Showing posts with label Popular Linguistics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Popular Linguistics. Show all posts

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Mark of Ignorance

CBC dunce intern
It's not an exaggeration to say that the level of spoken and written English has declined in recent years. That's probably a claim that has been made every decade for the last two hundred years. But I truly believe that skewed syntax, bad grammar and malapropisms are more widespread now than in the past. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that those people are more likely to be heard or read (think of the proliferation of online media outlets and the need to staff them) and are more clueless (or shameless) about their language ignorance.

Grammar mistakes in mainstream media are extremely common nowadays, especially online. The most common errors that have for years been an indication of uneducated people now clutter the pages of even the most well-known newspapers. These errors jump out at anyone with even a basic understanding of grammar and language usage. The editors of newspapers regularly seek refuge behind the excuse that the 24-hour news cycle means it's harder than ever to ensure error-free copy. I'll accept that even people who know the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" will sometimes type the incorrect word when bashing out an article. So that excuse may have some merit, but for the most part, there are just more people today who never learned how to write or speak correctly.

Many of the mistakes that appear online are an indication that the people doing the writing (and the editing) do not possess the necessary skills to do their job. Why is this so? I would say that the education system is largely to blame. When I was going to school in Canada in the 1970s and 80s, grammar was not taught. The idea was that students would absorb the rules through activities and practice (inductive learning as opposed to deductive learning). Lo and behold, a few generations of semi-literates after moving away from more traditional teaching methods, and not only do many people not know how poorly they speak and write English, but there is no one to tell them when they make mistakes. Thankfully, because there are always some people around who possess critical thinking skills, and because some people in decision-making positions recognize the importance of language skills, deductive grammar learning is making  a partial comeback.

Beyond the claim of the frenetic pace of reporting and filing stories, there are other excuses for the legions of professionally employed language morons to hide behind. Any human weakness can become a virtue. When enough people possess that weakness, there is no further need to defend. What used to be an excuse becomes accepted wisdom. When the borderline incompetence of many reporters and others who are paid to write is highlighted, the person doing the highlighting is likely to be dismissed or ridiculed. The tut-tutting and supposed arrogance of anyone who points out the mistakes are more worthy of discussion than the mistakes themselves. The tools of the trade are words and grammar, but somehow, expert usage is not considered a requirement. Of course, moralizers of any kind are necessarily self-righteous. The two are inexorably intertwined. You cannot be one without the other, and I'm guilty as charged.

The funny part about this focus on the people complaining about bad grammar is that many of the so-called grammar Nazis are being played for all they're worth. All newspapers now encourage anyone who sees mistakes in their online rags to dutifully report them. How thrilling! I am a more skilled editor that the ones employed by big newspapers! And look! I reported a mistake, it was promptly corrected, and I even got a personal email thanking me!

You bloody fools! Why on earth would you provide your services for free when you could otherwise let the mistake stand, thus highlighting the sloppiness and perhaps increasing the likelihood that the buffoons in charge might take steps to improve the quality of their product?

But I want the focus of this post to be about speaking, not writing. There is one extremely common mistake that many people currently make when speaking. It's not a careless error made while the speaker is passionately arguing a point. It's not a one-off blunder made when tired or annoyed. It's a fundamental gap in the speaking ability of the people in question.

This obvious blunder is committed not just by people from lower socio-economic classes. I have heard doctors, lawyers and newsreaders speak in this fashion. It makes me cringe every time I hear it. My mother claims that a friend of hers who is a principal in a school in Canada makes this mistake whenever she speaks.

And what is this most shockingly bizarre lapse in fundamental language skills? One that what would have, years ago, been a mistake worthy of a solid cuff to the side of the head?

The inability to use the past participle when using participle verb tenses. People who suffer this affliction speak in sentences like the following:

I haven't went to the movies in a long time.

Have you ever ate spicy food?

It is hard to fathom that people who speak like this are not aware of it. And it is also hard to believe that no one has ever pointed out to them how ignorant they sound. My guess is that they know full well that this major gap exists in their ability to speak the English language. But they just don't care. It likely warms their hearts when they are in the company of other semi-literate mules who were also never taught how to speak correctly.

And that is the modern-day mark of ignorance among native English speakers.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review: The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of LanguageAn unwritten rule exists regarding academic writing: it must be dull, pedantic, and larded with long sentences and difficult words. You might think those academics who study language are an exception. But no. Unfortunately, linguists produce some of the most unreadable tripe imaginable.

A devil’s advocate could argue that the difficulty of the material and the intended audience result in denser prose that will undoubtedly be more difficult for the non-expert to navigate. And in that, there is some truth.

However, there are degrees of pedantry. Some writers simply have the ability to explain complex information in a straightforward and interesting way, regardless of the intended audience.

Others, it would seem, are infected with a compulsion to write in a way that they deem appropriately serious. Or maybe they present their own half-baked theories in such an overwrought style so that few, if any, readers will take the time to wade through the turgid prose and question their assertions.

It also takes a special skill for the expert to present their ideas in a way that will intrigue, entertain and be understood by the layperson. Guy Deutscher demonstrates that skill in The Unfolding of Language: an Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention.

This book is a perfect introduction to linguistics for language teachers who may be considering a masters in applied linguistics or TESOL. It will also be appreciated by anyone with an interest in language.

In the first chapter, Deutscher tells readers that, "This book will set out to unveil some of language's secrets, and thereby attempt to dismantle the paradox of this great uninvented invention."

It may be tempting to think that at some point in the distant, hazy past, a group of people sat down and hammered out the grammar rules for English or any other language. However, even though Deutscher shows us in a fascinating and believable way how language evolves, the great mystery has always been how it started in the first place.

Deutscher slowly leads us to the (possible) answer to that question. And along the way, you will learn some fascinating things about all languages, and English in particular.

The Decline of English?

Have you ever belly-ached about the declining state of English? And in the process implied, or stated outright, that you, at least, are not one of the ignoramuses who routinely butcher the language? (Who, me?!)

This so-called “decline” of English has always been so. Because, as Deutscher so eloquently demonstrates, the destruction of language is actually what keeps it moving forward and evolving. As he states numerous times, the destructive and creative forces are closely linked.

Specifically, he discusses three main points of language destruction. First, economy. The reason why pronunciation of words changes over time is because humans are forever looking for simpler ways to speak. For example, all words in English with the “ed” ending used to have the “id” sound (i.e., like all words that currently end with a “t” or “d” sound and can take an “ed” ending—“excited” and “included” for example). Deutscher provides reams of documentary evidence of shifts of this sort that have taken place over time.

Secondly, the constant desire by humans to increase their expressiveness. This results in words changing their meanings over time. It’s why we can easily accept that “wicked” can mean evil, and it can also mean “cool!” when uttered by a teenager. It is easy to understand by context exactly which meaning is implied. Over time, one of the meanings will die out, and years later, people will register disbelief that the dual meanings ever existed alongside one another.

Language: A Pile of Dead Metaphors

Third, analogy. Or, as Deutshcer says, all languages are essentially a pile of dead metaphors. With the exception of material things, all words we use are metaphors. Even those non-content words, “grammar words” as many people call them, started out as metaphors. This claim may strike many as ludicrous. But tell me, can you point to what an “in” is? Many would splutter and say that of course they could. Which is only an indication of how firmly ingrained our current understanding of words is.

