Who Cares About Istanbul — They’re Muslim

Erik LoomisI for one am shocked that when terrorists strike the Istanbul airport, there’s not an outpouring of grief and sympathy from the west. Where’s all my Facebook friends changing their image status to the Turkish flag like they did with the French flag after the Paris attacks? Where’s all the talks about the threat to the glorious Turkish civilization? Where’s the 24/7 news coverage? It’s almost as if these things only matter to Americans if they happen to other white countries! If it’s outside Europe or one of its white settler states, it’s just another thing happening to those people.

—Erik Loomis
Where’s the Empathy for Istanbul?

Bad Writers to Good — or at Least Competent

Stephen King - Good WriterI was reading Stephen King’s On Writing and he wrote something that at first enraged me, “Let me repeat my basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one. If you’re good and want to be great… fuhgeddaboudit.” To start with, that’s pandering; everyone reading a book on writing already thinks they are a good writer. I am still offended by that. But at first, I thought he was totally wrong that a bad writer could never become a good writer. I give you as evidence myself.

Now I’m not actually a good writer. I have my moments. But I’m a competent writer, and King states earlier in the book that a competent writer can be made into a good writer. And as our friend Aristotle would tell you, that means that King is saying a bad writer can’t be made into a good writer. Or maybe not. The truth is the book is self-indulgent at times. Those two sentences are good examples. What does “no one can help you” mean? Does he mean you have to do it yourself? I really don’t know. Nor do I really care. My question is whether I might not be a good example of someone who learned how to write.

Becoming a Writer

For the longest time, I just didn’t write. I was in all the idiot English classes in grammar and primary school. In college English, I barely escaped with a C-. If I learned to write, it was quite suddenly. In order to graduate college, I had to take an upper-division writing class. I took the same instructor who had given me the C-. I liked the guy, even if, as a teacher, he was kind of a jerk. Anyway, the first assignment was to write a five page analysis of a single comic strip.

I picked a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin was complaining to Hobbes about how disappointing the future was. “Where are the jet-packs?!” And that’s when I got it. Writing was just thinking on the page. You were just telling a story. I got an A- on it, because my teacher was incapable of giving anyone an A on their first paper. But more important, I loved the process. Of course, I had always loved telling stories.

I remember when I was in the fifth grade, we did a unit on tall tales. And everyone had to stand up in class and tell everyone a tall tale of their liking. Everyone picked one of the stories we had studied. I, as usual, was not prepared. As I got up, I didn’t really know which of the many stories I was going to tell. But in the time it took me to walk to the front of the class, it occurred to me that James and the Giant Peach was, in fact, a tall tale. And I wasted ten minutes of the class’ time recounting the entire novel.

Becoming a Good Writer

So maybe I am hardwired to tell stories. And maybe other people aren’t. But that Calvin and Hobbes essay wasn’t that different from my fifth grade triumph — except that in my last year of college I had something original to say.

Just the same, maybe there is something that changed. In the couple of years before, I started reading — a lot. It was mostly 19th century British literature — especially the women: Austen, Eliot, the Brontës. Reading is critical to learning to write. So I guess ultimately, I both agree and disagree with King. If you don’t love communicating — telling stories made-up or true — you will never learn to write. But if you care, can become quite a good writer — if you work on it. You much care to be able to do the work.

Why Yes, Samuel Alito Is the Most Evil Man on the Court

Justice AlitoAlito attempts to get around Smith through a kind of bait and switch. “A law that discriminates against religiously motivated conduct is not ‘neutral,'” Alito writes, and he tries to paint this law as one that singles out religious conduct — and religious conduct alone — for inferior treatment. “The [Washington State Board of Pharmacy] has specifically targeted religious objections,” Alito claims. “Upon issuing the regulations, the Board sent a guidance document to pharmacies warning that ‘[t]he rule does not allow a pharmacy to refer a patient to another pharmacy to avoid filling the prescription due to moral or ethical objections.'”

