Category Archives: Language

English is a beautiful, powerful tool when wielded well, and an embarrassment when not.

What might of…

I’m trying to read a new book, but it’s slow going.

It’s called One Second After, by Dr. William R. Forstchen, and the basic premise – survival in America, following an EMP attack – is compelling. At least, that is, until you start reading the book.

I was sold by the preface, written by Newt Gingrich. Whatever you might think of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he’s an educated, reasonably literate man who is trying to be a serious person. So it was based largely on his endorsement that I took the plunge.

What a mistake.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, it’s been nothing but sophomoric, naïve and predictable. The characters are painfully cardboard, their dialog is stilted, and there’s nothing terribly compelling about any of their interactions.

Early on, the author admits that he’s writing about a town that seems a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and his self-consciousness is well-founded. The entire cast of characters is straight out of the 1950s. Think Barney Fife meets Stephen King’s The Stand, with a little standard right-wing patriotic fluff thrown in for good measure.

The action centers on the emotionally wounded father, an unsung hero with a military background as yet unproven (but soon, yawn, soon to be proven, you just know it’s coming), a man who is a widower with a couple of daughters, one a diabetic, one a 16 year old dating a boy who acts so much like a boy scout that we’re reminded of the author’s early years spent writing for Boy’s Life.

We’ve got the predictable love interest for our hero, the sexy nurse who is quite a bit younger than him, but not creepily so. He’s already shown her his heroic side, thereby proving that he’s not yet part of the “I need Cialis to be ready for when the moment is right” crowd. This achievement came with a wound that she tends for him while calling him “sir”, a noble scar that he earned by fighting for proper southern behavior while in line at the local CVS.

Finally, he seals the deal by demonstrating his emotional accessibility, breaking down in front of the nurse because of his fatherly concern for his diabetic daughter’s insulin supply, which he just secured by whacking someone over the head with a beer bottle.

It gets better.

There’s a moment when the hero hands a few cans of Ensure to a WW2 vet (stranded in a nursing home without electricity, staff members, food or even running water) before snapping to attention and saluting the old guy. I kept waiting for the  hackneyed “Thank you for your service, sir!”

But all pretensions of one warrior’s respect for another are dashed, because our hero turns tail and abandons the poor old guy to a lonely death, stealing the rest home’s remaining supply of Ensure and running for the hills.

Not just here, but overall, his behavior is a mixture of schoolboy sentimentality offset by angry, chain-smoking, combative selfishness.  And it is in this toxic mix that our hero completely loses the reader’s sympathy, while what remains of our interest in his fate dims even darker than the lights in his electricity-starved world.

At this point, the only reason that I’m sticking with the book (skimming it would be truer) is for the remaining EMP-related disaster scenarios, which are interesting and thought-provoking. But the clumsy plot, laughably cartoonish characters and saccharine dialog are so cringe-worthy that even skimming brings too much sap over the gunwales.

And yes, as hard as it might be to believe, it gets even better.

Apparently, nobody ever mentioned to the author, a man with a PhD in history from Purdue, that the phrase “might of thought” is not quite English. Unless you’re referring to the intellectual fecundity necessary to spawn a particularly mighty thought, an animal which I doubt has often crossed this author’s inner savannah.

I found myself dumbfounded as I ran across variations of this glaring, grade school error.  Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to realize that phrases like “might have thought” are commonly contracted to “might’ve thought”.

Yes, that sounds a lot like “might of thought” when spoken, but both the author and his illiterate editor prove their striking lack of might in their own thought by (in the author’s case) making and then (in the editor’s) missing this type of error, something that would’ve knocked me out of my socks as a 5th grader.

And sadly, this is neither a one-time mistake, nor a typo. I’ve run across many examples of Dr. Forstchen’s profound misunderstanding of written English in this book. Throughout it, he writes no better than the author of some choice graffiti on a truck stop restroom wall.

How is it possible that mastery of middle school English is not simply a given for Purdue’s doctoral candidates? For those in the sciences, I could see an exception or two, but for those seeking a doctorate in history, where the meat and potatoes of the entire program is nothing but writing?  How was this kind of an error suffered to exist at all during his candidacy, or more to the point, how does it endure today in this professor of history at Montreat College?

Apparently it isn’t just Purdue or Montreat that spawn such literary genius. Although I can’t fathom how the publisher, Tor Books, is able to employ editors illiterate enough to miss them, the book contains stunning clunkers like these:

    “We might of lost the fight.”
    “We might of gotten even.”
    “You might of seen that as too forward of me.”

Garbage like this isn’t a question of my being overly grammatical or failing to cut the author some slack for an honest mistake. This kind of thing is ignorance, plain and simple. It is ugly.  Writing this poor is an insult to the reader.  It drags the author’s work into the slush of amateurish, self-published trivia.