So the evolution of language is a circular and ongoing process. From the addition of new words, and the modification of words to add emphasis, to over-familiarity, and the shifting of meanings:

“Speakers sometimes go to great lengths to intensify the effect of their utterances in order to lend their speech more force and emphasis, and in doing so they tend to go for words with ever more muscular meanings. In the short term, this method may achieve the intended result, but in the long run, the strategy is self-defeating, simply because it is inflationary. Over-familiarity inevitably weakens the force of the meaning.”

The Answer

Back to the question that Deutscher posed at the beginning of the book: how did language first begin? In the closing chapter, Deutscher presents a thesis on how it all started. He begins at the point where only basic content words may have existed. He starts with the premise that the order of words in all languages adhere to a few basic rules.

First, related words appear close to each within sentence structure. Second, words occur in sentences according to the chronological order of the events they represent. Third, only necessary words are included. And finally, a hierarchy of words exists in all languages, and that hierarchy is very similar, regardless of language (with “I/me” taking the top spot in most languages).

Deutscher provides numerous qualifiers for this starting point. Following on that, he moves into a discussion of the development of what he calls appendagehoods—more complex language structures. His explanation is eminently plausible, and fits in with much of what he has already detailed in the rest of the book.

Writing Style

Good non-fiction writers have a lot in common with good teachers. They don’t make assumptions, use plenty of analogies, and present their material in an entertaining way. Measured against that standard, Deutscher is an excellent writer. The Unfolding of Language is a great little book that language lovers will love. For those with a general interest but no real desire to go beyond some light reading, there are some passages that may cause their eyes to glaze over. However, those sections are few and far between. For the most part, the ideas and themes are very accessible.

For example, Deutscher often discusses regular and irregular forms of words and how they have changed over the years. In this passage, he summarizes some of those ideas:
Language needs to be learned afresh by each new generation of speakers, and with each new generation the system is subjected to speakers' constant search for regular patterns. The vagaries of erosion can randomly give words a myriad of new shapes, some of which may by sheer coincidence contain elements that can be seized upon by the order-craving mind. And when speakers spot such patterns, they misconstrue these randomly produced elements as meaningful and can thus extend them by analogy to anything else that seems to fit.
A great book full of fascinating ideas explained in a lively and engaging way. An added benefit for EFL teachers: they will gain a greater empathy for their students and the attempts they make to bring order to what can be a confusing language.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Writing, Editing, and Don't Take it Personally

red pen correctionsAmong the numerous lies and clichés that people are fed on a daily basis is this classic nugget, usually offered up in advance of some criticism:

"Don't take it personally."

To which I always respond, "Everything in life is personal." Of course criticism is personal. How could it be otherwise?

"Don't take it personally," is especially prominent in the world of writing and editing.

Learning to Deal with Criticism

Recognizing this line for what it is does not mean that criticism is not important. On the contrary. Accepting criticism with professionalism and using it to improve anything that you have written is absolutely necessary.

Learning to work together with editors and others who have to criticize your work is one of the most crucial intangible skills that can help you in your writing career. But this strange platitude that everyone and his dog sign onto without ever questioning its logic, should be forever banished as a qualifier in the world of professional writers and editors.

Many, if not most, editors are exceptionally skilled and provide the kind of changes and suggestions that help to produce tight, effective writing that has first-reading clarity. A good editor is a true advocate for the reader and only has the goal of working together with the writer to create the best result possible.

As the person who wrote the words that are rightly being slashed and restructured, you need those fresh eyes of the editor. The paragraph, document, or book that you have created has become your baby. You may not see skewed syntax or sentences that can lead the reader "down the garden path."

However, not all editors are created equal. Some people like to engage in a bit of nastiness under the guise of "telling it like it is," and having "no time for niceties." It would be interesting to learn how often those same individuals also invoke the absurd "don't take it personally" line.

This oft-used statement implies that anything you create becomes an entity unto itself and you are only its disconnected, emotionless advocate. But isn't what I am saying really at the heart of the "don't take it personally" line? Isn't it good to distance yourself from what you have written and not let any criticism divert you from the goal of getting the job done? Yes, this notion has some truth to it for sure, but it is so patently obvious that the annoyance factor outstrips its usefulness.

And more than that, "don' take it personally" is not helpful because it intends, either consciously or otherwise, to soften the recipient up and encourage him not to engage in any push-back on the criticism. It's insidious because it instantly frames any resistance from the writer as petty, petulant, and childish.

Simple Standard

The logic behind grammar and consistency changes should be easily demonstrable—though amazingly, not every editor possesses a strong grasp on those concepts—and you won't usually object to such alterations. Style and phrasing are the types of changes that can lead to disputes in the editing process.

A simple standard is that the editor must be able to articulate exactly why any particular change should be made. Simply stating that "I just like it better that way," does not cut it and highlights someone as an amateur.

So just as overuse of clichés in writing is an indication of lack of imagination and weak writing skills, so too the line "don't take it personally," is often a red flag for a lazy or substandard editor. It would be hard to claim that the utterance of that most cringe-worthy of lines is always a sign of laziness, since it is used so widely.

But keep an ear out for it and see how often it comes from someone whose editing abilities are somewhat lacking. And most importantly, don't take the "don't take it personally" line too seriously!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Death of the Radio Button

In the most recent Microsoft Style Guide for Technical Publications, radio buttons are now referred to as option buttons. First, let me clarify exactly what I am referring to. The following circles that appear next to the three answer options after the question are radio buttons:

radio buttons

Everyone has seen radio buttons in online forms. You can only select one option (usually). When you select another option, the previous option that you selected becomes blank, or "pops out."

The name radio button was originally used to describe this type of online form element because the select-one-option-and-the-previously-selected-option-is-deselected behaviour replicated the action of buttons on old car radios.

old car radioHowever, even for people who do remember the enjoyable and oddly pleasing sensation of changing the station by stabbing one of those chunky buttons, the radio button moniker for those circles next to answer options in online forms usually left people shaking their heads.

The problem was further compounded by the large number of people who are too young to remember those old radios.

Also, think of the many parts of the world where cars were few and far between only a few years ago, especially in rural areas. Many people in those countries never would have had a chance to see an old car radio, regardless of their age. Those same places are now experiencing huge technological growth, and will soon have, in real numbers, more computer users than anywhere else.

The funny thing is, many people still have never heard the term radio button to describe internet answer options. The term does not always accompany usage of the radio button/option button in online forms. It is often only used in help files, or other documentation.

In short, the term radio button confused a hell of a lot of people!

Microsoft recognized this confusion, and has now started using the term option buttons.

Now, the question is, do you select, click, choose, or enable an option button? The answer depends! You have probably seen all four words used when reading instructions for filling in an online form. The most important point to remember is, use one word consistently in a document.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Using Hyphens, En-dashes, and Em-dashes

Many writers and a whole lot of readers do not know the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. This article explains when to use each one, and how to add each one using your keyboard.


The hyphen is used for joining words in various types of compound constructions. There are numerous examples including compound nouns, adjectives, and verbs. I will not delve into the specific rules of using hyphens in these situations. More importantly, once you have read the rules regarding en-dashes and em-dashes, you will at least know when not to use hyphens.

