Sunday, October 09, 2005


Dear Reader,

Yes, your dictionaries. You do not really believe anyone can master the English language, do you? Learning English is a lifelong effort, and among the indispensible tools for that permanent study are good dictionaries, of which there are many.

The most comprehensive English dictionary is The Oxford English Dictionary, aka the OED, a twenty-volume, 22,000-page reference on English. If you find that as intimidating a format as I do, I suggest The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, which photoreduces the entire OED down to just 2,416 pages; it includes a magnifying glass, but I find I can read the fine print without it. If you find even that daunting, I can recommend Oxford English Dictionary Online. I cannot recommend the CD-ROM version of the OED, since the software was written to emphasize the protection of their intellectual property over usability to the point of inconvenience and unreliability, according to most of the user reviews on Amazon.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends you use two dictionaries: Webster's Third New International Dictionary (book and CD-ROM) and its more frequently updated abridgment, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (book only; a CD-ROM version is available separately). Webster's Third New International is far more complete than Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, but the Collegiate is updated more often, which is why Chicago recommends both.

You need not own these dictionaries, but you need some dictionaries, and you should explore them. Our words influence our ideas, or lack thereof.

Yours truly,


Dear Reader,

For anyone interested in applying the Porter Principles, principle three is explained in detail (along with detailed guidelines for grammar, style, typesetting, and bookmaking) in The Chicago of Manual of Style, a copy of which you must have with you when you write, next to your dictionaries.

Yours truly,

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Dear Reader,

Consider two studies by Martin Porter about quotations.

The first, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (or words to that effect): A study of a Web quotation, from January 2002, traces a popular quote attributed to Edmund Burke to show he probably never said or wrote it. Scrape this bumpersticker off your car or change its attribution to Anonymous.

The second, Four Principles of Quotation: Being a follow up to A study of a Web quotation, from March 2002, tracks the false Burke quote, and ends suggesting four principles for quotations. Let's call them the Porter Principles:

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.

Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.

Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.

Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

Martin Porter's principles are excellent advice. Information out of context is noise. Our Misinformation Age is noisy, maybe even toxic. It is far too easy for writers to make things worse. Perhaps writers need an equivalent to the doctor's Hippocratic Oath: do not spread information out of context, either fragmented or in false contexts. Perhaps writers should consider a related mission: to make things better. Readers need to develop skepticism, need to realize that writers have taken no Hippocratic Oath, that everything they write is at best partly false. I am no exception. Readers and writers need the Porter Principles.

We should examine why any writer uses quotations, how they function within the text.

Most texts I read use quotations to appeal to authority, the writer trying to strengthen a weak argument by getting famous dead people to gang up on the reader. The writer should be capable of marshaling an adequate argument without calling on his influential buddies to help him out.

Other texts use quotations to hold the reader's interest, the writer struggling to stave off the reader's boredom. Gratuitous quotations are not needed to patch up a lively argument about a compelling subject.

I quote Mr. Porter because I have been sloppy with my own use of quotations, and I have fallen for this Edmund Burke pseudo-quote; perhaps you have as well. To amplify a subtlety of his two essays, we cannot know Mr. Burke never said or wrote this, only that we have no evidence he did, and that the sentiment expressed--that human affairs reduce to good and evil, and that the forces of evil will win unless the forces of good mobilize to stop them--does not sound like Mr. Burke. He criticized those who reduced human affairs to such a black-and-white apocalypse, according to Mr. Porter. We have attributed this quotation to Mr. Burke only because others have, on websites and bumper stickers that we have used as reliable sources of information.

The ancient Greeks carved Gnothi seauton on the temple before the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself. Mr. Porter's two studies remind us of one of the most important things we should know about ourselves: too often, our inner sheep "think" for us. If we have the character strength to submit ourselves to the discipline of adhering to his principles, we will find it humbling to discover how much misinformation we believe. We have such poor mental hygiene that our minds are brimming over with lies and errors, which we routinely use to draw conclusions and make decisions. Misuse of quotations is one of the least serious symptoms of our filthy minds, but also an easy target for us to try to overcome, to begin to realize our beliefs are far from perfect. We know far, far less than we think we do, and most of what we do with our minds should not be called thinking at all.

