Who/whom

To borrow from Roland Barthes: some languages are writerly and others are readerly. The choice is whether the speaker (written, vocal, or rude bodily noises) is responsible for the accuracy of the language and by extension for making the language unambiguously understandable for the reader, or if the language is sufficiently simplified that it forces the reader to be the arbiter of the author’s intent?

“Who” versus “Whom” is a good example. Do I immediately know “who” is committing the action and “whom” is being acted upon, or do I have to guess “who” is “who”?

The Argumentative Old Git

OTHELLO

Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.

DESDEMONA

Ay, but not yet to die.

OTHELLO

Yes, presently

When Othello says Desdemona is to die “presently”, he doesn’t mean “in a while” he means now – immediately. This ideally needs a gloss in printed versions of the play, to prevent misunderstanding: the meaning of the word has clearly changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day. How and why this change has come about, I do not know, but it’s a fair guess, I think, that it changed not because someone somewhere decreed the change, but because people who spoke and wrote in English began to use the word differently (possibly out of ignorance); and because this different usage soon caught on, and the older meaning of the word became obsolete. This may or may not be a loss to the English language: I would say it isn’t, but wouldn’t argue…

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The Oxford Comma Rides Again

images.jpgA Maine court ruling in a case about overtime pay and dairy delivery didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. Instead, it hinged on one missing comma.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma for its endorsement by the Oxford University Press style rulebook, is a comma used just before the coordinating conjunction (“and,” or “or,” for example) when three or more terms are listed. You’ll see it in the first sentence of this story—it’s the comma after “milk”—but you won’t find it in the Maine overtime rule at issue in the Oakhurst Dairy case. According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

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Words To Remember

 

A valuable clip from How to Write Articles and Essays Quickly and Expertly by Stephen Downes:

  • Argument: convinces someone of something
  • Explanation: tells why something happened instead of something else
  • Definition: states what a word or concept means
  • Description: identifies properties or qualities of things.

imgres.jpgI know these words are often found in other contexts, especially in the computer world (arguments = parameters). But what is important to remember is that these are all neutral words. By this I mean that they each can be used for Evil as well as for Good: an argument might convince someone of something false or dangerous; an explanation might be based on a falsehood; a definition might be chosen to advance a mendacious agenda; and a description might be designed to create a false image of a person, place, or situation.

We see a lot of this sort of stuff in politics these days.