Similarly, hyphens are used to join some prefixes and suffixes to nouns, adjectives, or verbs.

Hyphens are also used for joining parts of a word that have been separated by a line break.

You can also use hyphens to indicate the spelling of a word. For example, "Any decent Scrabble player knows the letter h is spelled a-i-t-c-h."

When you want to emphasize clear enunciation, use the hyphen as well: "I said, 'be qui-et!'"

The hyphen key appears on the top row on your keyboard, to the right of the zero. It also appears in the upper right hand corner of the number pad.


Notice than the en-dash is slightly bigger than the hyphen. The en-dash is so named because it is supposedly the length of a letter n.

En-dashes are used to separate compound expressions. Many compound expressions are geographical areas. For example, the San Francisco–Bay Area.

You also use en-dashes to indicate a range of numbers. For example, when writing the years a person lived: Jim Morrison (1943–1971). Or, for a range of pages: "Read pages 5–12."

The easiest way to insert an en-dash is using the shortcut:

—Hold down the Alt key on your keyboard
—Type the numbers 0–1–5–0 on your keyboard's number pad (Num Lock key must be activated)
—Release the Alt key

The en-dash appears.

In Microsoft Word, you can also add an en-dash in this way: add a space after the word you want the en-dash to follow, press the hyphen key twice, and then continue typing. Microsoft Word will then convert the two hyphens to an en-dash. However, it is good practice to go back and delete the initial space that you added. Most style guides suggest that you put no space before or after an en-dash.


The em-dash is the longest of the three. The em-dash is so named because it is supposedly the length of the letter m.

Em-dashes are used mainly to set off explanations within sentences. Many writers will often use round brackets (parentheses) in these situations. Often, the two are interchangeable though some will argue that there are differences and nuances.

For example: He met with other cruciverbalists—lovers of crossword puzzles—every Sunday night.

Em-dashes can also be used in place of colons in titles. And they can be used in place of bullets in vertical lists.

To add an em-dash, press Alt + 0151 on your keyboard.

Or, in Microsoft Word, immediately after the word that you want the em-dash to follow, press the hyphen key twice, and then continue typing. Microsoft Word converts two hyphens to an em-dash. As with en-dashes, most style guides suggest that you put no space before or after an em-dash.


Hyphen -
En-dash –
Em-dash —

And those are the basics for using hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. Knowing how to use these correctly will set you apart from many writers.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Disputed Grammar: Subject and Verb Agreement

dust cloud fightIt's easy to get into a disagreement over grammar. There is a whole field of study dedicated to disputed grammar. So why does English grammar cause so many arguments? Because there is no final say when it comes to English grammar, the language is constantly changing, and there are many people who simply disagree on various points. The fact that there are now so many unreliable and incomplete sources online only adds to the confusion.

I recently found this website and at first liked the list dedicated to subject and verb agreement. However, when I came to rule number 13, I found it a bit lacking. Here's what rule 13 says:

Rule 13. Sometimes the pronoun who, that, or which is the subject of a verb in the middle of the sentence. The pronouns who, that, and which become singular or plural according to the noun directly in front of them. So, if that noun is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples: Salma is the scientist who writes/write the reports.
The word in front of who is scientist, which is singular. Therefore, use the singular verb writes.
He is one of the men who does/do the work.
The word in front of who is men, which is plural. Therefore, use the plural verb do.

I agree with the rule to a point. However, it implies that in any situation in which a dependent clause starts with who, which, or that, the relative pronoun will always refer to the noun that comes directly before it. That simply isn't true.

My First E-mail

I sent an e-mail to the owner of the website, Jane Straus. Here's what I said in my e-mail:

Hello Jane,

I found your list of subject and verb agreement rules on your website very concise and helpful. Number 13 especially is one that is usually not included in such lists. However, I believe that the explanation in rule number 13 needs clarification.

I've never read such a strict interpretation of the rule. I've always seen it only in reference to the phrases "one of those people who" or "one of those things that" (or slight variations), which also happens to be the example you use. If that rule were to apply universally, then this sentence, which I found on the front page of a corporate website, would be correct:

"This is a collection of automated tools that enable developers to protect their application code against tampering, reverse engineering and automated attacks."

In fact, I believe that the above sentence is incorrect and "enable" should have an "s." Yet it has a dependent clause starting with "that." If we were to follow rule 13 in this case, then the sentence would be considered correct.

I find that the first sentence in rule 13 is quite vague and could lead to more confusion.

I would love to get some feedback from you on this.


Her Response

While Jane did not respond to me directly, her assistant did. Here's what she had to say:

Dear Ken,

Jane is unable to answer your query at this time. I have to say that I agree with her regarding its application to your example. I would use "enable," as well. The tools are the objects that enable the users, not the collection. I hope this helps you.

Best wishes,

My Response

I found her response completely unconvincing. So I quickly sent back a reply:


Thanks for your response. However, I'm still not convinced.

When a prepositional phrase comes between the subject of a sentence and the verb, the subject still determines whether the verb is singular or plural. The only exception that I've seen is the example Jane used. But I've never seen it applied so broadly as her rule implies and as you're suggesting.

You wouldn't say, "This is a collection that enable developers...."

Nor would you say, "The pile of clothes stink." (Though many people incorrectly do.)

I know the above example is not followed by a dependent clause, but I am trying to demonstrate the basic premise on which I am basing my belief.

The exception that Jane points out has been articulated elsewhere as:

"The phrases 'one of those who' and 'one of the things that' take plural verbs, as in 'The comma splice is one of those errors that always slip past me,' and 'One of the things that drive me nuts is subject-verb agreement.'"

It sounds right, and the explanation makes sense. Yet on Jane's website that rule is explained in a way that applies to so many other examples.

And the explanation that you provided just doesn't wash: "The tools are the objects that enable the users, not the collection."

If that were a valid explanation, then the noun in a prepositional phrase (which is the object of the preposition and not the subject of the sentence) would determine whether a verb is singular or plural in every case.

If there is a valid explanation for applying that rule so broadly, I would love to hear it.

I challenge you to find that rule anywhere else defined so broadly. I've only ever found it explained using the "one of those who" or "one of those things that" phrases (or with slight variations but the same basic construction).

Anyway, I hope you take these messages in the way that they are intended. I love language and grammar and all the related discussions.


Jane's Assistant Responds

I found the second response from Jane's assistant similarly inadequate:

Dear Ken,

I think you have your own answer embedded in your query: "The above example is not followed by a dependent clause." You are absolutely correct that in the typical case, the subject of a prepositional phrase, not the object, determines the verb's expression. The key distinction in your original example is the dependent clause.

I hope this helps.

Best wishes,

To Summarize

But she missed the point completely. Rule number 13 on Jane Straus's website is inadequate, and in fact, could lead to incorrect subject and verb agreement usage.

Now that I read the list more closely, I realize that there is no explicit rule to deal with prepositional phrases (except rule 9, which is another exception to the prepositional phrase rule).

