Notes From Babel

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A Plague on Words: Laboring Oar

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To “take the laboring oar” still seems to be a widely used expression.  Its meaning is fairly obvious, as the derivative word “laboring” provides a generous hint at the intended object:  to say “I’ll take the laboring oar” means “I’ll do most of the work.”  Then again, does it mean, “I’ll do all of the work”?  Already there seems a latent ambiguity, perhaps making the expression only marginally better than saying “I’ll do the lion’s share of the work," a desperately ambiguous and nonsensical expression.

Still, the expression isn’t all that strange until you take a look at the Webster’s Online Dictionary entry:

The oar which requires most strength and exertion; often used figuratively; as, to have, or pull, the laboring oar in some difficult undertaking.

It hardly seems intuitive, upon hearing the expression, that we are meant to start thinking about oars and boats and rowing and so forth.  But even once we’ve got all that mental equipment laid out, the question then arises:  What sort of oar is it that requires more “strength and exertion” than another?   Once we are taking the matter quite seriously, that is, are we to suppose the object of this particular oar is to take the expedition in a circle?  If the oar on one side is diligently laboring while the other idly flops around in the water, I don’t know what other conclusion can be drawn.  Unless we’re talking about a kayak paddle.  Is that it?  Am I only betraying my paucity of knowledge of matters nautical?

And: “often used figuratively”?  Are there such folks that do much talking about actual laboring oars, and actual non-laboring, idly-flopping oars?  If so, I find their ideas intriguing, and would like to subscribe to their newsletter.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 4, 2011 at 12:09 am

I’m for two-spaces

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Like many habits in English typography, there’s been a long-standing debate over whether one should use one space or two following a period ending a sentence.  Having an abnormal affinity for these sorts of questions, I’ve done my share of research and pondering of the question, and decided many years ago to use two spaces, for some reasons I’ll describe below.  But Farhad Manjoo’s recent invective against the practice is so vituperative as to make one wonder whether Farhad was, in tender youth, assailed by a gang of merciless two-space radicals, causing him now to spill his psychic rage onto the e‑pages of Slate.

But Manjoo’s catharsis is obnoxious if you’re actually looking for support for his bold claim that using two spaces is “totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”  Indeed, later in the piece, he admits the convention is “arbitrary.”  Arbitrary rules are certainly “arguable” in my book.

Anyway, the convention for law reviews, at least for the Chapman Law Review while I was assistant editor and later editor-in-chief, was to use two spaces.  In fact, my articles editors would frequently point out examples where an author’s omission of an extra space resulted in dreadful ambiguities.  This typically happens with abbreviations followed by proper nouns, such as “U.S. Department of _____.”  Without the extra space, the reader is constantly wondering whether “U.S.” ends the sentence or not.  For example:

SROCC has sixty-one IOSCO affiliate members; SROCC members include the Montreal Exchange in Quebec; the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada; the Market Regulation Services Inc. in Ontario, Canada; and the National Association of Securities Dealers, Inc. (NASD) and the NYSE in the U.S. Regional Standing Committees were established to address problems specific to regions in which certain IOSCO members are located.

Cheryl Nichols, The Importance of Selective Federal Preemption in the U.S. Securities Regulatory Framework: A Lesson from Canada, Our Neighbor to the North, 10 Chap. L. Rev. 391, 407 (2006) (internal footnotes omitted).  Now, tell me you didn’t have to double-back to determine where that first sentence ended, and I’ll buy you a Coke.

The Chicago Manual of Style, cited by Manjoo, actually provides no explanation for its one-space rule.  (CMS Rule 2.12.)  But the online version does, as follows:

A. The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was). But introducing two spaces after the period causes problems: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation); (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences); and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.

So, in our efficient, modern world, I think there is no room for two spaces after a period. In the opinion of this particular copyeditor, this is a good thing.

(Boldface added.)