Many of the fragments we have of Heraclitus's Peri physeos (On Nature), which I will explore frequently in these blog entries, wrestle with this dilemma in which humanity finds itself--our very survival as a species depends on our ability to think clearly about complex and dangerous subjects, but we are deeply irrational. Our irrationality leaves its fingerprints all over everything we do. Look! Detective Martin Porter has found the fingerprints of our irrationality on poor Edmund Burke. We cannot even quote a famous man correctly. We draft his corpse to argue on our behalf, put words in his cold, dead mouth.

If we show such contempt for an eloquent and honored statesman, how will we treat ordinary people like you and me? If we cannot be bothered with the truth when it is easy, like quoting a man correctly, why should anyone believe we will sacrifice for the truth when money, power, careers, or lives are at stake?

Cultivating a more honorable character, more honest, more noble, begins with the easy things, the little things, like learning to quote each other with care and respect. Without the regular practice of these minor tests, we will never shape up our characters enough for the trials troubled times will inflict upon us.

The details of life matter in ways we cannot imagine.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: My thanks to Martin Porter, Lee Frank, Frank Lynch, Paul Boller, John George, William Safire, and the others involved in removing our words from Edmund Burke's mouth. One down, a google to go.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Dear Reader,

Samuel Clemens wrote "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning" (George Bainton, The Art of Authorship, pp. 87-88 (1890), which I have not yet read).

Our dear Mr. Clemens was writing about word choice, but it applies equally well to names and titles.

In part it is a matter of personal respect. My name is Frederick Douglas Saling Marshall. My friends, family, and coworkers call me Rick, or by private nicknames. Everyone else can call me Mr. Marshall. If that seems stilted, it is because we have become a rude culture that mistakes lack of formality for genuine friendliness. Intimacy without invitation is at best false, at worst it is a cousin of sex without informed consent. When a solicitor calls asking to speak with Fred, or Freddie, I know I am dealing with an organization that wants my resources but cannot be bothered to even know from whom they want them; I am just meat to them, or money, or time--less than human. To show respect is the first step in any legitimate human communication.

In part, recognizing that most people come from other cultures and speak or write in other languages is a matter of cultural respect, essential to avoid ethnocentrism, jingoism, and false forms of patriotism such as fascism. English is but one of thousands of human languages. To pretend that the English translation of a book's title or text is that book is to promote the falsehood that all worthy things take place in our language, in our culture. We must be citizens of the world and understand the true diversity of human experience, if we are to be civilized adults.

In part, calling things by their true names is a matter of excellence. The master of any art discriminates between details that matter and those that do not, and does justice to the things that matter. If someone cannot be bothered to get a name right, what else can they not be bothered to get right? It is not only worrisome, it is often an accurate predictor of other sloppy habits.

In part it is a matter of clarity. We live in crowded times, in a crowded world, and failure to properly identify our subjects breeds confusion. This is especially true with human names.

Above all, though, proper naming is a matter of comprehension. The lightning-bug is not the lightning. Nor is lightening. Our readers are probably not psychic, and cannot know what we meant, only what we wrote. Even our own thoughts are altered by our choice of language, and if we use the wrong names we will unconsciously respond to our erroneous label rather than our intended meaning. The human mind is not an organ for detecting the truth but for building patterns and associations, and it will work with whatever material it is given, however false or misleading. The computer science expression GIGO applies: Garbage in, garbage out. Conversely, the work required to clarify what we are trying to say to get the names right can reveal new information that makes us rethink what we were about to say, can teach us crucial new information that prevents us from believing or spreading misinformation.