Most people who have a decent grasp of grammar know the problems that prepositional phrases can cause for subject and verb agreement. I covered this point in one of my e-mails to Jane's assistant. To reiterate, when a prepositional phrase comes between the subject of a sentence and the verb, the noun in the prepositional phrase does not determine whether the verb is singular or plural. However, as with most "rules" in grammar, there are a few exceptions. Here is my best reading of the exception that I have been discussing here:

When the phrase "one of those people who" or "one of those things that" (or slight variations that follow the same construction) is followed by a dependent clause starting with who, that, or which, the relative pronoun can possibly refer to the noun that immediately precedes it (which is the noun in the prepositional phrase). In that case, the main verb in the sentence will agree with the noun that is part of the prepositional phrase.

(Note: the prepositional phrase within the phrase is "of those people" or "of those things.")

But that is not always the case.

For example, look at these two sentences:

1. He is one of the goalies who actually stops the puck on a regular basis.
2. He is one of the goalies who play on the team.

In the first sentence, the verb "stops" is clearly referring to "one". In the second, "play" clearly refers to the goalies.

So, the most important question to ask in a situation where one of the relevant phrases and the dependent clause with who, that, or which are present is: To which noun is the relative pronoun referring?

Do not adhere to some supposed rule that states that the relative pronoun in such cases always refers to the noun immediately preceding it, because it's not true. In fact, always (heh!) be wary of grammar rules that use the word "always," or "never." There is usually an exception to the rule.

And I'm fairly certain, as I stated earlier, that the sentence I found on the corporate website:

"This is a collection of automated tools that enable developers to protect their application code against tampering, reverse engineering and automated attacks."

is wrong, and "enable" should have an "s."

(Note:in the above sentence, the prepositional phrase is "of automated tools.")

Weigh In

However, I'm still open to interpretations that prove that I am wrong on this. I am constantly learning about grammar and the English language, and updating concepts that I thought I had down cold. When trying to untangle a grammar conundrum, I always ask myself two questions regarding a supposed rule:

Does the usage in the rule's relevant examples sound right?
Does the explanation that backs up the rule make sense?

So, let me know what you think. Who is right about this? Leave a comment or respond to the poll that I have added to the sidebar.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Readability Formulas: The Fog Index

math formulaReadability formulas provide an easy way to tailor your writing for a particular audience. There are a handful of different formulas. The most common is probably the Fog Index. It is quite easy to calculate the Fog Index for an article.

To calculate the Fog Index:

1. Select at least 100 words that appear continuously (10–12 sentences is ideal) in an article.

2. Calculate the average sentence length in the group of sentences (now referred to as the “passage”). To calculate the average sentence length:

  • Count the total number of words in the passage.
  • Divide the total number of words in the passage by the number of sentences.
3. Count the number of words with three or more syllables in the passage.

Note: do not include proper nouns or words whose common suffixes (-es, -ed, -ing) bring the total number of syllables to three. If the root word contains three or more syllables, discount this rule.

4. Calculate the percentage of words in the passage that have three or more syllables. To calculate the percentage:
  • Divide the number of words with three or more syllables by the total number of words in the passage and multiply by one hundred.
5. Add the average sentence length (from step 2) and the percentage of three or more syllable words.

6. Multiply that number by 0.4

The result is the Fog Index rating for the passage.


Regarding the exceptions for words with three syllables or more, there are some sources that claim that compound words (closed and hyphenated) should also be excluded. Of course, this would apply only to compound words that are three or more syllables after being joined. If one of the words alone already exceeds three syllables, presumably the rule wouldn't apply.

I didn't include the rule here for the simple reason that the only reliable online Fog Index calculator that I am aware of does not exclude compound words.

Online Fog Index Calculator

That omission could be due to limitations on the computer script that calculates the Fog Index. Regardless, the Fog Index rating won't be affected too much either way.

Here's another online tool that calculates the Fog Index for entire websites or blogs:

Calculate Readability of Website

What Does the Fog Index Rating Mean?

So what does that magic number indicate?

The Fog Index rating supposedly indicates the number of years of formal education required to read a piece of writing. In theory, the higher the Fog Index rating, the more difficult a passage is to read. However, it is important to remember that a passage with a lower Fog Index will not only appeal to less educated readers. A Fog Index of between 7–8 is probably the most accessible to the widest audience.

Remember also that a passage may be more or less readable depending on how well written it is, regardless of the Fog Index. In other words, sometimes a passage with a higher Fog Index rating is more readable than a passage with a lower Fog Index rating.

So don't attach too much significance to the Fog Index. Simply get a feel for the kind of writing that is representative of different Fog Index ratings. One way to do that is to calculate the Fog Index for number of different articles that you have written. Another way is to calculate the Fog Index for books or magazines that you like to read.

Amazon's Text Stats

Amazon recently added a new feature to the books they sell online. It's called Text Stats, and one of its statistics is the Fog Index for each particular book. However, the feature is not available for all books.

To locate Text Stats for a book on

1. Open in your computer's browser.

2. Select Books in the search menu.

Amazon search books

Enter Of Mice and Men in the search box.

4. Click the first title that appears.

5. Scroll down to Inside This Book.

Amazon Text Stats

6. Click Text Stats.

There you will see that the Fog Index for Of Mice and Men is listed at 4.9. A pretty accurate indication of years of schooling required in this case. I recall reading the book in grade five or six.

As mentioned, this feature is not available for every book on Amazon. When you do a search for a book, only the ones that have an Inside This Book graphic over the book may have the feature.

Benefits for Writers

lost in the fogThe Fog Index provides numerous benefits for writers. Most importantly, it allows you to shape and edit your writing for a particular audience.

Imagine that you are trying to pick up extra work by submitting articles to various publications. Simply calculate the Fog Index of some articles from recent editions of the magazines you are targeting. Tailor your writing so it is within the Fog Index of the kind of articles they publish.

I hope you can use the Fog Index to assist you as a writer. Remember, without clear, organized writing, readability formulas are of little use. However, if a document has a Fog Index rating over 12, it is safe to say that some readers will get lost in the fog.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

False Friends

What is a false friend? In common usage, its meaning is explicit. It is someone who holds themselves up to be a friend, while in reality engaging in behaviour that makes them anything but. Someone who wants something from another but offers nothing in exchange.

There are a litany of misdeeds that cause us all to reclassify people who we initially thought were mates into less complimentary terms. This is often due to hypersensitivity, our own narrow perceptions and just as often, an accurate and justified turning away from someone who is not worth the heartache.

Dishonesty in all its forms; lies, betrayals of trust and that odd tendency of many humans to be absent and lacking in support for those they claim to be close to when times are toughest, are all reasons for a reconsideration of friendship.

It’s that last one that seems to occur most frequently. A “fair-weather friend” is a variation of the false friend, someone who is only around when things are good. When you’re down you certainly find out who you can rely on.

Of course, we are all quick to recognize such failings in others while likely never holding ourselves up to the same standards. In others, it is a true indication of character while if we engage in such behaviour, it’s only a circumstantial one-off.

In language teaching, a “false friend” is also something that at first glance appears to be beneficial but can lead to confusion and frustration. A recognized word that is already familiar to our brains but which represents an entirely new meaning in the foreign language we are learning. A familiar sound that makes uttering the word easy but also opens up a mental can of worms that can temporarily throw us off the path towards acquiring the new language.