And that’s the sad part, because as I skim through the remaining pages, I find myself thinking “Oh, if only it had lived up to Newt’s hype, how great a book this might of been”.

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Thank you for choosing Thrifty

It’s really odd: I used to have to choose Thrifty Car Rental when I worked as a full-time contractor for a Bay Area technology start-up. The start-up was playing the usual games (usual for the tech industry, at least) of pretending that all of its employees were actually not employees, despite issuing them business cards and employing them exclusively, full-time, for years on end, isicro-managing their every step, and requiring their daily presence at remote locations at the far ends of the civilized world.

But that wasn’t the problem.

The annoying thing was that, during the years I spent working for them (as the aforementioned full time yet magically independent contractor), I was compelled to choose Thrifty Car Rental while travelling on business. Exclusively Thrifty.

This was because their accountant wouldn’t reimburse for any other pricier brand, or even a portion of a pricier brand. Whether or not I covered the difference, didn’t seem to matter, it was a philosophical thing, apparently. I wanted Hertz, but I would’ve settled for Avis, or even Budget, for crying out loud.  Anything to avoid the stink of smoke, or to have a window that actually rolled up.

But no, she was as adamant as New Hampshire’s state motto on this point. She even said it to me outright: “Andrew, you will choose Thrifty, or you will die.”

But justice prevails, sometimes in the most oddly poetic ways. One afternoon, while processing my expense report, fate turned the tables on her “Thrifty-or-Die” motto, when she suffered a sudden and sadly fatal heart attack. Found face-down on my latest expense report, with her pen poised for approval on my Thrifty receipt, she clearly died a happy accountant, thrifty to the end.

Anyway, I had won the battle, at least in a karmic sense, but in the longer term, I ended up losing the war. This is because once in place, corporate standards are effectively immutable, and so it went with the accountant’s legacy, which was adopted by her successor and enforced with, if anything, an even greater enthusiasm for corporate thriftiness.

So, although (or paradoxically, because) I hated driving Thrifty’s filthy, high-mileage rent-a-wrecks, fate offered me no other choice: I had to rent from them, or walk. Especially after Thrifty-or-Die’s untimely yet somehow noble demise.

And so it was that I went on to become one of Thrifty’s most valued members, a “Blue Chip”, although I often felt like a blue chump, waiting in miserable lines with the other victims, dumped by a wheezing little bus in off- off- off-airport locations, all of us hoping for something with less than 50,000 miles on it and a working radio.

But time moves on, as do employees misclassified as consultants, and eventually I stopped working for that particular Bay Area high tech company, swapping it out for another. At least I didn’t have to travel nearly so much, which meant that my relationship with Thrifty entered an extended, blissful hiatus.

You can imagine my joy when Thrifty unexpectedly sent me an email today, plaintively whining that my Black Friday spending spree hadn’t included renting a 4 year old Ford Fiesta with a broken windshield.

Reflexively, I unsubscribed.  As I have been doing with a lot of other things, lately. But that’s also another story.

Anyway, the oddest thing happened.

After clicking unsubscribe, I found myself in an extended dialog with their website. I’ve learned that in many cases, you have to run this kind of gauntlet to escape from spam-Hell, but this was something of an entirely different caliber.

In most cases, unsubscribing is kind of like breaking up with a stalker: you can’t just respond with a “piss off, we’re through”. Like the stalker, the company ignores your attempt at dialog by shunting your responses to an “unattended mail box”, which is the corporate version of returning your cease-and-desist letters unopened. This way, they can keep on spamming you without guilt, or at least legal ramification.

So, accepting my fate, I dove into Thrifty’s monumental customer survey, working my way through page after page of check-boxes and “share here” dialogues, until the progress bar showed that I was finally nearing the end of what had turned into a minor death march.

And it was at this point, bathed in the light from the end of the tunnel that would surely lead me to everlasting freedom from their spam, that the website told me, simply: “Thank you for choosing Thrifty”.

Which is exactly my point.

I wasn’t choosing Thrifty – I had never chosen Thrifty.  I had been forced to it, driven unwillingly into their dank blue reception areas more times than I could ever recall. Even under hypnosis.

No, instead I had thought that I had finally achieved my shining moment, my opportunity to un-choose Thrifty at least.  I had just gotten done plowing through page after page, unchoosing Thrifty again and again, with liberal doses of “great vengeance and furious anger” worthy of Samuel L. Jackson.

But all to no avail: Thank you for choosing Thrifty

I’m sure you can understand why that canned response, thanking me for doing precisely the opposite of what I had just done, stung as such an insult.

