Journal tags: linguistics

7

sparkline

Content buddy

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

Sometimes a colleague will send a link to a Google Doc where they’ve written an article. I can then go through it and suggest changes. Using the “suggest” mode rather than the “edit” mode in Google Docs means that they can accept or reject each suggestion later.

But what works better—and is far more fun—is if we arrange to have a video call while we both have the Google Doc open in our browsers. That way, instead of just getting the suggestions, we can talk through the reasoning behind each one. It feels more like teaching them to fish instead of giving them a grammatically correct fish.

Some of the suggestions are very minor; punctuation, capitalisation, stuff like that. Where it gets really interesting is trying to figure out and explain why some sentence constructions feel better than others.

A fairly straightforward example is long sentences. Not all long sentences are bad, but the longer a sentence gets, the more it runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. So if there’s an opportunity to split one long sentence into two shorter sentences, I’ll usually recommend that.

Here’s an example from Chris’s post, Delivering training remotely – the same yet different. The original sentence read:

I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions on product design and research techniques with the design team at Duck Duck Go.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe this is a little easier to digest:

I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques.

Perhaps this is kind of like the single responsibility principle in programming. Whereas the initial version was one sentence that conveyed two pieces of information (who the training was with and what the training covered), the final version has a separate sentence for each piece of information.

I wouldn’t take that idea too far though. Otherwise you’d end up with something quite stilted and robotic.

Speaking of sounding robotic, I’ve noticed that people sometimes avoid using contractions when they’re writing online: “there is” instead of “there’s” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” Avoiding contractions seems to be more professional, but actually it makes the writing a bit too formal. There’s a danger of sounding like a legal contract. Or a Vulcan.

Sometimes a long sentence can’t be broken down into shorter sentences. In that case, I watch out for how much cognitive load the sentence is doling out to the reader.

Here’s an example from Maite’s post, How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research. One sentence initially read:

The relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide have a great impact on the quality of the insights that you get.

The verb comes quite late there. As a reader, until I get to “have a great impact”, I have to keep track of everything up to that point. Here’s a rephrased version:

The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide.

Okay, there are two changes there. First of all, the verb is now “depends on” instead of “have a great impact on.” I think that’s a bit clearer. Secondly, the verb comes sooner. Now I only have to keep track of the words up until “depends on”. After that, I can flush my memory buffer.

Here’s another changed sentence from the same article. The initial sentence read:

You will have to communicate at different times and for different reasons with your research participants.

I suggested changing that to:

You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons.

To be honest, I find it hard to explain why that second version flows better. I think it’s related to the idea of reducing dependencies. The subject “your research participants” is dependent on the verb “to communicate with.” So it makes more sense to keep them together instead of putting a subclause between them. The subclause can go afterwards instead: “at different times and for different reasons.”

Here’s one final example from Katie’s post, Service Designers don’t design services, we all do. One sentence initially read:

Understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments is key to creating a compelling user experience.

That sentence could be broken into shorter sentences, but it might lose some impact. Still, it can be rephrased so the reader doesn’t have to do as much work. As it stands, until the reader gets to “is key to creating”, they have to keep track of everything before that. It’s like the feeling of copying and pasting. If you copy something to the clipboard, you want to paste it as soon as possible. The longer you have to hold onto it, the more uncomfortable it feels.

So here’s the reworked version:

The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments.

As a reader, I can digest and discard each of these pieces in turn:

  1. The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
  2. understanding the relationships between these moments…
  3. digital and non-digital…
  4. and…
  5. designing across and between these moments.

Maybe I should’ve suggested “between these digital and non-digital moments” instead of “between these moments, digital and non-digital”. But then I worry that I’m intruding on the author’s style too much. With the finished sentence, it still feels like a rousing rallying cry in Katie’s voice, but slightly adjusted to flow a little easier.

I must say, I really, really enjoy being a content buddy. I know the word “editor” would be the usual descriptor, but I like how unintimidating “content buddy” sounds.

I am almost certainly a terrible content buddy to myself. Just as I ignore my own advice about preparing conference talks, I’m sure I go against my own editorial advice every time I blurt out a blog post here. But there’s one piece I’ve given to others that I try to stick to: write like you speak.

Gormless

I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.

I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.

This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.

In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:

Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.

Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:

Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.

That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:

Black Lives Matter.

What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!

If only it were a tattoo.

Cool goal

One evening last month, during An Event Apart Seattle, a bunch of the speakers were gathered in the bar in the hotel lobby, shooting the breeze and having a nightcap before the next day’s activities. In a quasi-philosophical mode, the topic of goals came up. Not the sporting variety, but life and career goals.