Did you catch what Alito did there? First, he complains that the state “specifically targeted religious objections.” Then he supports this claim by noting the Board’s warning that “the rule does not allow a pharmacy to refer a patient to another pharmacy to avoid filling the prescription due to moral or ethical objections.” But “moral and ethical” objections are an entirely different concept than “religious” objections. The implication of Alito’s opinion is that the only basis for a moral or ethical viewpoint is religious faith. But that is an offensive suggestion that redefines the words “moral” and “ethical” in an idiosyncratic way.

—Ian Millhiser
Justice Alito’s Bizarre And Offensive Attack On Atheists

Gilligan’s Island Is Not What You Think It Is

Gilligan's IslandThere are periods of time when a particular joke will be considered so funny or so true that you just hear it everywhere. I remember back a few decades that the following joke was considered very funny, “I just watched that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island but then Gilligan screws it up.” It sounds like the kind of joke that came from a stand-up comedian. And it is supposed to be funny because it’s so true: that was the plot of every episode of the show.

The problem is that that was not the plot of every episode. You see, I just happened to have been given the complete series. And I’ve been really depressed. So I’ve watched a handful of episodes from each season. And I have yet to come upon a single episode where they would get off the island if not for Gilligan’s incompetence. Certainly most of the comedy revolves around Gilligan being an idiot. But destroying their rescue opportunities? Not so much.

What’s been most interesting watching Gilligan’s Island is how few of the plots are about them trying to get off the island at all. It is mostly a show of the adventures of a group of unlikely people trying to “make the best of things” — which, as the song tells us, is an uphill climb. This is a case where I hate the way Frankly Curious is run these days. When I first started the blog, I could have spent a week researching this article. But I only have an hour or so to write this article and go through the whole show. But here are the first six episodes of the second season:

  1. Gilligan’s Mother-in-Law: in this episode, Gilligan has the opportunity to be the best man at a wedding of a local tribesman. It holds the potential to get the word about the group’s predicament. But when Gilligan finds out that to be the best man he must survive “poison darts at six paces” he refuses. His decision is quite rational, and one that all the other men would have made.
  2. Beauty Is as Beauty Does: this episode is about the crew holding a beauty pageant to crown Miss Castaway. There is nothing whatsoever about getting off the island. It’s a silly episode even by the standards of Gilligan’s Island.
  3. The Little Dictator: an exiled South American dictator comes to the Island. He returns to take his country over, promising to rescue the castaways. He succeeds at regaining control, but then is institutionalized when he tells his countrymen about Gilligan’s Island. Yes, they don’t get off the island, but it has nothing to do with Gilligan.
  4. Smile, You’re on Mars Camera: okay, this one might be counted as an episode where Gillian screws up a rescue. I’ll grant it. But it isn’t technically his fault. He allows a pot of glue to explode, coating everyone in it. But that would have been fine. What destroys the rescue is the overreaction of everyone else, causing them all to be covered with feathers, making it look like the Mars probe was seeing chicken people on Mars
  5. The Sweepstakes: in this episode, Gilligan finds that a sweepstakes ticket he bought before the “three hour tour” has won and he is a millionaire. Nothing in the episode is about getting off Gillian’s Island.
  6. Quick Before It Sinks: this episode is all about the Professor thinking that the island is sinking. This is Gilligan’s fault, of course, but it doesn’t have anything to do with getting off the island.

So that’s 50% of the episodes having anything to do with getting off the island, and only 17% that might be considered Gillian’s fault. I don’t suppose it matters all that much. But remembering the show in such a formulaic manner is a great insult to it. That’s not to say that it is a great show. I don’t think I’ve laughed once in the 10 episodes I’ve watched. But that might say more about my depression than the show.

Richard Seymour on Brexit

Richard SeymourThe racists have successfully articulated a broad anti-establishment sentiment — originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc — along bigoted, national chauvinist lines. The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced. That this was achieved so soon after the fascist murder of a center-left, pro-immigrant MP, is stunning in a way. It says something about the truculence of some of the chauvinism on display. It says something about the profound sense of loss which a reasserted “Britishness” is supposed to compensate for.