I mean, hadn’t we just engaged in “a productive dialog to improve our customer experience”?  And if so, hadn’t that customer experience software noted any telling trends in my responses, like maybe that I had just been giving them zeroes on a scale of 1 to 10?

Anybody listening in Thriftyland?

Not getting the written responses, that I can understand, as I was dealing with a machine.  But not even paying attention to the check-marks?  What part of “lowest possible customer rating” does not compute?

I guess it’s interactions like this that we all must endure, if only for sanity’s sake. Over and over and painfully over again, we are forced to listen to insincere sincerity and impolite politeness in these corporate interactions, whether online or (worst of all), on the phone.

You know, normally, I try to go with the flow, just clicking, deleting, unsubscribing, spam-trashing, or listening to the blather before saying “No thanks, it’s nice of you to offer it for the 14th time, but I’d really rather not renew my subscription, given that the purpose of this entire phone call is to cancel it. ”

This assault on our patience and the trivialization of our responses has become part of everyone’s normal day. Like dealing with junk mail in the physical world once was, now junk content in every electronic venue imaginable assaults us from all sides.

I guess today was just one of those those times when I found myself enraged by another tedious slog through the double-speak, yearning to slash my way with a machete of truth through the dense jungle of politely meaningless interactions that clutter and waste our days.

Annoyances such as having to fill out lengthy surveys merely to be freed from a “community update” (read, corporate marketing database), or having to listen to diatribes about online security when simply trying to find out why your cable is down, once again… these are things that anger people out of all proportion, because for many of us, they are the 998th of a thousand little cuts dealt out by a depersonalized yet technologically-empowered world, every day.

So sure, in my little rant you can see that I’m climbing a mountain made of many molehills. This was, after all, a singular example from a regular, daily stream of email annoyances.

But I guess that for me, it was the combination of insincerity and time-wasting pedantry that inspired this post. I fell for the bait, I tried to share the truth with a company about my experiences with them. But why did I even bother?

In the end, it was like talking with HAL in the movie 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.  But thank you for choosing Thrifty.”

Turkey Crisis!

There’s a crisis in our world, exemplified by the use of colossally clumsy terms like “Turkey Crisis” in the global media.  And no, I’m not talking about an international political development or a pressing humanitarian disaster off the coast of a far away nation.  This is much closer to home, and whether it’s a crisis of culture or the product of either intent or ignorance, I can’t quite decide.

Some background first.  News organizations abbreviate, sometimes horribly.  They drop verbs, they compress and distort sentences until they’ve wrung almost all the meaning out.  It’s in their nature to do so, but the upside is that the results are often entertaining:

  • Homicide victims rarely talk to police
  • Breathing oxygen linked to staying alive
  • Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons

That much I can handle, even enjoy – the happy accidents of deadline-driven typesetting.  But, there’s a new and more disturbing trend infecting today’s media outlets like a cancer, and I can’t put my finger on the reason for its sudden metastasis.  It is an ugly tumor choking out the beauty of international reporting: reporters and news organizations seem to have forgotten how to use the names of nations, peoples and things.

This shouldn’t be a difficult task to master.  Any school kid who has taken a geography class probably understands the difference between turkey and Turkey: little “t” is what you eat on the last Thursday in November, while big “T” is a nation.

By 3rd grade, I had taken it a step beyond big T and little t.  I had learned that the people of Turkey are called Turks.  And that objects from Turkey are described as being Turkish: taffy, towels, walnuts, baths, even the language: all of it was simply Turkish.

Shortly thereafter, I found that an equally beautiful consistency applied to the things or people of other nations: France/French, Germany/German, Netherlands or Holland/Dutch, Denmark/Danish, Sweden/Swedish, Russia/Russian, Brazil/Brazilian etc.  We circled the globe and quickly mastered the major national variations in grade school, around the time that our ages were spawning their second digit.

Even though some of these might not skip off the tip of your tongue (I still can’t spell Portuguese without automated help), you nonetheless get the concept.  We all get it.  But the press of today seems to have quite clearly not gotten it, or at least to have forgotten it.  Witness these headlines inflicted upon us during the past few years:

  • Syria War Erupts!
  • Egypt Crisis Worsens!
  • Japan Earthquake Devastation!

Which lead me to the hypothetical headline that inspired this post: Turkey Crisis!

My only hope is that when the inevitable happens, the calendar is nowhere near late November, because people who actually take the English language seriously may well be paralyzed with confusion.  Think about it: Turkey Crisis?

Does this little gem of ambiguity mean that there is an issue along the shores of the Black Sea, or in the frozen foods aisle?  If this Turkey Crisis worsens, should I stock up on luxurious cotton towels or frozen poultry before prices rise?  Does today’s Turkey Crisis mean that I am doomed to a lousy Thanksgiving, or does it mean that I might not be able to vacation in Istanbul?