Years ago while living in Israel, I experienced my own personal false friend in terms of language learning. The first few days after arrival I spent wandering around the city of Tel Aviv in a daze with the usual mix of confusion and excitement that comes with being in a new place. I kept hearing my name being shouted out, “Ken, Ken.”

Clerks at the shops I walked into even seemed to know my name. Of course, I quickly realized that the Hebrew word for yes is “ken.”

It later dawned on me that Israel is a nation full of beautiful women who scream my name out every night. A comforting idea.

False language friends abound in Hebrew; “me” in Hebrew means “who” in English, as “who” means “he” and “he” means “she.” Confused? Imagine how difficult it can be for someone learning the language.

There are also examples of false friends in the language sphere for Thais learning English and farangs trying to learn Thai.

While buying pumpkin in the local market, an English-speaking foreigner in Thailand may become somewhat flustered. A Thai in farang-land may feel slightly unpleasant when fumbling in her purse late at night as she tries to find the precision-cut instrument that will allow her to open the door.

There are two main types of false friends. First, words that were adopted from a different language to describe something similar but over time morphed into a different meaning. For a Spanish student, there are numerous occurrences which could cause confusion when trying to learn English.

In Spanish, "una decepción" is "a disappointment," which is a different meaning than for the similar sounding English word “deception.” Carpeta is most commonly used for describing a type of file folder and is very close in sound to the English "carpet." To add to the confusion, carpeta is occasionally used to describe a kind of table cloth but never for a floor covering.

Much more prevalent is the second type. These are the false language friends that were arrived at out of apparent coincidence.

It’s interesting to ponder the various symbolic utterances we call language. Why did one group of individuals decide on a combination of grunts and vocal chord manipulations to represent one thing while another group arrived at the same bleating sound in order to designate something else?

So there are two basic types of linguistic false friends: ones arrived at by sheer (apparent) coincidence and others that are derivative of a word from one of the languages but whose meaning has changed significantly in the adopting language. Both present some problems for the learner.

Truthfully, the phenomenon of false friends in language learning does not appear to be a serious problem and is usually an occasion for mirth more than anything else. What can a language teacher do to help students regarding false friends? The simplest way is to alert students to the existence of such words and over time compile a list that can be displayed in the classroom. Again, it often provides the opportunity to introduce a humorous element into teaching.

For example, rak is the Thai word for love, while five variant meanings for rack in English are, to quote the entries from

1. A state of intense anguish.
2. A cause of intense anguish.
3. An instrument of torture on which the victim's body was stretched.

This is anecdotal evidence that, in fact, similar phonetic sounds which people have arrived at to describe different things in their respective languages may have some connection after all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Alanis Morissette: Language Sell-Out

Every Canadian knows that the word "flavour" is spelled with a "u." Just as labour, humour, colour and a host of other words differentiate themselves from the American versions. The "our" ending isn't the only contrast between Canadian and American spelling though it's probably the most common.

But I should qualify the opening sentence. Most Canadians over the age of 30 should know the difference. As time passes, that number will further dwindle though there will always be a core of Canuck purists who continue to write the way they were taught. After all, language is as much a part of national identity as many other things. But with default settings on most computer programs deferring to the U.S. brand of spelling (and a general erosion regarding language precision), more of the younger generations will begin to see that as the "right " way.

Of course, even before the onslaught of the internet and the ubiquitous presence of computers, Canadian spelling was always a bit confusing and varied from person to person. More similar to British than American, it nonetheless shares some of the alternate spellings with the yank rule book.

"Kerb," is distinctly British; only a rare Canadian would spell the word this way and probably then only as an affectation. On the other hand, "grey" is the British rendering also widely used by Canadians while the American "gray" is adopted only by those who are clueless to the difference or are one of many self-loathers from the great white north. Then there are relatively neutral examples such as "travelled" and "traveled" which are probably used in equal measures by Canadians.

For learners of English as a second language outside of Canada, the no-man's land option barely rates a mention. I normally advise students to choose between British and American spelling and then stick with it.

But the "our" ending is significant because, unlike many of the words with variant spellings, it has somehow remained one that Canadians have kept in the face of American media, pop-culture and Microsoft (OK, there are a few exceptions.) To be a Canadian and spell "labour" without the "u" is to announce that such matters are insignificant and petty.

Alanis Morissette Flavors of EntanglementStill, I've no doubt that something will twig for many Canadians when they see the title of Alanis Morissette's new CD, Flavors of Entanglement.

Hipsters in the local music industry who interview the singer likely won't go near a question like "So what's up with the U.S. spelling?" for fear it would label them as anal and pedantic. But they too will recognize the shameless pander.

And who can blame Morissette and her record company? Her most important market will be in the U.S.

The inclusion of the "u" would be meaningless to many Americans while others would think something was amiss but be fully unaware of the British/U.S. variations. For those who had a notion of the separate spellings, it would invoke a vague sense of foreignness and annoyance.

All very symbolic of the fuzzy sense of culture in the massive frigid wasteland we call Canada. Proximity to the U.S. means resisting their influence is nearly impossible though many continue to make the effort. At the same time, a nostalgia for the more reserved, traditional and nuanced Brits still has an effect on who we are.

It's only fitting that Morissette, one of Canada's many musical exports, has created a small, thriving industry out of advancing her similarly contradictory and confused public persona. And her prior recording success has already proven that language isn't necessarily her strongest suit. Thanks to her, an entire generation of angry young faux feminists has no idea what the word "irony" truly means.

It would be a nice surprise if there were different releases of the CD depending on location but I have seen no evidence of this so far.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thomas Kohnstamm: Lonely Planet Writer Sparks Controversy

A dilemma faced by publishers and editors of non-fiction is that the writers they deal with have much in common with those who pen fiction. Both are good at spinning bullshit.

Those who chronicle "real" events and happenings in the world normally filter what they see through the narrative lens. They focus on certain angles, sensationalize events and try to fit the facts into a neat storyline that appeals to readers. Most people understand that what they read has been hammered into a glamorous version of reality.

But in many cases, the facts as they exist are too bland to qualify for an entertaining non-fiction story. Or the writer in question lacks what it takes to present the situation in a compelling way. Either way, the temptation to simply "make shit up" proves too much for many.

The most egregious types of fraud, incompetence or corruption in any industry are a mirror image of the talents and successes of the people drawn to that particular career. Just as some of the skills that make a successful police officer are also evident in the bent copper who lays beatings on homeless people for kicks, a writer with some degree of talent also has the potential to be a skilled fabulist.

Literary Fraud

Literary fraud in various non-fiction genres has been rampant in recent years. Or more likely, the explosion of the internet has increased communication and the ability of the average person to come forward to point out inconsistencies and make claims. The "autobiographical confessional" that recounts a difficult childhood or other traumatic experience that the author courageously overcomes seems to be a type of book that attracts a disproportionate number of bullshit artists.

Who would or even could question the details of another person's life? Well, many have, and while the fallout has not been pretty for the writers who are caught out, the publicity and book sales that flowed their way probably wouldn't have been achieved otherwise.

