Friday, May 16, 2014

The Virtue of "If"

The previous blog post (“In a Manner of Speaking”) noted the confusion that can arise because the word “more” can be used as a modifier of quantity or of quality. What about its opposite, “less”?
“Less” has problems, but none of its own making. The problems are caused by other words. There’s its almighty conflict with “fewer.” Think of those benighted souls who grind their teeth when they approach a supermarket checkout counter with a sign reading, “Ten Items or Less.” Those are people who believe in a rule that goes like this (according to Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage):

fewer refers to number among things that are counted, and less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured.
It is a rule that is “simple enough and easy enough to follow,” says the Dictionary. It does have one fault: “it is not accurate for all usage.” And the Dictionary proceeds to offer a zillion (I exaggerate) examples of writers “violating” what is in reality a non-rule.

The other word that creates a problem for “less” is “than.” They so often come as a pair, and, like “more,” the pair can involve quantity or quality. The “less than” quantity usage should not be a problem (unless you refuse to get on the check-out line mentioned above). But as for the quality issue, consider this example of a favorite usage of newspaper editorial writers:

Mr. Jones was less than honest in his remarks about his role in the affair.
Er. . . Let’s see: if being honest is an all-or-nothing thing, then being “less than” honest is really to be what? “Not honest”? “Dishonest”?

“Less than honest”; “less than frank”; “less than forthcoming” and the rest of those editorial constructions are prime examples of weaseling, seeming to be stating something, while allowing oneself to slither away from full responsibility for one’s words (“No. I never used the word “dishonest”).

Weasel words are all over the place. Consider the following Staples ad:

15% OFF

your entire in-store purchase.*

Exclusions apply.*

Weasels are not only words—look at that wonderful asterisk, which morphs the ad into “Everything—but not everything.”

One could go on and on about weasels (political ones, critical ones, business ones, etc.--whole books have been written on the subject) especially about the prime weasel de nos jours—the non-apology apology. Such as the one that begins, “If anyone was offended . . . .”

So, to avoid filling a book, let's end here with a focus on that contender for number one weasel: “if,” and as usual we turn to Shakespeare:

As You Like It (Act V, Scene 4)

JAQUES. But, for the seventh cause: how did you find the quarrel on the seventh cause?
TOUCHSTONE. Upon a lie seven times removed- bear your body more seeming, Audrey- as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier's beard; he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was. This is call'd the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again it was not well cut, he would send me word he cut it to please himself. This is call'd the Quip Modest. If again it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment. This is call'd the Reply Churlish. If again it was not well cut, he would answer I spake not true. This is call'd the Reproof Valiant. If again it was not well cut, he would say I lie. This is call'd the Countercheck Quarrelsome. And so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
JAQUES. And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?
TOUCHSTONE. I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measur'd swords and parted.
JAQUES. Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?
TOUCHSTONE. O, sir, we quarrel in print by the book, as you have books for good manners. I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel; but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as: 'If you said so, then I said so.' And they shook hands, and swore brothers. Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If.
“Much virtue in If”--especially when it's time to weasel away.


Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is published by Merriam-Webster


Saturday, May 10, 2014

In a Manner of Speaking

In the last blog post, "Faces and Places," I ventured "to slightly revise Hamlet," by writing, "I am native there and to the manner born." It is possible (even probable) that many (if not most) people did not recognize that the one word changed was "there" from the original "here," but thought that the change was to "manner" from "manor." Such is the curse of homonyms--and--more importantly, not knowing the original sources of quotations.

In Act I, Scene 4 of Hamlet, the Prince, Horatio, and Marcellus are on the battlements of Elsinore awaiting (they hope) the re-appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost. In the meantime, below them in the castle, they hear "A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off." Horatio, clearly surprised, asks, “What does this mean, my lord?” Hamlet informs him: 
The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail*, and the swagg'ring upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
 “Is it a custom?” asks Horatio. And with Hamlet’s response Confusion makes his entrance.

Ay, marry, is't;
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

Indeed, a double dose of Confusion, that merry addler of people's brains.

As a pun (one assumes in this case the creators really did know the original), the title of the successful British sitcom To the Manor Born (1979-1981), starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles worked perfectly, for the series involved the desire of the previous occupant (now rather impoverished), Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, to regain possession of the manor from the present owner, the nouveau-riche supermarket tycoon, Richard DeVere (original name, Polouvicka). Now a manor is a pretty nice place to dwell in, I imagine (being an American peasant myself), but consider that Hamlet is a prince and calls the castle Elsinore his home (when he is not off studying at Wittenberg). Thus, he's not likely to be calling himself "manor born." 

Recall that Horatio's question was about "custom"; Hamlet's reply is that the wassailing is customary, but that even though he is native to the culture, it is a practice of which he disapproves. To his mind, he says (and here's the second bit of Confusion's mischief),

. . . it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

It's that word "more," which can modify something quantitative or something qualitative. "I caught more fish than you today"--quantitative. "The judge's sentence was more lenient than the guilty party deserved"--qualitative. Hamlet's statement is a qualitative judgment (as we will see in a moment). And the misuse of his phrase arises because people take the "more" as signalling a quantitative observation, rather than a moral judgment. Thus  we get the creeping-along puritanical motorist who's being past by all other drivers complaining that the speed limit is "more honored (sorry, but as I said above, I'm American) in the breach (i.e., not being observed) than in the observance."

After making the above remarks, Hamlet goes on for twenty-two lines to complain to Horatio how such customs of hard drinking make Danes 

traduc'd and tax'd of other nations;
They clip [call] us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height, 

The pith and marrow of our attribute.
To better explain the origin of the negative reputation of his nation, Hamlet uses the analogy of how individual men--men with “the stamp of one defect,”—are forever branded in the eyes of others by that fault, no matter what “virtues else—be they as pure as grace” they may have. 

Back in August, 2011 the blog post entitled "Ask the Wrong Question . . ."** focused on Prof. Joshua Knobe of Yale, a pioneer in the field of experimental philosophy, who had the observation that."people are more likely to assign blame for things that go wrong than to give credit for things that go right" (Stanford magazine)*** named after him--the "Knobe Effect." (Isn't this where we're all supposed to go "Duh"?) The Stanford article (Knobe's an alum) goes on to pose (in paraphrase) some of Knobe's questions ensuing from his "Effect:"

Why should the results of an action have a bearing on intentionality? And when it comes to questions of character, why do we tend to give more weight to negativity? Why does it sometimes happen that a single misdeed in a lifetime of otherwise exemplary behavior can destroy a reputation? 

The article points out that "Knobe has office space in both the philosophy and psychology departments at Yale."

Perhaps if he had space in the English department, he'd have learned that Shakespeare dealt with the issue over 400 years ago.