There is a lot of finger-wagging on Twitter and elsewhere about how the exit voters have just triggered economic self-destruction. House prices will fall, savings will be diminished, the pound will weaken, jobs will dry up. Well, that’s all true. Except. Not everyone benefits from the insane property market. Not everyone has savings. Not everyone benefits, as the City does, from a strong pound. Manufacturing has suffered from that priority. Large parts of the country have been hemorrhaging jobs for years. “The economy” is not a neutral terrain experienced by everyone in exactly the same way. And some of the votes, coming in core Labour areas, not necessarily strongly racist areas at first glance, indicate that. So people have voted against an economy that wasn’t working to their benefit. That doesn’t mean the practical alternative will not be worse. I suspect it will be a great deal worse.

—Richard Seymour
EU Referendum Vote

Man-Boy Scott Adams Humiliated by V-Neck Sweaters

Scott AdamsI have been vaguely aware that Scott Adams was a Men’s Rights Advocate (MRA). It doesn’t come as a complete surprise. The female characters in Dilbert are typical of the thinking of teenage boys, which is pretty typical of MRAs. But I did find his recent article amusing, The Humiliation of the American Male in 2016. Here’s the first line, “Perhaps the biggest unreported story of this presidential election is the humiliation of the American male.” There’s nothing quite so wonderful as the combination of self-pity and conspiracy theories coming from a super rich and famous guy.

His concern is the following commercial for Cascade Complete. You can check his own video of his television, if you like. It’s really hard to make out what’s going on in it, but you can see that Scott Adams sticks to the script by being a Fox News viewer. You can see the video below. But basically, it’s a guy that went to the store and bought an off-brand detergent for half the price. His wife tells him that they will now have to use twice as much detergent. So he has to go back to the store.

Update of Typical 1950s TV Commercial

It’s interesting just how clueless Scott Adams is. I mean, it’s the woman doing the dishes. What’s being presented here is something that is straight out of the 1950s. It’s the man that picks things up from the store when he’s around. It’s the woman who is managing the house. To me, it seems like a pretty boring commercial. The woman does seem kind of harsh and the guy does seem kind of like an idiot. But you really have to be a total wimp to look at this commercial and feel threatened. And to see it as indicative of “the humiliation of the American male” makes you even more pathetic than the character in the commercial.

The rest of Scott Adams’ blog post doesn’t make much sense. He seems to have something against the v-neck sweater. Now personally, I don’t like v-neck anything and I don’t like sweaters of any kind. So I’m with him on that. But he thinks that v-neck sweaters are “the uniform of a man who is owned by a woman.” So I guess the Cascade Complete commercial was a perfect MRA storm.

Humiliated Men Will Elect Trump!

Scott Adams then goes on to hint that Trump just might become president because of the “coming tsunami” of men who feel humiliated by women. Men don’t talk about it because, well, it’s humiliating, “But in the privacy of the polling booth, the men who don’t talk are free to act.” This is the language of the abused. But it is the language of the actually abused — not of whiny little man-boys like Scott Adams.

The problem with people like Scott Adams is that they have surrounded themselves with other man-boys who think exactly the same way. And far from being silent about their humiliations, they do little but jabber on about it. So they assume the rest of us men are quietly steaming about all this humiliation. But we don’t feel it. We get along just fine with women. We aren’t so insecure that we need them to constantly tell us how awesome we are.

Scott Adams is pathetic. I realizes that he just lets his id go and writes things that make no sense. But he’s been on the MRA subject long enough that I think we all know that regardless of the size of his penis, he’s ashamed of it. He ought to be ashamed — just not about that.

The Meaning of Hillary Clinton’s VP Pick

Brian BeutlerIf Clinton does select Warren, or another progressive, like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, political junkies will undoubtedly interpret it as a strategic decision to keep movement progressives in the Democratic fold — or, in Brown’s case, to tighten the Democratic Party’s hold on a crucial swing state. But it would actually be an indication that Clinton approves of the party’s ideological drift since the end of her husband’s presidency, and wants her presidency to boost its momentum in that direction.

But the same logic will make progressive criticism stickier if she decides to elevate an establishment Democrat or a Clinton loyalist or someone else of whom, say, Wall Street would approve. (Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has been floated in this role.)

As she considers her options, Clinton is uniquely insulated from external pressure. Wall Street and other progressive bêtes noire have less leverage than they’re accustomed to having, which may explain why they’re trying to sway her now in public venues. But if she follows suit, it will be because she didn’t need convincing in the first place.