As I everyone related (confessed?) their goals, I had to really think hard. I don’t think I have any goals. I find it hard enough to think past the next few months, much less form ideas about what I might want to be doing in a decade. But then I remembered that I did once have a goal.

Back in the ’90s, when I was living in Germany and first starting to make websites, there was a website I would check every day for inspiration: Project Cool’s Cool Site Of The Day. I resolved that my life’s goal was to one day have a website I made be the cool site of the day.

About a year later, to my great shock and surprise, I achieved my goal. An early iteration of Jessica’s site—complete with whizzy DHTML animations—was the featured site of the day on Project Cool. I was overjoyed!

I never bothered to come up with a new goal to supercede that one. Maybe I should’ve just retired there and then—I had peaked.

Megan Sapnar Ankerson wrote an article a few years back about How coolness defined the World Wide Web of the 1990s:

The early web was simply teeming with declarations of cool: Cool Sites of the Day, the Night, the Week, the Year; Cool Surf Spots; Cool Picks; Way Cool Websites; Project Cool Sightings. Coolness awards once besieged the web’s virtual landscape like an overgrown trophy collection.

It’s a terrific piece that ponders the changing nature of the web, and the changing nature of that word: cool.

Perhaps the word will continue to fall out of favour. Tim Berners-Lee may have demonstrated excellent foresight when he added this footnote to his classic document, Cool URIs don’t change—still available at its original URL, of course:

Historical note: At the end of the 20th century when this was written, “cool” was an epithet of approval particularly among young, indicating trendiness, quality, or appropriateness.

Words

I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.

Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.

Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:

Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.

It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:

Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.

Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.

Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.

So

So Anand Giridharadas has written a piece about the word so, tracing its ascendency as a sentence-opener to Silicon Valley:

And “so” suggested a kind of thinking that appealed to problem-solving types: conversation as a logical, unidirectional process, proceeding much in the way of software code — if this, then that.

This logical tinge to “so” has followed it out of software. Starting a sentence with “so” uses the whiff of logic to relay authority. Where “well” vacillates, “so” declaims.

It declaims. That’s the reason Seamus Heaney chose it as the translation for the opening word of Beowulf:

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and — more colloquially — ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.

Listen for yourself:

Beowulf on Huffduffer

Funny how?

There’s something about watching videos of unnecessary censorship—particularly of the Sesame Street variety—that cracks me up. Not content with simply finding them funny, I wanted to figure out why they tickle my funny bone so. It turns out that Matt has already figured it out, although he was referring to Nathan Barley:

It’s not funny because it’s rude, it’s funny because it looks like it’s funny because it’s rude.

That’s it! At first glance, it may seem over-complicated. After all, aren’t those videos of unnecessary censorship funny because they look like they’re rude? But no, they are funny because they look like they are funny because they are rude. That’s an important distinction.

Matt repurposes this sentence construction in an excellent post about the reports of the death of privacy being greatly exaggerated. He points out the huge danger in confusing the fact that technologies can be used to destroy privacy with the assumption that those technologies therefore will destroy privacy. If we fall into the trap of making that assumption then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

It’s not the end of privacy because of these new visibilities, but it may be the end of privacy because it looks like the end of privacy because of these new visibilities.

Here’s another example. A snapshot on Flickr of the TripLog iPhone app interface initially drew nought but scorn from designers deriding how complicated—and therefore, frustrating—it looked. But following a comment from the app’s designer and a subsequent analysis on the 37 Signals blog, things weren’t quite so straightforward. The initial criticism assumed that the app would be frustrating to use because it looks complicated but really…

It’s not frustrating because it’s complicated, it’s frustrating because it looks like it’s frustrating because it’s complicated.

Could it be that Matt has created a snowclone?

It’s not X because it’s Y, it’s X because it looks like it’s X because it’s Y.

Maybe I’ll add it to the queue and see what Erin thinks.

Wordage

Stop what you’re doing and watch this utterly charming and beguiling video entitled Wordmaking: What it take to succeed in hacking English and invent a new word. It’s a presentation by as part of the TechTalks series at Google.

How is it that I had never come across the term before?* I asked Jessica this rhetorical question and the next thing you know, I’m learning all about . Clearly I need to improve my linguistic knowledge.

On a tangentially related note, I’ve discovered kindred spirits out there in blogland, to whit:

Ever notice hand-written signs with letters in all-caps, except for the letter L? It looks like an uppercase i … WHY DO PEOPlE WRITE lIKE THIS?

*Update: Edward O’Connor points me to his wife’s blog, The Snowclone Database.