Category Archives: Language and Communication

Playing with, and ranting about, language: miscommunication, badly worded signs and questions, and changing usage (Anyone heard from “take” lately? Didn’t think so.).

The Although-Comma

Although, many of his photos are geological . . .
Wikipedia entry on John Tuzo Wilson
(pre-edited version)

“Although what?” I wonder.  Is this an incomplete segue from the previous sentence?  A glance back confirms my impression: No.

I think I know what’s happening here, but I scan ahead to be sure.

Although, many of his photos are geological—details of rocks and their structures or panoramas of large formations—the bulk of his photos are of the places, activities, and people that he saw on his travels.

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Can Giraffes Be Saved?

“Now this.”

In 1985 Neil Postman identified this phrase as one of the indicators that news as an information vehicle had been swamped by TV as an entertainment medium.  How so?  Because “Now this” provides a seemingly sensible transition between unrelated bits in TV newscasts.

Canadian astronauts chosen for Space Station mission–Now this–
Children who eat pickles excel at hopscotch

His book-length diatribe, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” is a masterful piece of sustained rational discourse, the very thing Postman argued that TV militated against.  It requires the reader to follow a chain of reasoning, the very capacity that TV suppressed, according to Postman, by presenting us with unconnected information and with spurious connections, just by chance.

Attendance at summer festivals has risen appreciably in the last 10 years–Now this–Cancer death rates have dropped dramatically in the last decade

In the 30 years since I first read Postman, TV news hasn’t gotten any less bite-sized or any more connected.  And yet I can’t remember the last time I heard the once-ubiquitous “Now this.”  Instead, completely unconnected stories are now jammed head to tail without any separation by word, tone of voice, or facial expression.  Major stories might be demarcated by a new camera angle on the talking head.  Or not.

I have almost become inured to jumping from the global to the local, from politics to show business, from scientific studies to police reports, from health alarms to environmental alarms to celebrity news and back again with no warning and with no time for reflection.  Now this.  And this.  And this.

And yet (as I pause here for reflection), I find that my old-fashioned desire for coherence lives on; my unconscious expectation that adjacent ideas are somehow connected, persists; my editorial impulse to make that connection explicit, endures.  In the written word, this desire, expectation, and impulse are not usually problematic.

But the times, they are a-changin’ there too.

Due to the diversity of its subject matter, Smithsonian is my favourite magazine. Each issue covers topics such as archaeology, astronomy, life science, physical science, travel, art history, cultural history, and history history.  That the articles are unrelated is not a bug, it’s a feature.

But the good communications folks have started sending out emails with links to blurbs on topics as diverse as the magazine.  Each email comes with a teaser subject line listing the topics to which it links, turning my otherwise tidy inbox into a mess of spurious connections.

Do I exaggerate?  You be the judge.

Scientists Spot Near-by Earth-sized Planets, Can Giraffes be Saved?

A Town Where Every Resident Lives in the Same Building, Cuddling Sourdough Starters

Skywatchers Spot New Atmospheric Phenomenon, Changing Causes of Death in America

The Swashbuckling History of Women Pirates, The World’s Best Fungus Farmers

What Really Turned the Sahara Desert Into a Wasteland?, FDR’s Famous Ghostwriter

There are simple remedies for these confusing concatenations, but if inserting unambiguous visual breaks in the subject line seems too hard, I’m sure that TV newscasters wouldn’t mind donating “Now this” to the cause.  After all, they’re not using it.

This is how far we’ve gone down the path of disconnected discourse: the TV-newscast phrase decried by Neil Postman 30 years ago may now be our best hope for restoring a modicum of coherence to electronic communication.

There’s definitely a small chance we can still be saved, but I’m pretty sure the giraffes are hooped.

 

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What It Is

At age 12, I was mildly startled to learn that French-speaking animals can make different noises than English-speaking ones.  While cows sound about the same in both of Canada’s Official Languages, Francophone mice don’t make a (perfectly reasonable) squeak, they make a (perfectly ridiculous) wee, wee, wee noise.

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Who You Gonna Call?

Returning home to a three-month pile of snail mail, I start by making four piles: His, Mine, Ours, and Junk, the most easily handled but sadly the smallest pile.

Pile of snail mail

His

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Up To Or More Guaranteed

“That’s an up to $500 value, or more.”

The TV spokeswoman—apparently named Jennifer and a former serving member of the US Navy—is promoting a mortgage loan scheme that’s somehow linked to Veterans Affairs benefits.  This is not my country and the details of its government programs escape me.

In addition to offering savings through lower monthly interest charges, this program includes a free home appraisal to determine the size of the allowable loan.  Jennifer is pretty pumped about it.   Continue reading

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