—Brian Beutler
Hillary Clinton Can Pick Any Veep She Pleases

The Disingenuous Nature of Conservative Politics

Anti-Choice Abortion Protesting ChildI’m very pleased that the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-abortion law, HB2. It was a law that required that any abortion clinic have admitting rights to a hospital. Conservatives claimed this was for the health and safety of the patient. Of course, abortion is an incredibly safe procedure. No one was in any doubt that the law was enacted to limit access to abortions.

The numbers on the matter are really quite amazing. A total of 19 abortion clinics shut down as a result of the law — 11 of them on the very day the law took effect. And this isn’t the first such law. For years, conservative local and state governments have been coming up will all kinds of laws that just happened to make it harder to get an abortion.

I find this interesting because I don’t ever recall being in an argument with a libertarian in which they didn’t make the argument that local control was always better. But cases like this where individuals’ rights are limited are overwhelmingly done by state and local governments. I guess when libertarians talk about liberty, it is meant only to apply to rich white men.

Even Conservative Justices Know

Scott Lemieux wrote a good rundown of the decision, Why the Supreme Court Couldn’t Tolerate Texas’ Abortion Laws. What I thought was most interesting about it was what he said about the dissent:

Another striking indication of how specious Texas’ justifications for its law were is how little of the 60 pages of the dissenting opinions, written by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, actually defend the law as not constituting an “undue burden.” Rather, both Alito and Thomas focused on technical, jurisdictional arguments that would have prevented the Court from hearing the case.

They know. Everybody knows. Conservatives are disingenuous when it comes to abortion law. But the fact of the matter is that conservatives are disingenuous about everything. That’s especially true when it comes to economics. They say that we must cut the taxes of the rich so that we will have more economic growth. But because of conservative economic policies, there’s been no correlation between worker pay and productivity. Again, they know.

Above All, the Media Knows

Of course, I don’t blame the conservative politicians: they are getting rich by helping out other rich people. I blame the media. The media most definitely know. They knew that Texas passed HB2 to stop women from getting abortions. But they didn’t cover it that way. Instead, they said that the bill required that abortion clinics had admitting rights to hospitals. That did have the advantage of being true.

But when it came to the purpose of the bill, well, then it is just a matter of opinion. Everyone knew. If only HB2 started, “This bill is meant to stop women from getting abortions. You see, we can’t just outlaw abortions because of the Constitution. So we offer this bill to make running an abortion clinic so onerous that almost all of them will shut down.” In that case, then the press could have reported it. But no inductive argument — regardless of how strong — will ever do for American media.

That’s because our media is made up of a bunch of wimps who are far more worried about conservative ideologues calling them liberal than history calling them evil.

Everybody knows.

Aziz Ansari’s Unfortunately Necessary Pander

Aziz AnsariI’m a bit of a fan of Aziz Ansari. He plays Darryl, the young nerd on Bob’s Burgers. (Yes, Bob’s Burgers is such a great show that it features two nerds without it being a “thing.”) And this weekend in The New York Times, Ansari wrote a thoughtful and touching opinion piece, Why Trump Makes Me Scared for My Family. It starts with him recollecting how he texted his Muslim mother not to “go anywhere near a mosque” right after the Orlando mass shooting. It’s good advice. But it’s also extremely sad that we live in a country where it is good advice.

Go and read the article, it is well worth your time. I want to focus on one tiny part of the article. Ansari describes an incident after 9/11. In it, someone shouted at him from a car, “Terrorist!” He said that maybe he was being an inconsiderate pedestrian. But “I’m not sure that warranted being compared to the perpetrators of one of the most awful incidents in human history.” Now we can get into a discussion of exactly how big that list is. Or what counts as an “incident.” But I wouldn’t say that 9/11 was one of the most awful incidents in human history.