So, a few examples:

As a child, I did not see Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope; I saw Star Wars; a later reedit was given the former title. Lucas himself created both films, but the later reedit has new special effects superimposed throughout the film.

Dario Argento (DAH-rio ar-JEN-toe; see postpostscript) did not direct Deep Red nor even The Hatchet Murders; he directed Profundo rosso (pro-FUN-doe ROSS-oh). The Hatchet Murders is a retitling of Profundo rosso after distributors sliced out huge chunks of the film's dialog, story, and character development. Argento fans consider it an abomination.

Niccolò Machiavelli (nick-CO-lah mah-kyah-VELL-lee) did not write The Prince; he wrote Il Principe (ill prin-CHEE-pay). Machiavelli was Italian and wrote in Italian, which I cannot yet read. I have read an English translation of Il Principe called The Prince, but I have never read Il Principe itself. The difference is more important than most people realize, because translations are imprecise. A translation is the result of a different author rewriting the entire work using different words from a different language; meanings are always changed, no matter how careful the translator is. For example, prince in English can mean various things, such as a cute little boy who will grow up to be king, or a sexy and available young nobleman; in Machiavelli's time, principe, may have meant prince in the sense of leader, like boss or lord.

The computer system I work on, VistA, is not written in the MUMPS programming language, nor in Caché, nor in M; it is written in Standard MUMPS (except a few lines scattered among fifteen routines), also called Standard M, specifically the 1995 standard. VistA cannot run on older versions of Standard MUMPS (such as the 1990 standard), nor on versions that do not comply with the 1995 standard (such as M3 from Patterson, Gray & Associates).

The Western Red-cedar, Thuja plicata (THOO-ya plic-AY-ta), is not a cedar; it is a thuja, a member of the Cypress family, which makes it a cousin of cedars. The Alaska-cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis (cam-ee-SIP-ah-riss noot-kah-TEN-sis), also called the Yellow-cedar, is also not a cedar, nor is it a thuja; it is a dwarf cypress, another cedar cousin. Nor is the Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii (soo-doe-TSOO-gah men-ZEE-see-eye), a fir; it is a false hemlock (an inappropriately negative but less misleading name), a member of the Pine family, making it a cousin of the firs, but only a very distant relative of cedars, thujas, and dwarf cypresses. These are three of the most important trees in my homeland. Names can be misleading.

I speak the American dialect of the English language, with western or standard pronunciation, a level of precision in the name of my language that often does not matter but sometimes does. For example, the color (not colour; I am not English or Canadian) of the sweatpants I am wearing is gray (not grey). Most people do not realize that spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary change in English depending on which dialect you are speaking. Even fewer realize there are formal styles in English, and the rules change further depending on which style you are using. I am trying to use Chicago style, detailed in The Chicago Manual of Style --though I am a novice and so make many mistakes--but newspaper writers use AP style, and there are others. If you do not know the name of your style, dialect, and language, you probably do not know the rules either, nor why they matter, nor when you may or should bend or break those rules to improve your communication.

Such examples help illustrate why sloppy knowledge of names is quite a good predictor of other sloppy knowledge.

This is not a call for anal retentiveness for its own sake. Sometimes we need precision, sometimes merely approximation, and sometimes a pronoun like it will do nicely, thank you very much. Sadly, though, even the minimal clarity required to spell short pronouns is beyond most Americans, who usually misspell its as it's. The rules for proper naming are nuanced, related not just to the thing in question and its origins but to the cultural identity of the writer or speaker, as well as to the context of the communication. If this seems complex, consider it a test of whether we have enough comprehension, clarity, excellence, and respect to engage in thought or communication with each other.