Travel guide books also present themselves as a category ripe for abuse. The internet is awash with information on various locations and there are plenty of books already in print which cover most destinations in the world. The ability to paraphrase and confirm facts with people on the ground makes it possible to offer up supposed fresh descriptions without having ever set foot in the country in question.

Apparently, the rather disingenuous "toe touch"--in which a writer makes a one day trip to the place he is writing about so he can claim his coverage is legitimate--is no longer even necessary.

Lonely Planet Writer Confesses

Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm claims that he made up huge swaths of the books he wrote for the travel guide publisher and boasts that he never visited many of the locations. Timed to coincide with the release of his new book, many are saying that it is simply a publicity stunt. If that is the case, no doubt it has succeeded to some degree.

However, on the heels of many non-fiction books being exposed as pure fantasy and in the midst of the internet's "gotcha" culture, Kohnstamm may find his book getting more scrutiny for authenticity than he had hoped.

A quick Google search shows that he has a penchant for getting involved in wild, nearly unbelievable situations more suited to a Hollywood script:

"In March, Thomas Kohnstamm, a 30-year-old Seattle native on assignment in Caracas, Venezuela, for Lonely Planet travel guides, walked out of a bar in a neighborhood called Sabana Grande and quickly found himself in trouble. A group of young men emerged from darkened doorways and set upon him. He was pistol-whipped and knocked to the ground, and the bandits began rifling through his pockets. Angered to learn that Mr. Kohnstamm had the equivalent of just $8, the thieves demanded his belt, his shoes, and eventually his pants.

It was at that point, Mr. Kohnstamm recalled in a telephone conversation last week from the Netherlands, that the police arrived. Armed with submachine guns, they ordered the bandits against a wall and retrieved Mr. Kohnstamm's possessions — including his ATM card. They then explained that for purposes of their investigation, they would need to know Mr. Kohnstamm's PIN. In the end, Mr. Kohnstamm said, the police shook him down for just $25,..."
Hmmmm. Certainly makes a person wonder...

Expect some kind of mea culpa from Kohnstamm in the coming weeks that is both ironic and self-deprecating, that both deflects and makes a virtue out of what he supposedly did. After all, he is appealing to the hipster wannabe set, many of whom think any attempt to romanticize your life or get attention is something worthy of admiration. Or he may just offer up one of the classic trapped-in-a-corner responses along the lines of "I was misquoted" or "taken out of context."

To be fair, he does state that the corner-cutting tactics were used because of unreasonable demands made by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet's Response

Lonely Planet has offered up a few quotes regarding the controversy in which they come off as offended and defensive. Their immediate goal is assuring their readers that this is some kind of aberration. And how exactly do they know this? Of course, they don't. It's the first move from the playbook of "The Wrong-Headed Response to Bad Publicity."

The follow up, as demonstrated on their website, is mostly silence. However, while there is nothing on the main page about the story, Lonely Planet management is at least responding in their discussion forums. Though the integrity of that is being called into question by some posters claiming mass censorship of comments related to the uproar.

This is all in the wake of the buyout of Lonely Planet last year by the BBC. The image Lonely Planet built up over the years as the bastion for independent travelers has started to waver and depending on how they play this one, could take another hit. The BBC itself has been embroiled in a major league shitstorm of its own making regarding credibility over the past few years, so their response to this will be interesting.

Lonely Planet Seeking Authors

A few months ago Lonely Planet put out a call for travel writers on its website. Now I'm thinking that instead of submitting travel pieces and other non-fiction writing, those seeking to get a foot in the door should send in wild tales of adventure and mayhem worthy of the most over-the-top Hollywood movie.

Friday, April 18, 2008

HBO's The Wire: Language and Themes

The Wire season oneThe Wire is a police drama that looks at the inner workings of various social groups and the rules and codes that govern them. Set in Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S., the show revolves around a rag-tag bunch of police officers as they tackle different cases.

The power structure of each different organization or group is explored; including the police force, inner city blacks involved in the drug trade and unionized dock workers (as far as season two.)

A recurring theme is the reference to the supposed codes that exist within each group. This is often represented by simplistic mantras or clichés that are repeated at crucial moments of conflict when dissension threatens to erupt.

The logic behind these tacit rules are rarely questioned. Only when a member of each sociological unit starts to consider the underlying reasons and motives for all these oaths does he start to wonder how really meaningful or genuine the whole set-up is.

Those at the top, of course, encourage the repetition of the platitudes and invoke them whenever a hint of mutiny arises. But they rarely adhere to a set of altruistic guidelines and instead take decisions based on what will benefit them directly. Besides self-serving reasons, their other motivations are to maintain the image that, in fact, they do honour the code and, above all else, to ensure that their minions dutifully follow and keep repeating the empty bromides.

So, there are the leaders who manipulate the system for their own benefits while maintaining the illusion that they care about those below, the legions of dupes who play their roles and don't rock the boat and those who dare to step outside the rules of the game. Retribution and closing of ranks is swift in almost every case that such independent thinking arises.

There are also a few rebels or lone wolfs who somehow operate within or alongside the various structures. They are inevitably sanctioned or ostracized. But they also gain the respect and envy of some of the others who are members of the respective organizations. Not surprisingly, the maverick cop develops an affinity for the drug-trade outsider; a hood who makes a living by robbing drug dealers.

Comparisons between the cops and the criminals are inevitable. Bent coppers and thugs with a conscience can't help but make the viewer wonder how much circumstance has to do with a person's lot in life.

And which collective maintains a truer meritocracy? As two officers sit in their car watching a group of drug dealers attack a rival gang that has tried to muscle in on their territory, one of the cops remarks, "That's why they always win; when we screw-up we get pensions, when they screw-up, they get beat."

Jargon and Slang

Each group has their own language full of slang and jargon. An interesting attempt at creating authenticity and a testament to how much we use language to define ourselves and the roles we occupy.

It also provides a conundrum for both the police who are trying to decipher the wiretaps--the slang and the specifically coded language that is used to avoid detection--and the creators of the show who need a way to let the audience know exactly what is being referred to.

Artistic Influence

The world of books, movies and television is one of influence. Everything is derivative of something else and contains the subtle or obvious imprint of other creations that have come and gone in the past.

In The Wire, it's hard to miss the similarities to Joseph Wambaugh's police novels from the 1970's. The Wire is set in the present day but there is a very retro feel that is achieved through the use of flat lighting, seedy locations and a cast of relative unknowns who won't be winning beauty pageants anytime soon. Most of them are functional alcoholics with a litany of personal problems. They take solace in a base, vulgar humour and a sense of futility and impending doom permeates their lives.

Not that these elements are the sole domain of Wambaugh. In fact, many them are part of a large majority of cop dramas on the big and small screen. But usually there are at least a few other aspects that offset the cynical tone. Here, everything is debased, depraved and cynical. No doubt, there are signs of decency and integrity. But black and white situations or characters are not on offer and the over-riding atmosphere is of filth and degradation.

The result is a stark and unforgiving look at how human beings interact within the tribes and associations they have formed and likewise how those various subcultures clash with one another.

The series' title, The Wire, refers to the wiretaps that the police eventually use on their suspects. But it also relates to the natural monitoring that humans as a social species use to keep track of each other and how they regulate the behaviour of those members who violate different rules.

"It's all part of the game..."