Surely, the copyeditor who wrote this has never had occasion to test whether her words have ever successfully delivered their payload.  One advantage of the practice of law is it gives me frequent occasion to empirically measure the effect of my choices concerning language and syntax.  Colleagues have also shared their experiences concerning judges who have called attention to passages in legal briefs that make the eye strain in vain for a period or a semicolon to indicate the end of a long and winding thought.  Judges, like everyone else, do not like to spend their own effort to grasp ideas the writer failed to make clear.  A writer’s task is to make his ideas as plain as possible to his audience.  When a writer fails to make use of ready-at-hand tools to that end, such as the spacebar—the largest button on the keyboard, incidentally—he heaps more work upon his poor reader than he has a right to.  The reader will consequently be less likely to yield his trust and attention to such a stingy taskmaster who withholds from his reader something as trivial as a keystroke.

But most puzzling is the CMS Online’s suggestion that perhaps we can do without all our rules about syntax and typography, that we might do just as well by smashing all our words together into a homogenous blob as we do by dutifully purchasing the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and studiously observing its thousands of rules.  Quite a confession coming from within the ranks of the beast that thrives on solemn adherence to formality!  One wonders if the sentiment is reflected in Chicago’s return policy.

Putting aside the CMS Online copyeditor’s schizophrenia, I’m incredulous.  I agree with the general spirit expressed in the CMS itself:  the demarcation of ideas is important.  Indeed, the CMS pays scrupulous attention to delineating the differences among hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.  (CMS Rules 6.80–6.96.)  If it is important to clearly demarcate the separate ideas within sentences, surely it is at least as important to clearly demarcate the separate ideas within paragraphs.

Elsewhere, Tom Lee further explains why two spaces are better (though, incidentally, his use of em dashes enclosed by spaces is technically noncompliant with CMS standards):

Consider the typical structure of writing. Letters are assembled into words, which turn into phrases, which are arranged into sentences — at the same time being assigned to speakers, a neat trick — which are then combined into paragraphs.

It’s a chemical process, a perfect and infinitely flexible hierarchical system that should command our admiration. Being able to rationally examine, disassemble and interrogate the final product is a mark of the system’s beauty. Anything less is settling for a sort of holistic mysticism.

It’s disrespectful to let writing’s constituent elements bleed into one another through imprecise demarcations. If you see me “making mistakes with comma placement”, please rest assured that I’m doing it deliberately. In most cases the comma doesn’t belong to the phrase delimited by the quotation marks that enclose it. Placing an exclamation point or question mark to the left or right of a close-quote is a weighty decision! That we violate the atomic purity of quotations with injected commas is an outrage.

And though I don’t get quite as worked up about it, the same sort of thinking motivates my belief in the double space. Sentences deserve to be clearly delineated, but because of the complications of quotation, ellipses, interrogatives and exclamations (among others), there is no reliable punctuation that can be counted on as a terminator for sentences. Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words. The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.

(Boldface added.)

In language, where clarity—rather than peccadilloes about “holes in the page”—is king, two spaces is the better rule.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 15, 2011 at 11:55 am

Getting Ham-Fisted about Child Nutrition

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From Obama’s Obesity War at Reason Foundation, discussing Madam Obama’s efforts to change Americans’ food choices:

There are several reasons behind the backlash. One is that campaigns to promote healthy behavior have a way of escalating from friendly persuasion to ham-fisted propaganda and prohibitionism.

I found the comparison to fists made out of ham an amusing bit of imagery given the context, albeit probably unintentional.  (However, I have elsewhere lodged my objection to the term “ham-fisted,” preferring “ham-handed” instead, and even then only where precision is of little concern.)

It reminded me of an idea I had for a paper that I pitched to my intellectual property law professor concerning internet pornography.  It my pitch, I discussed one of the “seminal” cases on the relevant legal question.  Once I was alerted to the potentially disgusting implications of that particular word in that particular context, I’ve never been able to use it again in any context without being reminded of what it really means.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 17, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Language

Merry “Xmas”

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Although it has been fairly widely debunked by now, the notion that using “Xmas” for “Christmas” is somehow a slight to Christ or Christianity is still fairly widespread.  In fact, “X” Wikipedia’s explanation of the abbreviation “X” for “Christ” is as good as any:

The use of “Χ,” derived from Chi, the Greek alphabet initial, as an abbreviation for Christ (most commonly in the abbreviation “Χmas“) is often misinterpreted as a modern secularization of the term. Thus understood, the centuries-old English word Χmas, is actually a shortened form of CHmas, which is, itself, a shortened form for Christmas. Christians are sometimes referred to as “Xians,” with the ‘X’ replacing ‘Christ.