That isn’t to say that 9/11 wasn’t awful. It’s just that human history is filled with so many vile acts. You really have to dig to get down to 9/11 territory. Obviously, I could bring up the Holocaust. But forget about it. As you probably know, I don’t think the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was necessary. But even if you don’t believe that, it’s hard to justify bombing Nagasaki. And that killed roughly twenty times as many civilians as were killed on 9/11. But I don’t blame Aziz Ansari for this exaggeration. He would have been condemned if he had not pandered to America in this way. Anyway, I’m sure he didn’t think he was pandering.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Aziz Ansari or the Muslim community at large… But this is a criticism of our society for treating Muslim Americans as though they are defined by their heritage.

I’m sure he didn’t mean it in this way, but Aziz Ansari’s description of 9/11 alone tells you everything that the rest of his article talks about explicitly. I’m a white guy. I have nothing to fear from noting that as a factual matter, 9/11 wasn’t some wound so horrible that it has rarely been seen on this earth. But as a man of Muslim heritage, Aziz Ansari’s act of 9/11 pandering is just as expected (and ultimately ignored) as Muslim groups loudly condemning every bad thing any Muslim ever does.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Aziz Ansari or the Muslim community at large. I understand their attempts to show their unity with the society at large. And I’m certain that those attempts are so earnest that they aren’t even conscious. But this is a criticism of our society for treating Muslim Americans as though they are defined by their heritage. The only “good” thing you could say about it is that they aren’t alone. Muslims have a lot of company when it comes to being a mistreated minority group. In fact, that’s how I know that I’m white: because no one thinks that anything I do is typical of my kind. If my mugshot for murder was shown on the evening news, no one would think, “Well, what you expected from a white guy?!”

Aziz Ansari is right to be scared. And in a less direct, but still extremely important, way, we should all be scared. In his article, Aziz Ansari twice showed us why.

Let’s Deconstruct a Very Bad Sentence

A Very Bad SentenceToday, we are going to consider a very bad sentence. And it was written by a really smart guy.

When people tell me I’m smart or knowledgeable, I tend to scoff at them. It isn’t false humility. I do know that in an absolute sense, I’m quite smart and knowledgeable. But I’ve spent most of my adult life in a social group where I am accepted because of creativity rather than my pure intellectual fire power. I can normally keep up with others, but I’d have to put myself in the bottom half of the group. One person who is really smart and knowledgeable, by my way of looking at it, is Corey Robin.

A couple of weeks ago, Robin wrote, When Advertising Is Action: Clarence Thomas Channels Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Von Hayek. It’s often the case that he writes things that tax my intellect. This is one of the reasons I hold him in such high regard. If I can just stick with him, I learn things. And, of course, he isn’t just smart; he’s a creative thinker; he doesn’t bore me.

The Very Bad Sentence

But he ended this article with such a bad sentence that I had to say something. I don’t present it to make him look bad, of course. He’s writing on a blog. I would hate for anyone to judge my writing (much less my editing) on the basis of my blog. But the sentence presents a great pedagogical opportunity that I just can’t pass up. Plus, it is something I run into all the time while editing:

Whether and how he thinks it relates to these other political arts — Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts, such that the First Amendment, in protecting commercial speech, finds or identifies a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy? — remains to be seen.

There are lots of little things that make this a bad sentence. For example, there is needless repetition. Why would one write “finds or identifies”? Either that’s some kind of legal distinction or a verbal tick. But what most makes it a bad sentence is its structure.

What’s Wrong

It’s a long sentence: 51 words, if I counted correctly. That in itself is not a problem. One can write very long sentences that are clear. But in this case, there are two sentences put together in the most confusing manner possible. The base sentence is perfectly understandable, “Whether and how he thinks it relates to these other political arts remains to be seen.” And that would be a fine way to end his article.

Fixing the Sentence

But in the middle of the sentence, he asks a question that muddles up the whole thing. It would be different if it were a simple question. But it is quite a complex sentence that can’t be interjected this way. If he wishes to retain the overall structure, he needs to break it up into a number of sentences. The way I look at this kind of writing is that at the end of every sentence, there is an unstated question, “Got that?” The reader should be able to answer yes every time.

So he can start in roughly the same way: how does he think it relates to these other political arts. And he can end the same: it remains to be seen. But he can’t expect the reader to remember what it is that remains to be seen (at least without rereading the sentence). So that’s the first change that needs to be made — if he wants to maintain the overall structure (which I think is a mistake).