Click here for a full review and analysis of all five seasons of The Wire

Friday, April 11, 2008

Internet Terminology: Typo Squatters

One of the most fascinating aspects of language is its constantly changing and evolving nature. A word that means something today can have a completely different connotation years from now. And new words and idioms are being coined all the time.

The explosion of the internet and all things related to computers and technology provides another source for generating words and adding to the English language lexicon.

"Typo squatter" is a perfect example.

This new compound noun takes two pre-existing words and forms a clever description of a fairly common practice in the internet world.

"Typo" is an abbreviation for "typographical error," which describes an unintentional mistake when using a keyboard to type out words.

A "squatter" usually refers to someone who is illegally staying on another person's private property. For example, a homeless person who lives and/or sleeps in an abandoned building. Here is a case of a squatter whose exceptional endurance paid off.

The new internet terminology, "typo squatter," refers to someone who buys a domain name almost identical to an existing website that is already very popular. This is done with the intent of pulling in people who have mistakenly typed in the wrong website address.

Take a look at the most popular website address on the internet: It is very easy to type in or instead. Many thousands, if not millions, of web surfers do this on a daily basis. Take a look at those addresses and see what you find. One of them,, redirects to another address, while is a waste of space advertising some kind of worthless crap.

So there are typo squatters who offer up valid content though the tendency is to plaster their space with advertising. In both types of cases, there is little doubt that the name was chosen to capitalize on the presence of the well known site.

Just as with the real world kind of squatter, on the internet there are those who go to varying lengths to settle in and enjoy the benefits.

Take a look at this online address: .

This name was clearly chosen to take advantage of another website, The latter is a famous blogger who gives advice to legions of individuals bent on achieving the same kind of success he has created for himself. He is the equivalent of the president of a pyramid scheme who has convinced millions of dupes that they will become rich by selling the 18 dollar tubes of toothpaste that he supplies. has not only chosen a very similar name that could be mistakenly typed in by those seeking the original, but he has dedicated his site to the same topic. He also offers up the occasional loving paeon to the person he is trying to emulate. If the whole world of search engine optimization (SEO) is a subject that appeals to you, he has a few interesting things to say as well.

Just as bricks and mortar businesses who fashion a logo similar to an industry leader may turn off some people, the online version may strike a few as disingenuous. But many simply see it as a clever way of trying to establish an immediate presence on the web.

As for this blog, apparently the TEFL industry in Spain is already suffering the effects.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Language and Methods of Interrogation

There is a psychology behind the methods used to interrogate based on decades of research and field study. Sometimes interrogation may only be practiced in the half-baked way of those who have garnered results from a few simplistic methods or it may reach the level of precision and artistry.

Interrogation can take place on many different levels and in numerous situations. While normally the word invokes images of small, dimly lit rooms and harsh tactics with dire consequences for those who fail to respond, here it is used it in the broader sense as well.

It may be as basic as questioning a colleague in the workplace regarding something you don't think is quite right. You suspect some kind of dishonesty so you approach the person in a casual and unassuming way and slowly segue into the heart of the matter.

Airport security staff also uses various methods of eliciting information. This is a more practiced type of interrogation though it is usually based on subtle and refined techniques as opposed to more forceful and desperate approaches.

Police forces employ all the simple techniques used in less intense situations but have the added benefit of being able to confine their targets. This ability to hold someone against their will also lends itself to using more threatening and aggressive questioning tactics. While this may be assumed to be an advantage over softer means and more benign situations, it can often have the reverse effect. The fact that the subject knows they are being interrogated naturally results in resistance. Also, incompetent interviewers may move towards the more forceful practices sooner, simply because they know the option is available.

Various units within the government and military of a country are very similar in what they are capable of doing with regards to suspects. Many have the added license of torture or murder at their disposal, spurred on by righteous justification in the form of oaths, platitudes and other self-serving propaganda.

All types of interrogation are based on the assumption that the person being questioned is hiding something. In all situations there are underlying truisms and motivating factors which guide the entire process.

Here are some of the most common methods used during interrogations.

1. Creating confusion

If a person can be tripped up and confused, they are more likely to falter regarding a lie they are trying to maintain. This is a practice often used by airport security staff who are trying to determine if there is anything odd about a passenger's story. They will ask pertinent questions intermingled with utterly meaningless and banal queries. Then, they will come back with re-worded versions of the relevant questions to see if the responses match the earlier answers. Repetition and a casual approach are key here.

The maxim that has become popular in recent years: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything," can explain the logic behind this style of eliciting the truth. The facts as they actually happened normally remain seared in most people's brains and can easily be recounted while lies must be rehearsed.

2. Building affinity

Making it easy for someone to like you is what this is all about. When you feel like you have something in common with another person, you are more likely to open up to them. This technique is common in social or work situations where there may be no clear indication someone is seeking information for anything other than interest's sake. And, as with every method listed here, it is used in more intense situations as well. The "good cop" in the classic "good cop/bad cop" schtick comes to mind.

People in general tend to give superficial or dishonest answers for a multitude of reasons and covering a wide array of topics. Lies are often not malicious but are offered as a defense or sometimes as the result of deep-seated psychological reasons. Or, just as often, people just don't want relative strangers to know information about them. Develop some kind of a connection and those shields might come down.

3. Appealing to truth

This can work in relatively benign contexts or in the more acute settings where the interrogator has power to restrict the movement of the person being questioned. There is something liberating about coming clean for many people.

But, are these claims about "the truth" valid and do they really speak to an irrefutable reality? Or is the narrative so powerful simply because it is part of the simplistic and redemptive notions that have been instilled at birth yet have little to do with the complex adult world we inhabit?

The foundations of such claims could probably be be swatted away with little effort. Still, invoking "truth" mantras seems to work a treat for many interrogators.

4. Using logic

When someone engages in a simple conversation and is relating a version of events, if their story doesn't hang together, simply attacking the holes in the description can force a person to restate, recant or just plain buckle under pressure.

The statement "That doesn't make sense!" has the remarkable effect of highlighting inconsistencies and forcing the person making the original claims to backtrack and try to change the facts to be more convincing. Even a brazen liar will be thrown off when they realize that there is a problem with their time-line or details.

5. Creating an opportunity to relieve feelings of guilt

Another supposed truism that does seem to be borne out somewhat by experience. When the person being braced is holding a horrific experience inside, the belief that coming clean will be a weight off their conscience can be all it takes to get a confession.

However, if a person has truly gone through such an experience they may conclude that such rehabilitative benefits are limited. The knowledge that the fewer people who know something, the less real it is, could just as easily offset such attempts.

6. Offering a benefit

A basic and effective way to draw out secrets from others. When the sharing of information is tied to a tangible payoff, the odds of convincing that person to spill their guts increase. The benefit can be concrete in a financial or other measurable way or it can be more subtle. In a pinch, many of the other methods and approaches listed here could also fall under such a description.

7. Instilling fear

One of the greatest motivators in all situations in life. Used as a tool to manipulate and cajole people to provide facts and information, it is one of the bluntest and most effective. Threats of harm to a person's physical well-being or that of his family's is the starkest manifestation of such an approach. Of course, there are far more nuanced and subtle ways to use fear as a means to produce a cooperative individual. It is something that is not only used by those in extreme interrogation situations but also amongst colleagues, family and friends.