We can insist on the effort in a friendly and forgiving way. If we try and fail, we have at least pushed our limits, demonstrated our good intentions, and set a good example.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: I have not been able to discern the correct spelling of Machiavelli's first name: Nicolo, Nicolò, Nicoló, Niccolo, Niccolò, or Niccoló? For anyone who does not know what I mean, correct does not mean most popular or common spelling, nor the most obscure or learned looking, nor the spelling preferred by experts or authorities. This is a literate man's name, so the only question that matters is how did he spell it? I have guessed based on which websites are sloppy or still using restricted character sets that Niccolò is a plausible enough spelling for this blog entry, but I have no confidence that I am correct. If anyone knows--and I do not mean has a plausible or intellectual sounding guess--I would love to be educated. I would also love to know of a reliable reference for such questions. The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not seem to include biographical entries.

Postpostscript: I have decided to start adding pronunciation guides to foreign names and terms, since there are likely to be so many in my blog, and since most of us who learn terms from reading make up our own incorrect pronunciations rather than seek a reliable reference. My rough pronunciation guides will only be close for those who speak the standard American English dialect, but since so few people can read the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA), and many web browsers will not even display IPA characters, and since I am too lazy to lay out a string of pictures of IPA letters, I figure my Americanese approximations are probably better than nothing at this point. I welcome corrections to any mistakes I make in approximating pronunciation.

Postpostpostscript: I would like to draw your attention to Omniglot, an online guide to writing systems. For many writing systems they include an explanation of the language's origin and pronunciation. The pronunciation is expressed in IPA, but by checking the IPA letters against the page explaining your own language and dialect's pronunciation, you can decypher how you would pronounce the language in question. For example, you can look up Italian to get the IPA spelling of Niccolò Machiavelli, then if you do not know IPA you can look up British English, or standard American English to figure out how to pronounce the IPA spelling. A few other dialects of English are listed at the bottom of the British page, but the list is by no means exhaustive--for example, no Scottish or Irish English, no Georgian or Bostonian American, and so on. We live in an imperfect world.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Dear Reader,

Like all American boys of a certain age, I grew up watching "Cowboys and Indians" movies on television, and played "Cowboys and Indians" for fun, when we were not playing "Cops and Robbers" or other imaginary combat games. We rooted for the cowboys, who were obviously the good guys in all those movies. Any fool could see that.

Eventually, Dad questioned my certainties. "You think bad Indians attack innocent settlers protected by brave cowboys. Look more closely. Cowboys and settlers were not Americans; they were Europeans; their ancestors came from Europe. Only Indians are Americans; their ancestors lived here for millennia. If invaders from another continent came to take away your land, wouldn't you be angry? Wouldn't you fight back? Who are the real bad guys here?"

As head-to-head conflicts between comfortable illusions and harsh reality often do, this pissed me off. Dad was lying or just wrong, obviously. I already believed something else, and so did all my friends at school. As Moderns are raised to do, I believed I had a right to my opinion, and I believed that meant I had a right not to have it contradicted. If Dad were right, then all these movies, all this television, all these stories I enjoyed were essentially lies, and everyone I knew who believed as I did believed in a lie. Believing lies would make us fools. For me not to be a fool, Dad had to be wrong, so he was.

Fortunately, I was raised to value the truth above almost anything, to follow the lead of the truth wherever it takes me, however uncomfortable, and any map of the world reveals the lies immediately. The Indians were the original inhabitants of America, and we stole it from them. There used to be many of them; now there are few, and many Indian cultures and languages are gone completely. "Decimation" means to kill one in ten, but we killed nine in ten, for which we have no precise word; the nearest words are slaughter, massacre, and genocide.

The truth about Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and so many other "battles" by which "the west was won" seared me as a child. The excitement of childhood death-games, the rage at implicitly being called a fool by my father, the shock and shame of disillusionment, the horror and grief for victims of one of the greatest holocausts humanity has ever experienced——I was ripe for electric emotional alchemy.

My delusion inverted. Europeans were the bad guys. Indians were the good guys. Americans were the bad guys. I was a bad guy. So I believed more or less for the next fifteen years.

Sincerely yours,