The middle section needs to be cleaned up. It is the part of the sentence that makes me uncertain of the sentence’s meaning. Is he saying one or two things? I think it is one. I think he means this, “Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts, such that the First Amendment, in protecting commercial speech — finds or identifies a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy?” But I still think that deserves two sentences.

A Better “Sentence”

I propose the following sentence:

We don’t know how he thinks it relates these other political arts — or even if it does relate. Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts — such that the First Amendment — in protecting commercial speech? Will he find a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy? How he thinks it relates to these political arts remains to be seen.

Yes, this paragraph is now 15 words longer than the original one-sentence paragraph. But it is far more clear. It only requires one read-through. None of it is great, but it doesn’t include one bad sentence. And you can see how the unstated “Got that?” works after every sentence. And if we put a “Got that?” at the end of the paragraph, I think we can truthfully answer yes. That wasn’t true with Robin’s original sentence/paragraph.

I may have changed the meaning of what Corey Robin originally wrote. But that simply makes the case that his sentence was not well constructed to start with. This is about more than a bad sentence. When you are a great thinker like Corey Robin, what you most want is clarity. And that may be why I noticed why this was such a bad sentence. I want to know what he has to say. I wouldn’t have cared if I were reading a lesser mind.

On Seeing My Great-Nephew and Not Being Fired

Jesus HectorFor the first time in what I think is years, Frankly Curious went a whole day without anything being posted. There was no big reason for this. I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t get fired. But I’ll explain how it happened.

On Wednesday, I logged 10.5 hours at my day job. That’s a huge amount of work. Most people think that 10.5 hours is a long time to work in a day. But I don’t think they really understand. At a normal job, it’s different. There are breaks and there is lots of time that isn’t productive. But I keep close track of my billing hours — down to the minute, although I bill in five minute increments. So I ended up working until almost 3:00 in the morning. And it was good. I got a lot done.

Cuteness of Babies

On Thursday, I was going down to my niece’s place to meet my great-nephew, Hector. So I got up a bit before 7:00 so that I could work two more hours before leaving. I didn’t manage that; I got 95 minutes logged. It was a fine day, however. My sister had told me that she could spend the whole day watching Hector sleep. I privately scoffed at that. Yet when I got there, I found that I felt the same.

I know it’s all evolutionary. If we weren’t coded to find babies adorable, we would certainly kill them all. But it still seems weird to me. One of the main things that preoccupies me is the scientific fact that we humans don’t have the control that we think we do. And while it may not be a scientific fact, free will is also a delusion. But to have these facts staring at me in my life always bothers me — probably because, for me, there’s a very clear distinction between my intellectual life and my regular life.

The Long, Long Drive

Regardless, I didn’t get back home until after 6:00 (over three hours on the road because the Bay Area may not be Los Angeles, but it’s still a major California urban area). And I was exhausted. I did manage to log a couple of hours of work and then I collapsed. I would have thought that would have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.

The next morning — Friday — I woke up at 7:00 and did what I do every morning: I check my email to see if there were any calamity that I had to deal with. There was not. That’s been interesting. This last week, my workers don’t seem to have been doing that much work. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve been so focused on a new part of my job that managing the old part of my job seems easy.

Not Getting Fired

Actually, I’m really unhappy with this new part of my job. I just see it very differently than my boss does and I wish that he would find someone else to do it. And I’ve been doing everything I can to get him to relieve me of this work without firing me altogether. But I’m not very good at balancing these kinds of things. So when Toni (who is certainly above me and who I rely on greatly, but who no longer seems like my boss) said she wanted to talk, I said that was fine as long as I wasn’t going to get fired — I wasn’t up for that at the moment. She replied, “Fire you? Pft. You wish.”

Well, she has that kind of right. I think I would like to be fired. But just for a month or two. That would be awesome! But it would require being fired from Frankly Curious too.

Anyway, I did almost nothing productive yesterday. I was still very tired. But more than that, I was mentally tired. I couldn’t face doing any work. I spent most of the day laying on the couch watching movies. I did think of a lot of things to do, but I just couldn’t manage to get up and actually do anything. But I’m back at it now. I guess.