Just as with the use of torture, the risk with using fear is that the person being grilled will say anything to relieve the immediate stress.

8. Preying on thoughts of revenge

"Provide me with what I want to know and you will cause damage to one of your enemies," can be a powerful way to extract intelligence. Especially if doing so will cause little or no harm to the person supplying the information.

9. Exhausting the target

Simply hammering someone with questions non-stop over time can tire them out to such a degree that they simply give in for no other reason than to stop the process. This could work in situations where the target is held against their will or in a location where the person is free to come and go. Imagine a work situation where a co-worker is badgered non-stop over a period of weeks to the point that they dread coming to the office or seeing their tormentor's face. They give in to end the onslaught.

10. Lying

Simply lying to a person in order to spring the vault is one of the most common tricks in the book. In doing so, any number of the other methods can be simultaneously employed. For example, dangling a financial reward you have no intent of honouring in front of someone in exchange for the information you are seeking

A method used to great success by police forces the world over, especially when there are different individuals being questioned separately. Telling a suspect that his partner has informed on him when nothing of the sort has happened is a simple way to provoke a reaction and try to draw out the truth.

11. Appealing to the greater good

Other people will benefit though you may suffer. Entire organizational subcultures are built on such altruistic thinking and so it is often used to convince someone to divulge secrets or damaging details. The narrative takes hold in the person's mind that they are doing something honourable and they see themselves as a kind of martyr.

This list barely even addresses the ways that people can evade attempts to break down their wall of defense. Nor does it look at the ability of skilled and experienced questioners who can recognize the body language, emotions and small tells provided by those they are interviewing.

And it doesn't cover the specific words that might be used or other aspects of delivery such as voice tempo and volume.

Vastly more complex and nuanced ways of interrogation are also possible. An individual skilled in the art of manipulation may use imagery to create a convincing and hypnotic atmosphere that preys on the target's background or fears. Or he may establish some of the classic power relationship models that exist in the field of psychology.

But this is a sampling of the most common ways that people use to convince others to share their innermost secrets or simply to provide innocuous details that they may have been with-holding. It can be an intense and dramatic undertaking or bland and relatively inconsequential.

Knowledge and information is power. The ability to get at the data and facts that most benefits you is an important skill. As is recognizing and resisting the interrogation attempts of others.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book Review: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne TrussPunctuation seems to be something that is glossed over by a large number of English teachers. Perhaps one reason is that, aside from periods (full stops for Brits) and apostrophes, most other marks are governed by rules that are misunderstood by native speakers. Even the criteria for apostrophes, which are straight forward and easy to follow, are regularly disregarded and abused. Many languages have none of these dots, dashes and symbols that are meant to bring order and rhythm to the words we write and read. We have them in English, yet a woeful number of us overlook these tools which can add precision, flow and nuance to our words.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss addresses the declining standards of punctuation use in society, offers a lighthearted (though fully accurate) introduction on its history and provides memorable and succinct instruction on the most common marks.

Surely, only a tiresome pedant would write or read a book on such an ostensibly soporific subject matter? But then, just as a sub-par writer would self-censor and convince themselves that certain topics could never provide enough material or angles, lazy readers would also be put off by particular issues and content. Thankfully, Truss is clearly energized and enthusiastic about punctuation and the result is enjoyable and entertaining.

She does, however, recognize the fact that the image of those obsessed with precise punctuation is worth addressing. Amongst those with at least some concern for correct usage, that stereotype or its mirror image is regularly invoked to describe others and highlights an interesting truism. Truss quotes Evelyn Waugh, who said, "Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic." With the insinuation being that, of course, each individual rates their own approach as the best one.

Truss places herself firmly on the side of the stickler and asks you as the reader to come along for the ride. Whether or not you share her obsessiveness on the matter, with the exception of the true mouth-breathers and semi-literates, you will probably be happy that you did.

The book is light and highly informative. It is also well-researched and full of the progression of various rules and trends throughout history. While you may rail against the corner grocer and his ignorance regarding the use of apostrophes (for example, "banana's,) you also learn that at one point an apostrophe was used to pluralize foreign words ending in vowels.

The opening chapter lays down a template for the rest of the book. A collection of laughable misuses of punctuation by shop owners, newspapers and government institutions, together with historical references as to where certain conventions arose and why they changed over time.

The heart of the book is broken down into chapters that each cover a specific punctuation mark. Starting with her own personal favourite, the apostrophe, Truss cycles through all the major devices, including commas, periods (full stops,) semi-colons, colons, exclamation points, questions marks, ellipsis (...), quotation marks, brackets, dashes, hyphens and italics.

She goes over the usage of each type using conversational language laced with plenty of humour. The playing-with-words type of quips are the ones that work best, though her self-deprecating comments on being part of the militant punctuation crowd also hits the mark fairly often. Only the "Let's unite, take action and put an end to these atrocities!" schtick that she tries out early on is a bit too contrived.

The book works best when Truss is spinning factoids and explaining simple concepts that many people may already recognize but have never been able to name nor been aware of their back-stories.

I finally get to put a name to the comma that comes after the final word in a list before an "and" (example: I like birds, dogs, and guns; the comma that appears after "guns.") It's called an "Oxford comma" and has been optional for years depending on whose wisdom you ascribe to (I personally don't use it.)

I also realize that I use the American rules regarding punctuation and quotation marks for no other reason than it is "tidier." In fact, the British rules (only punctuate inside quotation marks when it applies to the words inside) make more sense.

Truss marshals an interesting selection of quotes for each chapter as well, the best ones providing analogies or metaphors for each cherished symbol she is analyzing at the moment. This one, for example, from H.W. Fowler who was describing the use of the colon, which, "delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words."

Truss also articulates the kind of statements regarding punctuation usage that only someone who has spent so much time thinking about the topic could:

"As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a 'separator' (punctuation marks are traditionally either 'separators' or 'terminators') that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory 'woof' to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don't whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic at this job."
There are also plenty of clever examples included which every teacher should have in their arsenal. The humorous kind that are double entendres just waiting to be sprung by misplaced or different applications of punctuation. This one regarding comma placement:

"What is this thing called love? What is this thing called, love?"

Or, regarding the use of hyphens:

"extra-marital sex vs. extra marital sex."

As you can see, Truss also employs that tittering British habit of lacing conversation or text with sexual innuendo or risqué comments.

The equivalent of an historical novel that includes real dates and factual happenings within the narrative, this is a far more enjoyable way to brush up on points of usage than would be offered in some musty grammar book that happens to have a chapter on punctuation. Does it go beyond an audience of those who are teachers or have an obsessive interest in punctuation and language? I would say yes; at least to some degree.

No book on the musical notes that we use to add timing and rhythm to our written words would be complete without a lamentation on the decline and abuse of those guiding symbols. While acknowledging the normal evolution of language, Truss decries the sad state of affairs as evidenced by English online and in e-mails.

Anyone who similarly cringes at the decline in general grammar usage will empathize with these statements. Despite the effort and attention to detail of those who refuse to become sloppy, will the day arrive when there are not enough people to care or even recognize the difference?