Using “Xmas” can lead to obvious problems, however.  If you intend the term in its original sense, you’re liable to draw a lot of seething looks from folks who will reflexively assume you’re a soulless atheist.  Yet, if you do intend the term as an affront, you run up against the historical origins and meaning of the abbreviation and wind up potentially drawing more attention to the Son of God. Most probably, little good can come from using the term.

Thus, for the general public, I suggest “Christmas” be left unabbreviated.  For atheists and staunch secularists seeking to purge the religious context from Christmas, I suggest getting over yourselves.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 16, 2010 at 11:36 pm

A Plague on Words: “Yeoman’s Work”

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“Yeoman’s work” is a term at the outer limits of usefulness in our lexicon.  The term commonly refers to some manner of simple, honest work.  So we must ask, why say “yeoman’s work” instead of just “simple, honest work,” or “hard work,” or whatever words express the actual meaning one intends to convey? For the reasons I explain below, “yeoman’s work” is probably not a clear or helpful expression and should thus be avoided.

First, most people don’t know what a yeoman is.  Indeed, its use appears to be limited to forming half of the term “yeoman’s work.”  And a Google search of “yeoman’s work” only returns 144,000 results, suggesting the term is hardly in common use.  For these reasons alone, the term is probably a poor aid in conveying meaning.

Making matters worse, Merriam-Webster does not even have a definition for “yeoman’s work.”  Instead, we have to search for clues to its meaning in its definition of “yeoman,” as follows:

1 a : an attendant or officer in a royal or noble household
b : a person attending or assisting another : retainer
c : yeoman of the guard
d : a naval petty officer who performs clerical duties

2 a : a person who owns and cultivates a small farm; specifically : one belonging to a class of English freeholders below the gentry
b : a person of the social rank of yeoman

3 : one that performs great and loyal service <did a yeoman’s job in seeing the program through>

The reference to “a yeoman’s job” in entry no. 3 above is offered in support of an already vague definition:  “one that performs great and loyal service.”  Adding to the ambiguity is the definition of “yeomanly” as “in a manner befitting a yeoman: BRAVELY.”  This, and “yeoman of the guard,” suggest the primary meaning of “yeoman” is a ceremonial royal attendant rather than a peasant farm laborer, tending to further obscure what is meant by “yeoman’s work.”

It seems fairly obvious that the prevalent usage of the term “yeoman’s work” is meant to describe some manner of hard work.  But it is less clear whether the correct image to be conjured is that of a yeoman official or a yeoman farmer.  That is, it is unclear whether “yeoman’s work” is meant to describe loyal, fastidious, and regular service as by an official, or simple, repetitive, and laborious work, as by a unskilled laborer.

The relatively few court opinions that have employed the term—14 published opinions across all state and federal jurisdictions—apparently mean to simply convey “hard work.”  In these examples, calling to mind an actual yeoman, whether a royal official or a peasant laborer, would not only fail to add more precision to the idea, it would actually confuse the author’s message.

For example, appellate courts have used the term in reference to the diligent hard work done by lower courts or attorneys:

The court did yeoman’s work in holding a prompt hearing, mastering the complexity of the issues and the physical shortcomings of the site, deciding the motion in a timeous fashion, and writing a thoughtful rescript that explained its findings and its rationale. Dealing with the record as it stands, the temporal constraints under which the district court labored, and the deferential standard of review, we have no principled choice but to uphold the challenged order.

Bl(a)ck Tea Soc’y v. City Of Boston, 378 F.3d 8, 15 (1st Cir. 2004).

