skill and precision and complexity.  If they’re just as sloppy and arrhythmic as they were before, you don’t assume creative license, nor do you defend their errors by saying, “I knew what they meant to play.”  Therefore, when I see something written by someone over the age of fifteen, especially outside of the context of casual internet sites, I see nothing wrong with being appalled at excessively poor spelling, complete lack of punctuation, and over-usage of abbreviations like “imho” or “lol.”  They’ve been to school.  They should know better.  And when you see or hear someone defending their right to spell something “how they want to” because “language evolves!,” keep in mind that they are not the literary version of John Cage or Pablo Picasso.  John Cage knew how to play piano correctly.  Pablo Picasso knew how to paint with near picture-perfect precision.  No, those who defend such ignorance are more like someone wanting to be a guitar player but refusing to learn how to tune it, and responding to anyone’s correction or criticism with, “You know, music evolves!”

And speaking of masters of certain arts, let’s bring up Oscar Wilde as Mr. Fry has.  The fact that Wilde did not overly concern himself with the finer details of proper English grammatical structure is not something that should justify the lack of grammatical ability of someone with a high school diploma.  As Fry pointed out, Wilde was among the greatest masters of language usage in the past 1000 years.  His carefree attitude with such rules is not a justification to ignore them ourselves.  If I see Eric Clapton perform live and he doesn’t bend a string far enough or misses a fret, that doesn’t mean that it’s all well and good for me to make similar mistakes in my own playing with reckless abandon.  Clapton, as Wilde did, has proven his expertise, so the occasional error is of little consequence since the end result is still a work of genius.  All of that said, though, I can’t imagine Clapton screwing up a solo.

Based on the little I know about Stephen Fry, I can make an assumption that his love for words and the use of language is something that he touts often, and even takes to a level that I don’t completely understand.  Yet he seems to be making an over-arching dismissal of the importance of proper language skills, only really suggesting that correct grammar is for job interviews and business and schooling, as a sort of “dressing up.”  Well as I said before, things very well could be quite different between England and America, but here in the States, this creative license with language is already overtaking these arenas, too.  Honestly, Mr. Fry, I would rather have a world full of insufferable nitpickers, with their Sharpies in hand, in place to be ridiculed by wordsmiths such as yourself, than face what I see coming, which is a world full of people disregarding education under the excuse of free expression, rolling their eyes at the few of us who understand the rules that once were.  There’s no beauty in an enigmatic scale if you don’t have an understanding of major and minor when you hear it.  So in the same light there’s no artistry in creatively written essays when you don’t understand the structure that should be there in the first place.