I do plan to finally write an article that has been sitting around for two weeks. No, it’s not politics. More grammar. Although in this case, it’s more “elementary writing.”

My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks

Quotation MarksAs you all know, I work with writers all over the world. This creates a special problem. It’s difficult to work with freelancers regardless. When you work with employees, everyone can be depended upon to know the company style. But that’s asking a bit much for a writer who might have a dozen clients. But I find dealing with the British variants of English to be more annoying. This is mostly because I think the British are just being difficult by insisted upon things like adding unnecessary “u” characters into words that clearly don’t need them. I’m also not keen on the use of “s” when “z” is obviously called for. The quotation marks are different.

The British are absolutely right about quotation marks. And in practice, they are far more important than all the Us and Zs combined. There are two aspects of this. The one that most offends me is the ordering of quotation marks. It’s very possible that I will die due to a brain aneurysm because I start thinking about how we move from two to one to three when nesting quotes. The second issue is equally maddening but it doesn’t upset my sense of mathematical clarity quite as much. I am talking about, of course, the way quotation marks interact with punctuation.

Numbering Quotation Marks

The British number quotation marks the way that one would if one were simply not crazy. You could be stupid or ignorant or lazy, and it wouldn’t matter. You would decide that quoted material should go inside a single quote. If the quoted material contained quoted material, that would go inside double quotes. And if that quoted material contained its own quoted material, it would go inside triple quotes.

If, by chance, your triple quoted material contained quoted material, it would be a sign that you were brilliant, mean, or both. But in the British system, we would know that it would go inside quadruple quotes. This is, I have been told, the same way it works with the American system. But I doubt very seriously that American typesetters would have decided something that simple if this were an issue that ever came up in practice. For one thing, how is it that the sequence goes 2-1-3-4? I suspect the Americans would have decided that the proper designation would be something bizarre like five tilde marks, two quotation marks, and five more tilde marks.

I said, “He asked, ‘You won’t believe, but she said, ”’I found a remarkable sentence that read, ~~~~~”~~~~~Americans really don’t know what they’re doing with their quotation marks.~~~~~”~~~~~!”’?’!”

There is simply no reason to go from 2 to 1 to 3. But I go along because that is the way we do it here in the good old United States of Typesetters (typesetters having more power in this country than linguists). Strangely, though, I don’t so much mind it in sentences; I more mind it when used in a scare quote or some other place where a single word has quotation marks around it. Because in that case, it really doesn’t matter. But, you know: consistency!

Quotation Marks and Periods

The British sensibly apply quotation marks to the text being quoted. Americans understand this, because we do the same thing when it comes to exclamation and question marks. We understand that the following two sentences mean very different things:

  1. He said “yes!”
  2. He said “yes”!

The placement of the exclamation marks in those two sentences dictate who is excited about him saying yes. It’s critically important.

But when it comes to the period or the comma, there is no distinction. It really doesn’t make sense to write, “He picked up ‘the book.'” It implies that the period belongs to “the book,” but it doesn’t (just as it does with the comma in this sentence). This really bugs me. The main reason is that it is almost always the case that the period or comma logically belongs outside the quotation mark. So if you just wanted to make the language as easy as possible (and I do), you should always have them outside and not inside the quotation marks.

But the reason we do this is because typesetters of one time thought inside looked better than outside. Undoubtedly, they would have done the same thing with the exclamation and question marks as well, but there are too many cases where this would lead to utter confusion.

We Must Be Wrong Together

So I have to apologize to my writers who learned British English. On matters having to do with quotation marks, they are totally right. And I am forced to “correct” them. It sucks. But there is nothing I can do. I have written our style guide (and continue to expand it). In theory, I would stipulate that we do things the logical British way. But practically, I can’t. I have to maintain a style guide that makes sense to the reader, even though the reader is wrong.

For example, the style guide says:

Data – Data is plural, but we’ve lost the war. Use it incorrectly unless you are also using datum in the same area.

Copy editing is really not concerned with making sure the copy is correct. It is concerned with making sure the copy seems correct to the intelligent and “educated” reader. And really, we use a stupid approach to quotation marks because the United States has a bigger GDP than the United Kingdom. It’s sad.