The yeoman’s work of our judicial system is done by a single judge and a jury. Twelve ordinary citizens of Alabama are asked to sit through long days of often tedious and obscure testimony and pore over countless documents to decide what happened, and, having done so, to apply to these facts the law as the judge has explained it to them. And they do. Often at great personal sacrifice.

United States v. Siegelman, 561 F.3d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 2009) cert. granted, judgment vacated sub nom. Scrushy v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 3541 (U.S. 2010) and cert. granted, judgment vacated, 130 S. Ct. 3542 (U.S. 2010).

The appellant has done yeoman’s work in authoritatively arguing that warrantless electronic surveillance is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

State v. Armann, 554, 1982 WL 6176 (Ohio Ct. App. Aug. 18, 1982).

These examples seem to place the emphasis on the laboriousness of their work.  Thus, as to the basic question of what sort of “yeoman” is probably meant by the term “yeoman’s work,” it would appear the mental image that better captures the meaning of the propositions is that of a peasant farmer and not a royal official. Describing something as “yeoman’s work,” then, carries the suggestion the work could have been done by anyone, and that the work is valuable only in a quantitative and not a qualitative sense.

In this respect, the term could be considered to be a somewhat backhanded compliment if it is taken to depreciate the merits of the work.  For example, describing a researcher’s labor in the investigation of sources as “yeoman’s work” might suggest that the work was limited to the compilation of references and citations, and not to any high-level analysis of those sources to the proposition to be supported.

If this is true, then the only useful application of the term is probably in an ironic sense, as in a  recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in United States v. Bailey, 510 F.3d 726, 730 (7th Cir. 2007):

All three defendants are members of gangs, though not the same one. Shane Williams is a member of the Black Disciples, a gang that began in Chicago and was eventually overseen by a man named Sylvester “Star” Mickle. Beginning in 1989, with Mickle at the helm, the Black Disciples developed a far-reaching drug-distribution scheme that ran from their headquarters in Chicago down to Peoria, Illinois. Eventually, Williams joined the operation in Peoria and, after a few years of yeoman’s work selling crack, he came to head his own distribution network in 1996.

Other than scoring some points for employing obscure language to convey simple ideas, “yeoman’s work” is not a useful term.  In the aim of clearly conveying meaning, the term should probably be avoided altogether.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Language

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Words that Mean the Same Thing: “One-Dimensional” and “Two-Dimensional”

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What is another way of describing a flat character in a work of fiction?  Would you call this a “one-dimensional character,” or a “two-dimensional character”?  Before you answer, consider what it is you are seeking to describe—a character with only a single quality, with a single purpose in the story.  This would suggest we are describing a character with but one dimension, and thus, a one-dimensional character.

But consider further:  Is not what we are seeking to describe a “flat” character who lacks depth, as a sketch drawn on a two-dimensional plane, as in a geometric sense?  In other words, a character who is less than real, fully formed, or three-dimensional?  In this sense, it would seem the word we want to describe our character is two-dimensional.

Like other examples discussed here, here, and here, both of these analyses are correct. Merriam-Webster defines one-dimensional as follows:

1 : having one dimension
2 : lacking depth : superficial <one–dimensional characters>

Now note its similarity to the definition of two-dimensional:

1 : of, relating to, or having two dimensions
2 : lacking the illusion of depth : not three-dimensional
3 : lacking depth of characterization <two–dimensional characters>

Google searches for “one dimensional character” and “two dimensional character” return roughly the same number of results:  658,000 and 644,000, respectively.

In pursuit of clarity in speaking, there are more good reasons to prefer “one-dimensional.”  First, the obvious:  when we say two-dimensional, the first word that comes at us is “two,” as in, “more than one.”  Thus, the concept our poor misled listener may be left with is “multi-dimensional,” obviously not the idea we want to communicate.  We thus risk confusing the listener to whom we want to convey the principal message of singularity about the purpose and nature of the thing we are describing.  One should keep in mind the following concept well-expressed by Herbert Spencer:

A reader or listener has at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available.  To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed.  Hence, the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conveyed.