This journalistic impotence when the topic turns international might be due to a lack of familiarity: perhaps the reporters in question are simply unaware of words like Turkish, Egyptian, Libyan or Japanese.  I’m willing to forgive that, since we all had to learn sometime, and maybe now is their sometime.  If we bring the examples closer to home, they might ring truer, so let’s try it with food.

Everyone likes to eat out.  Sometimes, my friends and I prefer American cuisine.  But not always: maybe we’ll go out for Mexican tonight.  But we never go out for Mexico.  Replay that in your mind: hey Justin, want some Mexico food?  Ouch: it’s almost physically painful to hear.  Let’s try another example.  We ate Italian last night – we did not eat Italy.  I have a big appetite, but seriously?

It’s fun to game out the possibilities: tomorrow, we might get some Greek appetizers, and although they can get greasy, who among us is dumb enough to call it Greece food?  Not even a reporter for the New York Times would make a pas quite that faux.

The same principle applies to Chinese: do any of us order China to go?  At Crate & Barrel, maybe… but never at the Peking Dragon.  Right about now, everyone’s linguistic error detectors are going off like air raid sirens, so I won’t belabor the point.

Let’s take a little test instead.  Trust me, you’ll pass it with ease.

  1. Thailand cuisine or Thai cuisine?
  2. Swiss cheese or Switzerland cheese?
  3. BMW: a Germany car?

Answers below:

  1. A great choice for New Year’s Eve: let’s get some Thai, then tie one on.
  2. No contest.  Even CNN hasn’t gone this far.  Yet.
  3. Like nails on a blackboard: obviously, it’s a German car.  At least, when it’s not being made in China (but that’s another story, and no, it’s not a China car, either: ceramic technology isn’t that good yet).

Globalization can be tough, but I’m sure that you scored three for three: anyone who completed 5th grade can earn a gold star in this exam.

So why are the journalists lagging behind the middle-schoolers? Well, they certainly aren’t stupid people.  Or poorly travelled.  I was perplexed, until this thought came to mind: perhaps their assault on our language isn’t driven by ignorance at all, but is instead completely intentional.  Maybe I was merely ignorant of an authoritative justification, a source of contrarian but solid advice, misguided as it is, to justify their unfortunate way with words.

And I found it.  After a little searching around, I learned that some schools of journalistic thought actually endorse these antics.  Nonetheless, or more accurately, in defiance of the trend, I believe that this assault on our beautiful and graceful tongue should not be tolerated, much less respected.  And the fact that the vile advice is directed primarily at journalistic circles, and might therefore be limited in its scope of impact, is actually no excuse at all.

This is because of the fact that, enjoyable as it might be to poke fun at this trend, the misuse is not confined to journalists, it is not being ignored by society at large, and is therefore not really trivial at all – instead, the intentional abuse of the language is accelerating, its application broadening and deepening daily.

I can hear the moans now: why worry about stuff like this?  Because as the media speaks, so speaks the nation.  Especially the youngest in the nation.  Consequently, styles this awful need to be abandoned, forthwith.  If we don’t, prepare yourself for insults to the beauty of the English (not England) language like those below:

  • Belgium chocolates sell well in China shops
  • Chile restaurants offer chili dishes to Peru diners
  • Italy wine now popular with Ireland drinkers on Europe holidays

There is no excuse for any of us to sound like an online translator in need of a software update, and for professionals whose living is made with the pen, mangling the elegance that is English when spoken well is a particularly unforgivable sin.

However, mercy abounds, and in matters moral there is no culpability without knowledge, so for those whose excuse is ignorance rather than malice, I have a suggestion.  When in doubt, Wiki it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adjectivals_and_demonyms_for_countries_and_nations

And for those without such an excuse, I bear no you animosity. Quite the contrary: I think the best remedy might be an evening out.

I’d suggest that you start with a chilly Chile beer at the Ireland pub before trying some Japan sushi for starters.  You know the place, near that Hungary restaurant?  Since this will be a special evening out, I’m sure you won’t want to eat America or Mexico.  Unless you’re really hungry.  Later, you might spring for an espresso at the France bistro or a cappuccino at that cozy Italy coffee bar.   Who knows?  Maybe catch a late performance by that England actor, or a reading by the latest Argentina author.

If you’ve still got an appetite afterwards, allow me to suggest a slice of Greece baklava to cap off your evening.  Wherever you end up going, I know that you’ll return safely home because you’re driving a Volvo, that wonderful Sweden car offering Europe style, its interior upholstered in Spain leather and trimmed in (what else but?) Turkey walnut.