Second, it is less than clear that we have geometry in mind when we talk about a thing we want to characterize as flat or static.  This article talks about fictional characters in terms of “2D” and “3D.”  But to my understanding, this is not the typical way of describing character in literature.  It sounds instead like borrowed terminology from our technology culture, in which we are growing accustomed to “3D” movies and video games.  Applied to literature, character development, or other uses, however, the application is limited and possibly misleading.

Finally, there is no reason the term “dimension” is limited to a spatial meaning—the word can just as well refer to “quality” or “attribute.”  See Merriam-Webster’s definition.  It would be a stingy use of language to purport to limit the word only to the sense in which it might describe X, Y, and Z axes.

Of course, it is always true that, in the pursuit of clarity, you may incur chortles and raised eyebrows by language snoots who are convinced “two-dimensional” is the proper way to convey “flatness” of character.  If you are the sort who is overcome by fear both of snoots and of imprecision, I would prescribe simply to avoid either term, and employ “flat” instead, even if much more drab.  But, if you are thrice overcome by fear—of snoots, imprecision, and drabness—then I’m afraid there is nothing left to offer you but supplication.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 2, 2010 at 12:15 am

You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means

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Your humble servant has no interest in subjecting you to any further commentary about a certain NPR journalist currently involuntarily enjoying all his accrued unspent vacation days.  Instead, I’m going to spin this as another in my series of posts about the abuses of language.  A couple days ago, Andrew Sullivan showed his work for the conclusion that Juan Williams is a bigot:

“Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous,” – Juan Williams.

No, Juan, what you just described is the working definition of bigotry.

What if someone said that they saw a black man walking down the street in classic thug get-up. Would a white person be a bigot of he assumed he was going to mug him? What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims – I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin – have committed acts of terror? And, of course, the 9/11 mass-murderers were in everyday attire, to blend in. So was the Christmas Day undie-bomber. The Fort Hood murderer was in US military uniform, for Pete’s sake.

Glenn Greenwald nods vigorously.  E.D. Kain dissents.

Bigotry.  That’s a nasty word.  And it seems lots of people are making the same accusation. Perhaps it’s time to dust off the dictionary and take a good look at this word we’re all chucking at anyone voicing a controversial opinion.  For your consideration, here are four definitions of the word “bigot”:


a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.


a person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who thinks that anyone who does not have the same beliefs is wrong.

a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.


A prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own.

There are some stark differences among these definitions, but the indispensable elements appear to be:

  1. a strong belief, especially directed toward actions or characteristics of another person or group; and
  2. a refusal, especially an irrational refusal, to consider reasoned support for contrary views.

The second element is critical, else “bigot” would become another synonym for “opinionated.”  The entire blogosphere would qualify.

Clearly, then, the word cannot apply to Juan Williams.  In the first place, Williams was not discussing a “belief,” but rather a knee-jerk emotion he experiences—involuntarily it would seem—in certain circumstances.  (“No emotion is, in itself, a judgement:  in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical.  But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform.  The heart never takes the place of the head:  but it can, and should, obey it.”  C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.)  In the second place, nowhere did he express any refusal to reconsider his “reaction,” even supposing such a thing were possible.   In fact, the context of the statement makes him sound sheepish and even somewhat guilty about the conditioned emotional response he’s described.

It’s pretty obvious that those wielding the big mean word “bigot” aren’t doing so because it’s accurate or justified.  They’re using it because the word has accumulated great weight in our language, likely as a result of its employment against truly despicable acts of historical racism in popular movies and television programs.  What a shame, then, contemporary sophists seem to reason, that such a powerful word be limited to its narrow meaning, when it might be used to great success in blog-wars.

Thus, the word has become an expedient for scoring quick points and putting blog-versaries on the defensive, even where there’s not good faith basis for it.  It’s a cheap argumentative shortcut used by writers too lazy or careless to articulate a thoughtful, reasoned defense of a position.  Anyone who’s used it in this already-tired Juan Williams conversation owes an apology to every practitioner of the English language.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm